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Tajikistan selects Best School Cook 2022

On March 16, Dushanbe N6 secondary school hosted the final part of the Best School Cook 2022 competition under the aegis of the UN WFP and SIFI. The event was held with assistance from the Ministry of Health and Social Protection of Population and the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Tajikistan. The jury announced the winner after the five best participants from various areas of Tajikistan completed three rounds of the competition and met in the final to compete for the Best School Cook title.

The first such contest in Tajikistan provided an excellent opportunity to raise public awareness about the significance of school cooks’ efforts to feed Tajik children delicious and healthy dishes, thus ensuring their intellectual and physical development.

As well as attaching greater importance to the profession of school cook, the competition aims at instilling healthy eating habits in the younger generation by offering them diverse and healthy school nutrition that meets all quality and safety standards.

Selection of finalists

The Best School Cook competition launched in the summer of 2022 in more than 1900 schools participating in the UN WFP School Feeding Programme covering 52 towns and districts of Tajikistan.

The organizers received 78 applications from school cooks. After the elimination round, 45 cooks representing five regions (Bokhtar and Kulyab areas of Khatlon region, Districts of Republican Subordination, Sughd region, and GBAO) made it to the second stage that included on-site selection at school canteens.

Within two hours, the participants had to cook two servings of soup, a hot dish, and a salad from the School Meals Recipe Book, developed jointly by SIFI and WFP, to diversify school menus with simple, tasty, and healthy dishes. To make the task a little bit more complicated, the jury offered some unusual recipes.

To assess the participants’ performance, the jury watched the cooking process, paying particular attention to adherence to all sanitation norms and kitchen policies and the capability of fulfilling the cooking instructions. Afterward, they tasted the ready-to-eat meals. As a result, the jury selected five finalists, who gained the highest points:

1 - Mahmadradzhab Sohibnazarov (Yava area, Khatlon region),

2 - Adolat Salimova (Temurmalik area, Khatlon region),

3 - Saylon Surobova (Ishkoshim area, GBAO),

4 - Maftuna Ummatova (Istiklol town, Sughd region),

5 - Toliyahton Khushvaktova (Rasht area, DRS).

How the final happened

Several times, the final date was altered due to the severe weather conditions that prevented participants from remote areas from reaching the capital city. Launched in 2022, the competition entered 2023 and culminated in early spring.

The morning of March 16 was filled with excitement and joy. Irrespective of who would win the main prize, all participants were the heroes of their schools and had already proved to be dedicated professionals.

Dushanbe N6 secondary school brought together contestants, jury members, representatives of ministries and state agencies, sponsors, schoolchildren, and journalists.

The jury included Kholmurod Alijonov, the representative of the Ministry of Health and Social Protection of Population, Jamoliddin Amirov, the representative of the Ministry of Education and Science, Orzu Rahmonaliev, the representative of the Institute of Nutrition, and Nasrullo Ramazonov, the representative of the UN WFP in Tajikistan, as well as SIFI representative, Senior lecturer of the Lyceum of Service and Tourism, Zulfia Fayzieva.

Deputy Minister of Education and Science Shukrullo Hayrzoda, UN WFP representative and country director in Tajikistan Adham Musallam, and first secretary of the Russian embassy to Tajikistan Oleg Ilyshev, also attended the event.

“This competition’s primary goal is to show the importance of the work done by school headmasters, teachers, and those working at school canteens. Although the school cooks’ efforts often remain unnoticed, they are directly involved in building a proper learning process. In Russia, it is a crucial activity supported by the government because school cooks work to improve children’s health and the quality of education. We are thus trying to extend our gratitude to the people who feed the Tajik children every date and help them grow healthy and intelligent,” Oleg Ilyshev said.

The finalists had to perform three tasks: cook their dish that can be included in the school menu, prepare a meal within a limited time, and answer questions regarding school kitchen procedures.

The first stage included a presentation of the home task. The participants had to develop a recipe for a dish on their own by following strict norms: maximum budget of up to 30 somoni per portion, using local products that are allowed for school meals; inclusion of vegetables and fruit; explanation of why the dish should be included in the primary school menu.

The dishes presented by the participants were quite diverse: cabbage rolls, soup with meatballs, beetroot soup, vegetable and meat stew, and pumpkin puree with topping. Each dish arrived with a detailed recipe that included cooking instructions, the amount of each ingredient (in grams), and the price per ready-to-eat dish.

Maftuna Ummatova, the cook from №1 secondary school of Istiklol town, Sughd region, cooked vegetable stew with meat and green beans. She confesses it is her favorite dish, and what is most important, children like it too. “Adding meat and vegetables to children’s diet is essential. My dish includes meat and vegetables – onions, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, pumpkin, tomato paste, canned beans, and herbs (parsley). Almost all of these products can be found in Tajikistan throughout the year. They are produced locally and contain plenty of vitamins and nutrients, which improve children’s health and development,” she says.

The only male finalist, Mahmadradzhab Sohibnazarov, a cook representing school №45 of the Yava area, Khatlon region, prepared cabbage rolls with meat stuffing and pumpkin. In addition to standard ground beef stuffing, the recipe contained rice, onions, pumpkin, garlic, and coriander. “White cabbage is available in our country all year round. It is a rich source of Vitamin C that helps strengthen children’s immune system,” he says.

The first stage was followed by a ‘cooking battle.’ The tasks for the finalists were put into envelopes. Each participant chose an envelope, read the instructions, and got to work. The finalists had to prepare and serve the dish with a salad and beverage within an hour. The dishes included in the tasks were cabbage soup with potatoes, khom-shurbo (traditional Tajik soup with meat and vegetables), pickle soup with barley, and meat cutlets. The jury members and schoolchildren tasted each dish.

The third stage was a quiz. The finalists answered questions about school kitchen procedures, and some questions were confusing:

- What spices can be used in a school canteen? (Only salt)

- What fat-content margarine should be used in school meals for making pastry? (Margarine is forbidden, irrespective of fat percentage)

- How is marking on cutting utensils made? (By burning)

Children’s choice

The children’s opinion matters because the little ones are the strictest judges of each cook. The meals served in the school canteen should be healthy, nutritious, and delicious. When tasting the dishes, the children from Dushanbe №6 school assessed each dish. Jamshed (grade 4) is a national cuisine lover. Khom-shurbo was the dish he liked most of all. “It is so delicious and tastes like my mother’s,” the boy commented. His classmate, Gulya, said she liked all the dishes, but cutlets won her heart. “They are so soft and juicy,” she said.

Who is the winner?

Summarizing results, counting votes and points, and… the jury announces the winner:

  1. Maftuna Ummatova is the Best School Cook 2022 in Tajikistan;
  2. Adolat Salimova came second;
  3. Mahmadradzhab Sohibnazarov won third place.

Saylon Surobova and Toliyahton Khushvaktova received the Audience Award and Children’s Choice Award, respectively.

All five finalists were gifted individual prizes in the form of certificates for purchasing appliances for their homes and kitchenware for their school canteens.

The finalists also received medals, diplomas, and certificates of gratitude, while the Best School Cook was awarded the winner’s cup. Emotions, tears of happiness, great photos, and heartfelt thanks made the day!

In conclusion, Deputy Minister of Education and Science Shukrullo Hayrzoda remarked, “The most important thing is that school cooks joined this event enthusiastically. They comprehend that their labor is crucial and that we do appreciate their efforts. Held for the first time in Tajikistan, this competition will inspire them to master their skills, and they will continue working for the sake of the growing generation.”

This inspiring event has become a significant move toward further success and inspiration for school cooks across the country.