T hey put liquorice in their vodka in Karakalpakstan. Its sweetness softens the local liquor, Qarataw (named for the nearby mountain range), making it a surprisingly palatable tipple.
Karakalpakstan itself offers no such respite. The vast autonomous republic in western Uzbekistan, spanning the Aral Sea, is an environmental disaster zone. Soviet-era central planners sucked the sea dry to irrigate cotton fields, turning the world’s fourth-largest lake into a puddle. The roads around Nukus, the region’s capital, are crusted with salt, a memory of the dried-up sea.
Cotton is still the agricultural mainstay, but now liquorice fields are popping up all over. The root crop has been cultivated in Central Asia for millennia, but it is becoming a booming business for dried-out Karakalpakstan. Not only does it grow well in salted land, says Khabibjon Kushiev, a biologist at Gulistan State University, it regenerates the land in the process by sucking salt out of the soil.
The value of Uzbekistan’s liquorice-extract exports rose by nearly a quarter between 2017 and 2021 to reach $30m, according to World Bank data. Last year, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest supplier of liquorice by volume. Karakalpakstan is at the heart of the sweetness.