Tuesday, February 22

Halva In Andijon

The clear evening settles into a chill, breezy night. Andijon feels like Agra in its older parts, especially in a certain disorder. There is of course the Yangi-Bozor (new market) area, and several boulevarded parks that feel like postcards from somewhere else; but here and there a mosque with a crush of crowds, or a side lane intractable with cars, returns the illusion of having been here before.

We find our hotel, a two-story establishment of Soviet vintage slung on a broad street. It is past 9 pm when we reach our rooms. There is an enormous iron boiler in the bathroom, beside an equally enormous shallow porcelain tub that would easily hold six people (with neither drain-plug nor shower-curtain –- we wonder how they imagine it is to be used), and fifty-year-old furniture whose velvet upholstery is now threadbare. Some louts are holding a birthday party in the basement 'bar', desultory pop music comes thumping up through the floor.

In-spite of a red neon PECTORAHT sign outside, waxing and waning apparently in time to the beat emanating from the basement, the kitchen is closed. Tired from a long day, everyone swigs pomegranate juice bought in Kuva, and then goes directly to bed; only, Mr. M wants to have something proper to eat, and will not be consoled with raisins or milk. "I is hongrie", he says plaintively. We bundle up -- it is probably just below freezing outside -- and set off in search of food.

The night porter is unlikely to be much over 20. He has already tried to sell me a highly suspect USB key for internet access, suggested I contact him directly for discounts on future stays, and told me his wife is studying to be a doctor in Andijon (they plan to emigrate to the UK after she graduates). He says with a certain schadenfreude that there is no obvious place to eat nearby, but we can always try walking to the doner-stands near the bus station: "up the street, turn left, right for a mile, under the bridge, hard left where three lanes come together" and so on.

There's always that disorientation of wandering around in a strange city at night. Mr. M, at the intersection of being three years old, tired, hungry, as well as cold, wants to be carried; he will not consent to walking even the distance between two of the dim street-lamps. We head for buildings with clusters of light; a mile passes, we are belied every time as the lights resolve to grimy garages prising wheels off vans, or kiosks recharging cell phone sim cards. Most of the town has headed home by now; as Mr. M gets heavier by the minute, we punctuate our search for a place to eat with stops in the lee of shuttered shops. At the farthest arc of our journey to Uzbekistan, I am lost at last.

The lanes shrink in width. In one corner shop, men are making halva below a naked bulb. The process seems unchanged from that described in Sadriddin Aini's reminiscence of his boyhood, The Sands Of Oxus:

At the far end of the building was a line of cooking fires, and on each fire sat a cooking pot, tilted forward. Syrup was boiling in some of these pots, and in others soapwort was being whipped into a foam with a handful of twigs bound together, called a chelchub. At the end of the row of cooking-fires was a level pot in which oil was boiling. One man was pouring flour that had been browned, a little at a time, into one of the large tilted pots, and two others were mixing this syrup with wooden paddles. As the flour blended in they kept on shoveling up the resulting batter, turning it over, and slamming it back down. A tall, dark, middle-aged man with a long beard was giving orders to everybody and showing them what to do.

At the other end of the building was a broad, high sufa and on it was a large wooden tray, a good two yards across, surrounded by a layer of sheepskins. At the edge of the sufa by the tray was a bin of flour.

The halva-maker scooped out some flour with a large metal shovel and spread it out on the tray. Then he went back to the pot where flour and syrup were being mixed and checked to see how it was going. When the flour had blended in and the mixture looked like bread dough, the master told his workers, "That's enough, bring it out!"

The workers began shoveling out the syrupy dough onto the wooden tray.

The master, evidently free of his most demanding work, looked at us and asked "What do you want?"

My brother greeted him and handed over the tanga. "Father sent us for a qabza of halva."

"Fine," the master said, "but we've already send the halva we made this morning to the bazaar. So just watch for a while and we'll give you some fresh halva when it is ready."

The syrupy dough was spread out over the flat tray. All the men working at the pots washed their hands up to the elbows and squatted down on the skins around the tray. The master also sat down at their head. One young worker remained standing by the flour bin with a big metal shovel. The halva-makers took the dough in their hands and kneaded it into a long snake, joining the ends to form a ring; then, bending over the tray, they kneaded the ring into a a broad, flat layer that reached right up to the edge. Then the young man with the shovel sprinkled flour on it, and the kneaders folded the halva into half to make two layers. Then they kneaded it again until it covered the tray as it had the first time, the young man spread more flour on it, and the kneaders folded it in half again to make a compact mass of four layers.

The halva-makers continued in this fashion, so the the third time there were eight layers, the fourth time sixteen, the fifth time thirty-two, the sixth time sixty-four, the seventh time one hundred and twenty-eight, the eighth time two hundred and fifty-six, the ninth time five hundred and twelve, the tenth time one thousand and twenty-four, and so on till twenty five folds had been completed, and the layers of the cake, seen end-on, were as thin as threads in a skein. "That's enough," the master told his workers.

Mr. M is very hungry by now. I try to buy some halva. It takes more time than would seem warranted, to explain our desire to get 5000 soums-worth. The usto shakes his head -- Not for Sale. "Biz bermaymiz."

I am not sure what the problem is.

"I am willing to pay what you want!"
He shakes his head.
"Ne prodetsya?" I try fractured Russian from the phrasebook.
"Tolʹko na zavtra." Only for tomorrow.
Why not some today?
"Uhadit!" Go away, don't bother us! "Razve ya ne govoryu ya ne budu prodavat?"

We have to leave. Mr. M's eyes well with tears, but he is gravely stoic. We walk away, the company of halva-makers get up from their kneading to stare at us departing. I tell Mr. M the halva was for someone else. Perhaps an order, for a wedding.

At long last, one clump of lights turns out to be the bus-stand. There is a restaurant. We stumble in, Mr. M's lips blue from the cold. It seems to be a Turkish-run Mediterranean restaurant, a clean well-lighted place, several dozen patrons eating pizza or drinking beer. The apron'd waiter waves us to a table with a flourish. A line of toque'd cooks are making doner kebabs, shaving shawerma or grilling vegetables. A manager bustles up - 'Warm milk for the child?' Even before we are done connecting culturally with the staff via Amitabh Bachchan, piping hot french fries, crisp salads, and pita with hummus, have all arrived at the table. Mr. M's hands are shaking as he shoves food into his mouth with two little fists.


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