Airing kurpacha (mattresses for sitting on)

Boys selling watermelons (or "arbuz") in Kuyluk, Tashkent.

Schoolgirls in Bukhara

Boy waiting outside market in Samarkand

Cemetery caretaker and two of his children

Korean-Uzbeks performing traditional ceremony (chaesa) to honour dead relatives, Bukhara

Nuts on sale at market in Samarkand

Uzbek Gasterbeiter

Artwork by Roman Papsuev

Each year an estimated 4 to 12 million men and women, with up to 6 million of these from the former CIS countries, including Uzbekistan, travel to Russia to work in industries such as construction, road maintenance, hospitality, food production and other services. According to Eurasia.net.org (http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/civilsociety/articles/eav030510.shtml) migrant laborers make up between 7 and 20 percent of the total Russian labour market, depending on which estimate you look at.

I am reminded of these migrant labourers every time I step out the door of my apartment in St. Petersburg, because the apartments under construction next door, and at the end of the street, and around the corner, and two streets away from us in four directions all employ these migrant workers. When I walk my dog, I hear some of them speaking Uzbek to each other as they trudge down the muddy lanes that connect their railway carriage home or collective dormitory with their worksite. I imagine their wife and four daughters waiting for them in Samarkand or Khokand, and feel humbled by their bravery and work ethic. They often don’t receive much respect from Russians and are spoken to rudely wherever they go, but little do they know how intimately I know their lives – where they come from, how they sleep on the floor and must eat bread with every meal, what they speak about in their free time, and what they chew to keep them going through the long hours at work, especially when it’s cold. And this is why I smile at the woman who cleans the toilets at Kapitoli Shopping Centre down the road, and acknowledge the young men who collect the shopping trolleys at Carousel, Okei and Mega, where we shop. But when they look down at me from their scaffolding, they probably see a Russian woman and perhaps this explains the blank surprise on the faces of the two young men who I said “Assalam aleikum” to oneday. But we all have the same goals – we are all working to create a better life for ourselves and our families.

Spicy, chewy (gluten-free) brownies

To start with, I’m going to share with you something totally un-Uzbek, un-Russian, but could possibly be considered a little Korean since I put chili powder in it – my chewy brownie recipe.

Like many women, I cook things to please my husband, primarily, since he claims there are only two pleasures in life “zhrat i spat” (eating and sleeping…^^) When we were travelling in Cambodia, we stopped at a small cafe near a silk market and on the menu were brownies. We were craving not-so-foreign food that day and Vlad ordered the brownie. From that time on he would often say to people that the best brownie he tried was in Cambodia…

So when we settled down in Russia, I decided to get to work and try to beat that damn Cambodian brownie. I tried a recipe sent to me by my cousin that asked me to melt a whole block of chocolate in with the sugar and cocoa. Should be good right? Well… It was certainly chocolatey, but was more like a short Mississippi mudcake – a fudgey brownie.

“Whadaya think?” I asked Vlad.

“It’s more like fudge.  It should be chewy…   and with nuts.”

“Well it SAID it was going to be chewy… ”

A lie… What I’ve discovered from trawling the Internet for the perfect chewy brownie recipe is that the terms “fudgey” and “chewy” are completely subjective. Each person means something different and really you’ve just got to try a bunch of recipes until you find your favorite, or, as I’ve done tweak one until it fits what you’re looking for.

Nothing fudgy or gooey will do, and if the recipe says half a cup of nuts, then I should put a cup in. I also wanted to make it gluten-free, if possible, and to use the simplest and cheapest ingredients. Ie. I don’t want to have to buy a $5 block of chocolate each time we get cravings. The chili is optional, but if you like to eat a slice of brownie with black coffee, the chili is an inspired addition and will send your tastebuds into little spasms of joy.

Chewy Chili Brownie

2/3 – 1 C cocoa powder

1/2 t coffee granules

1/2- 1 t chili powder (use less if you have weak tastebuds^^)

1/2 -1 t rum or vanilla flavouring

2 C sugar (white or brown but brown gives a unique flavour)

2/3 – 1 C butter (I used 200 grams or 1 C, which seemed slightly too much because the butter melted out of the pan into the baking tray. But if you want to keep these brownies for a few days, then I think this amount of butter is necessary to ensure they keep moist enough.)

2 eggs

2 egg yolks (very important!)

1 C of rice or rye flour (all-purpose ok, but for really chewy brownies, rice or rye flour is best and the difference in flavour is not detectable to the average Joe ie. my husband ^^)

pinch of salt

Method

Combine butter, cocoa, sugar, coffee, chili, salt and rum/vanilla flavourings and mix to combine. If you leave your butter out of the fridge overnight, it will be super-quick. If not, pop it in the microwave for a minute or so for everything to become gooey. Mix well. TASTE IT! If you think it’s not chocolatey enough for you, add more cocoa.

Beat two eggs, but just enough to combine the whites and the yolks. Then add the extra two egg yolks. I tried baking this without the two yolks, thinking two eggs was enough, but the first brownie was flatter and more like fudge. When I baked it with the extra yolks it really did taste like that damn Cambodian brownie and finally got the full approval of my husband.

Next, when the cocoa mixture is cool, mix in the eggs. Don’t mix them in too early, or the cocoa mixture will sort of cook the eggs. Your brownie will still turn out ok, but it won’t be excellent!

Next, sift the flour and add this to the cocoa mixture a bit at a time so there are no lumps. Mix and mix until no flour left, then into the oven.

Bake 45 minutes at about 180 degrees / 350 F.  You can bake a bit less, but a long bake is also what helps to make these brownies chewy.

Some people claim long baking is the only thing that’s important, but I think the flour is really the key here. Regular wheat flour is just softer, hence it’s not so chewy.

Also, people say to leave the brownie overnight or a few days before eating and it will improve. While that is no doubt true, it is totally UNREASONABLE advice and I’m sure there isn’t a family alive that would wait even 24 hours to try home baking… And that’s the advantage of my brownies. They’re chewy as soon as they come out and you don’t have to wait for them to improve.

Ok, das svedanya for now and Happy Munching, Brownie fans!