“These hands are not mine, they belong to my great-grandmothers,” Marhabo Zhumaboyeva whispers as she spreads golden wheat grains across the dasturkhon, a traditional Uzbek tablecloth. Through incantations, she calls upon the wisdom of her great-grandmothers, mastering the art of making sumalak passed down through generations.

Women gather around as Marhabo Zhumaboyeva scatters the grains — these people are her neighbors. Throughout the following week, they will assist the hostess in preparing the symbol of Navruz, the holiday marking the beginning of spring (celebrated on 21 March, the day of the vernal equinox). In a prearranged arrangement, the women collectively contributed to the ingredients: one provided wheat, another oil, and a third flour.

Traditionally, sumalak is prepared collaboratively by several families, fostering unity through its labor-intensive process. The elders share their sumalak-making wisdom, offering advice and guidance; men handle tasks like fetching water and chopping wood; the curious children eagerly engage in any tasks they find exciting, and the women oversee the process.

The timing for preparing sumalak is rather guided by the cues of nature than by the calendar. In the Chuvillok village, nestled in the foothills of the Gallaorol district of Jizzakh region, when icy winds still blow but the spring sun warms the air enough for locals to shed their outer layers, it signals the start of sumalak season. Sometimes, hints of spring emerge as early as February. The villagers obey nature, as sumalak does not tolerate the heat.

On the first day of preparation, wheat undergoes meticulous cleaning, removing any debris and small stones. Only whole grains capable of sprouting are deemed suitable, as shredded wheat will not sprout and may even rot.

The cleaned wheat is soaked in water for a day and a half. Once the grains have swollen, they are transferred to cotton bags. Periodically, the grains are sprayed with water and turned over. After two days, tiny milky sprouts break through the delicate skin of the wheat, and the grains are spread out in layers on the khon-takhta, a traditional low wooden table. The tabletop is covered with an oilcloth beforehand to prevent excess moisture from seeping into the wood, allowing it to drain out instead.

The grains germinate in a warm room, tended to three times a day by Markhabo Zhumaboyeva. As she sprays them with warm water, she murmurs: “These hands are not mine, they belong to my great-grandmothers. Bismillah.” She ensures the wheat remains moist, preventing excessive sprouting that could lead to bitter sumalak.

Once sprouted, the wheat is ground in a meat grinder and rinsed multiple times in water until the liquid takes on a thick, milky hue. This liquid is then strained.

With the preparations complete, the women gather around the hearth and generously oil the cauldron. Stones collected by the children are added to the cauldron, believed by the villagers to carry their wishes and intentions into the sumalak.

With the elders' prayers, the ingredients are added to the cauldron: oil first, followed by the juice of the sprouted wheat and flour. As the sumalak boils, bubbles emerge on its glossy surface, resembling coins, as people call them — a signal to add more wheat juice to the mixture. Throughout the entire boiling process, wheat juice is added nine times.

Sumalak simmers until late into the night. The elderly men take charge of the children, while the women, gathered around the cauldron, share village news, anecdotes, and reminisce. In the past, sumalak was accompanied by old folk songs, but as time passes, those who remembered the lyrics have departed, and now modern music from speakers is gradually replacing the traditional tunes. In honor of those who remembered the old songs, it’s customary to fry bauyrsaqs, puffed up pastry, to accompany the sumalak.

On the night of sumalak preparation, women share a legend about the symbol of Navruz. According to the tale, people began cooking sumalak long before they understood the nutritional value of sprouted wheat.

The first time sumalak was cooked by Bibi Fatimai Zahro, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, during a year of poor harvest and winter food supplies. When nothing was left to feed the children, the woman dug up sprouted wheat, cut them up, and put them in a cauldron along with the stones she had collected. She poured water over the sprouts and stones and stirred the mixture, simulating cooking to comfort her children, who believed their mother was making a tasty meal. Fatimai Zahro fell asleep, tears in her eyes. During the night, angels descended and prepared nutritious sumalak. By morning, the cauldron was filled with sweet food, saving the family from starvation. Since then, sumalak has been prepared to replenish strength after winter hardships.

Another legend suggests that the word “sumalak” translates from Persian as “30 angels”. It is believed that these angels visit the home where sumalak is made, each contributing a blessing to the cauldron — health, prosperity, fertility. Thus, wishes made while stirring sumalak may come true, provided they are made with pure intentions and belief in miracles.

Chuvillokians believe in miracles. As they stir sumalak with good intentions, they ask the universe to ensure their children are always well-fed, to secure university scholarships, to bring gas to the village, to maintain harmony in their homeland, to enable families to buy cars, travel to the U.S. and bless them with sons.

Photos by Kholida Musulmon. Translation by Nozima Khodjimatova.

Rights for the text and images belong to Gazeta.uz.