Bokhara draws its share of tourists in the temperate seasons, and the streets of its old town frequently buzz with visitors and vendors. On one of these lively streets, from a pair of openings shaded by an awning, Mirfayz Ubaydov sells spices and tisanes not just to foreigners, but to locals as well. Ask him to blend you a curry powder and, after posing a few questions, he will quickly gather teaspoons from several sacks of fresh spices into his massive brass mortar and pestle. Just a few moments of patient work later, he seals up a packet of the most fragrant and delicious concoction you will ever smell or taste.
The fine quality of his wares has attracted global attention. Terra Madre, the well-attended Slow Food fair in Turin, has invited Ubaydov several times. He has brought sacks of spices, his essential mortar and pestle, as well as silk ikat pouches and tasseled gourds for deluxe packaging, to other events in Milan, Rome, and various cities in Switzerland. He is especially enthusiastic about Terra Madre: “At this fair there is no Coca Cola, no Fanta, nothing scientific. There are 9000 people gathered to focus only on real juices, meats and flavors. I taste as much as I sell!”
Ubaydov spices are not new to Europe, however. His grandfather was the first in this nine-generation line of spice merchants to sell internationally. As a result of a close friendship with a Swiss horsewoman who befriended him in Bokhara, he often traveled to Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe with exotic blends. Soviet rules prevented Ubaydov from continuing his international business, but just five years after Uzbek independence, the Swiss horsewoman, too old at that point to travel herself, sent friends to look for the Ubaydovs and selling to Europe began again.
Ubaydov has enhanced the family business with a careful gathering of ingredients from personal tastings in Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, Iran, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. He has maintained these connections over decades, and they supply him regularly with what he requires. He has a website. His son Mirshalob, who attended university in North America, speaks French and English, and corresponds via email with customers. The family opened a tea house just a few yards from the original shop, and visitors flock there to sip freshly brewed cardamom coffee (a delicacy in a country where Nescafe is ubiquitous), spiced tea, or saffron tisane. The pistachio oil halvah is creamy and delicate. Sesame and nut sweets called kasinaki, gorgeous chunks of rock sugar, tender Uzbek raisins and walnuts, and more, appear in colorful dishes with your tea – in a glimpse of the sumptuous tradition of hospitality observed in every home here.
Over his well laid table, Ubaydov explains that what keeps him passionate about his work is the fragrance of it. “I can tell from a great distance what a spice is, where it came from, how good it is. I like that.” He is also proudly cites the health benefits of what he sells. Avicenna, a Central Asian scientist from the XXth-century frequently called the father of Western medicine, assigned virtues to many of Ubaydov’s spices. Mint and bergamot are calming. Oregano is good for the stomach, and saffron and cardamom for the heart. Cinnamon aids the liver and stabilizes the blood pressure. Star anise helps with coughs and congestion.
When asked about the virtues of the grocery store spices most North Americans use, he pauses to find polite words. “They are very expensive dust,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. And compared to what he sells every day, he may have a point.
Author Penny Pilkington is co-founder of PPOW Gallery in New York. She participated in a HAND/EYE trip to Uzbekistan in May 2010, and sampled the Spice Man’s wares along the way. For more information, please see www.silkroadspices.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.