In Russia, I was enamored of the roadside vendors. In Uzbekistan, not so much. The roadside foods tend to be either circular loaves of crispy bread or melons. It’s melon season in Central Asia, meaning everyone’s selling watermelons and cantaloupes.
We have several of each, and they are supremely soft, juicy, and sweet. But man cannot live on melon alone. While driving toward the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand, I notice babushkas on the side of the road. They’re tending pots wrapped in cheesecloth. Periodically, men and women park their autos and indulge in big bowls of white liquid.
“Stop the car,” I tell Mims, and we pile out at a combination bus depot, minimarket, and, um, soup stand?
I walk up to the babushka swaddled in a colorful dress. Her gold teeth glint in the afternoon sunlight. I motion toward the cheesecloth-covered pot and extend my index finger.
She retrieves a bowl from a cloudy vat of water, towels it off, and fills it with a milky substance flecked with dill and itsy bits of potato and tomato. It’s cool to the touch. “Ooh,” I think, “a delicious bowl of cool potato soup.” Some women waiting for the bus flash the thumbs-up, and the babushka instructs me to grasp the bowl with both hands and drink deeply.
She watches with pride as I swallow a mouthful. It takes every ounce of my Midwest-reared manners not to spew “soup” onto the dusty ground. I’m drinking acrid, sour goat milk with dill. It’s not nearly as offensive as kumis, but it ranks a close second. In a restaurant, I would place a napkin over the bowl and ask for the next course. However, the babushka’s watching me, smiling brightly. She assumes I’m savoring her specialty, not muttering, “Oh, sweet God, save me.” How can I crush her happiness by leaving food behind?
So I take one for the team and chug down the milk in three or four stomach-curdling gulps.