For one day at least, inmates at Prison No. 18 in Russia's Novosibirsk Oblast went from behind bars to behind burners in the high-security jail's modest kitchen.
In an effort to boost inmate morale (and perhaps dramatically improve the quality of the normal gruel fed to jail staff, if only for a day), prison officials held a cooking contest.
Inmates from Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan -- all serving hard time for having committed serious offenses and all possessing at least some kitchen experience -- traded their prison uniforms for chef's whites, at least metaphorically.
All of the cooks were presented with the same basket of basic ingredients (rice, meat, vegetables, oil, and onions) and told to whip up their own versions of plov (also known as pilaf, palow, or pilau), the classic dish served at festivals and funerals, at holidays, and just at the weekend, variations of which can be found in cuisines from Latin America and the Caribbean to the Middle East and Central Asia.
Imagine a contest at a jail in the United States where the inmates are asked to barbecue hamburgers and hot dogs and you'll get an idea of the holy place that plov holds in Russia, Central Asia, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, especially among men.
As the website FXcuisine.com
Plov is a cult dish not only in its homeland Uzbekistan, but all over the former Soviet Republics and Russia. A hearty one-pot rice dish cooked in lamb fat with onions and carrots, it has many variations. Russian men often cook plov for parties with the same me-put-food-on-this-table showmanship displayed by American husbands around their grills.
When money is scarce, when times are tough, or just when you're serving a life sentence in a maximum-security prison in southwestern Siberia, the staples needed for plov (except meat, perhaps) are usually always on hand.
But that doesn't mean good plov is easy to prepare. As one website put it
: "The recipe [for plov] is as easy as the recipe of Michelangelo: Get some marble and carve everything that is needed out of it."
The judges for the contest at Novosibirsk's Prison No. 18 were Seva Mokin, a Russian chef and well-known Novosibirsk television presenter, and Tajik chef Sulton Ochilov.
"I was impressed with their ability to cook in such conditions with such great skill," Mokin told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "All of the plovs were different, with their own specific national taste."
Said Ochilov: "Plov is our national food. In our country, everybody starts learning how to cook it starting in childhood. If you cook it from the heart, it's even tastier."
When all was said and done, when the last carrot was shredded, the last onion diced, the rice cooked, and the meat fried to perfection, the winner of the contest was 52-year-old Uzbek native Iskandarov Nemat.
Because of security considerations, the crime that Nemat committed to land him in Prison No. 18 wasn't revealed, nor the length of his sentence -- only the prize he received for winning the contest: kitchen tools handmade in the prison's woodshop.
As icing on the cake, as it were, all participants were awarded an extra personal prison visit with their families, as well as the privilege of receiving outside parcels -- parcels filled, perhaps, with copper cookware, walnut cutting boards, and nonstick muffin pans?
-- Grant Podelco