When thinking of a meal fit for kings, most people’s imagination would naturally conjure up images of opulent banquets of multiple courses and complex preparations. For me, “il mangiare da re” is forever linked to the simple frisella, a hard double baked bread (think of an English muffin left for too long in the toaster), which my grandfather would dip in seawater in Taranto, Puglia before adding fresh vine ripened tomatoes, mozzarella, a pinch of oregano and a drop of oil. This simple dish, where you would clearly taste the layered ingredients, was what he called the food of kings. While I now use bottled water and salt to rehydrate my friselle (anyone that has read of the Ilva plant pollution scandals in Taranto would), I still enjoy this dish in the summer.
So when today I was offered a series of foods named “Shohona,” which roughly translates as “fit for kings,” I imagined something simple but of high quality. Turns out I was right. Granted, It didn’t require clairvoyance given the fact that I was at a roadside restaurant in the mountains forty minutes out of Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The scene was surely picturesque with the rolling, churning river at my feet, and dignified with us reclining on pillows at the elevated table which is the traditional lunch arrangement in these parts, but I wouldn’t call it posh or austere – not with the Russian pop blasting out of the boom box, or the open-air kitchen, essentially a grill over some burning charcoal on the ground.
Shohona Platinum was the name of the local vodka (which has now officially replaced Russian Standard as my personal favorite), and Shohona was the name of the quality of watermelon we were served. Watermelon has never been my favorite fruit, but a bite of the Shohona watermelon, followed by a shot of Shohona vodka is quite a delicious combination.
What followed was a perfect lesson in deconstructed cuisine. The small river fish was deep-fried to a crisp and could be eaten whole. The vegetable plate was a mix of raw sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, green chili, and fresh herbs – chives, tarragon, dill, parsley, mint – served still on the stem. The Shashlik were simple chicken, beef, and lamb cubes grilled on a skewer. There were no condiments or spices on the meat or vegetables, and the protein was served each on a separate dish. The bread was a simple round flatbread, only mildly leavened. The only nod towards a sauce was the ubiquitous yoghurt with dill and garlic served on the side. For my palate that welcomes sauces and spices, it was quite a different experience. I enjoy trying to deconstruct the ingredients in the meals I eat at restaurants, and hold in high regard dishes that are layered to offer different tastes and consistencies as you work through each bite. But here the exercise was quite the opposite. As the meal was sitting deconstructed in front of me, I had to build it up in my mouth, adding each layer at the time. Fish, followed by tomato to give it some moisture, and by cucumber to balance the saltiness, followed by parsley – no, too strong. Next bite I would go with the mint – interesting, then try it once without veggies but with a bite of the chili – wow, that calls for vodka – and so on. A meal with simple deconstructed ingredients turned quickly into an interesting journey with multiple possibilities, thanks to the fact that each ingredient was, in its own right, fit for kings.
Overall quite delicious, I strongly recommend you try it, but if Dushanbe is not on your list of upcoming destinations, and if you just can’t locate your local Tajik neighborhood restaurant, take my word for it.
Did this meal change my worldview? No, I am still partial to complex sauces and layered spices, but it did remind me that at the base of every meal is the simple matter of putting quality ingredients together, and it was a fun departure from the normal. It did inspire me to try this approach with some of my favorite ingredients back home, and it brought back fun memories of friselle at the beach.
-Vincenzo Resta, guest blogger