• The porridge-like sumalak is still widely enjoyed in Uzbekistan. (Malika Sharipova)Source: Malika Sharipova
This porridge-like dish may have had humble beginnings, but it's come to mean a great deal to Uzbeks.
Michelle Tchea

21 May 2021 - 12:36 PM  UPDATED 21 May 2021 - 4:27 PM

The national dish of Uzbekistan is plov, a rice dish served with lamb and vegetables that is similar to pilaf.

But there's another dish that's deeply ingrained in Uzbekistan culture. It's been passed down over the generations and is still made in Central Asia with passion today. Sumalak, a beautiful word to many Uzbeks, evokes memories of family gatherings, celebrations leading up to the equinox and feasting during the spring. 

Curiosity about where sumalak fits into the culture of Uzbekistan, I delved further. However, researching it was not easy. The dish is still widely enjoyed in Uzbekistan, but in Australia, it's difficult to find someone who still keeps this Century-old tradition alive. Part of this is because of the dish's labour-intensive process. It starts with growing your own wheat sprouts before turning it into a porridge, which needs to be stirred for 24 hours to achieve the nutty and velvety texture Uzbeks have associated with spring celebrations. 

Marsel Abushaev, co-owner of Samovar Catering in Sydney, remembers eating sumalak as a child in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

Abushaev tells SBS Food, "Sumalak is an ancient dish always cooked for Navruz [festival], which celebrates the beginning of the new year and new life in early spring. It has been cooked for many centuries and the recipes can vary depending on the region, but the ingredients are always the same, flour, wheat sprouts and oil."

Sumalek features wheat sprouts, which is symbolic of spring and new life.

Abushaev continues, "The dish itself has a natural sweetness to it, I did enjoy it when offered to me as a young child — the feeling was really much as you would when comes the festive season at the end of the year — warm and happy, looking forward to many good blessings ahead of us.

"I remember the time when a whole neighbourhood would come out the late evening in the streets with all their equipment to cook sumalak overnight. Groups of people would gather and cook this truly national dish alongside each other, mostly women. Men are usually the ones that will be in charge of cooking plov, another festive popular dish in Uzbekistan. I remember that it is believed that angels also participate while cooking this holy meal."

Abushaev says it's been a long time since he ate sumalak. He hasn't made it in Australia because he's busy with his business and making it is too time-consuming. 

"Sumalak is a symbol of new beginnings and hope."

Food blogger Malika Sharipova is one of the younger generational cooks carrying on the tradition. "Sumalak is a symbol of new beginnings and hope. Although my mum never cooked it, I started to make it while I was living abroad because I missed Uzbekistan foods. I learned to cook sumalak from my big sister Shahina. She gave me the most amazing recipe once and guided me on how to cook it! Since then, I have been using that recipe and people love my sumalak!" says the Tashkent native.

She says there are many reasons why they eat sumalak. "It celebrates the new year and new life, bringing us happiness and luck. When we make it, we make a wish and hope that it comes true. It also is known as a remedy, which is thought to strengthen the immune system and body by clearing it of 'chemical' waste, almost like a detox."

The history of sumalak has no exact date of origin, but comes with a story many Uzbekistan children hear about during sumalak parties held during spring. Sharipova remembers her favourite version of the story, which involves a woman named Fatima who brought the dish to life after facing tough times. 

Sharipova tells the story: "Fatima had two sons and was very poor. Because she was a widow and very poor, they had very little to eat, and her sons always cried from hunger. Fatima was very sorrowful that she had no food to give her sons and decided to create an illusion of making a hearty dinner."

That evening Fatima was so desperate that she cooked a meal using flour, wheat and water, but added some stones to make the kids think the dish had meat (although, sometimes stones are added to the mixture anyway, to stop it from burning).

"After cooking the porridge, Fatima fell asleep and woke up to find 30 angels standing around the pot. She rubbed her eyes, and when she opened them again, she saw them licking their fingers. She woke her sons to share their excitement and found the most succulent porridge: sumalak! Fatima shared the dish with other locals and from that time, her family was never hungry again," she says.

"Love and good thoughts are put into the dish – that's the main secret of sumalak."

Sharipova says that even though sumalak's ingredients are humble, the dish is also known and described as 'Uzbeki-chocolate', since the porridge is nutty and sweet. Overindulging can also leave you bloated so it's eaten sparingly like chocolate. She says cooking sumalak is more than just eating something sweet. It's a symbol of unity, harmony and good luck to all those who come together and feast on it.

"For me, cooking sumalak is a kind of spiritual practice and meditation. The overall process is time consuming, but we cook it together with family and friends, so it is fun. We have dancing, singing (national songs) and make wishes for the new year," says Malika.

She adds, "The true meaning of sharing sumalak is showing someone you care about them and to fill the house with positive energy. Love and good thoughts are 'put' into the dish – that's the main secret of sumalak."

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