Discovery Kyrgyzstan
 
Discovery Kyrgyzstan travel guide #10/2008
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Kyrgyz national cuisine

Kyrgyz national cuisineFood is a question of taste as the saying goes: “One man's meat is another man's poison”. Don't expect the food in Kyrgyzstan to be the highlight of your trip but that does not mean that you have landed up in a culinary wasteland!

Kyrgyzstan stood on the crossroads of the Silk Road, and the caravan routes which crossed the territory carried not only goods for trade, but also brought examples of various cultures: Turkish, Persian, Arabian, Indian, Chinese, Russian, and European and these mingled with the culture and traditions of Central Asia. As a result Kyrgyz cuisine has absorbed elements from all of the cultures with which it came into contact, and although many dishes that you will find are common throughout Central Asia, it is still possible to find examples that have preserved their original, national identity. In many areas, such as Bishkek, Russian cuisine is common, but it is now possible to find examples from all over the world, including the all embracing “European”, Indian, Korean, Turkish and Chinese. Outside the cities local dishes, (such as Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Dungan) are more common. Although most Kyrgyz are Muslim, there are some traditional dishes which are not strictly halil such as Olovo or Kuiruk Boor. It is said that the food in Central Asia falls into three different types: the subsistence diet of the once nomadic peoples such as the Kyrgyz (mainly meat, milk products and bread); the diet of settled Turkish peoples (the Uzbeks and Uighurs) including pilaffs, kebabs, noodles and pasta, stews and elaborate pastries and breads; and dishes which come from the South (Iran, India, Pakistan and China) with more seasoning and herbs.

In Kyrgyz culture many dishes used to have special, ritual importance, and be connected with particular calendar holidays. Although these dishes are of great interest, unfortunately, many of them are being forgotten, and have fallen into disuse whilst some, which formerly had ritual contents, have lost their initial meaning and are progressively turning into every-day dishes. Meat is central to Kyrgyz cooking - the nomadic way of life did not allow for the growing of fruit and vegetables which means that vegetarian visitors may find it difficult to find dishes that, meet their needs.

Men are often considered to be the best cooks many think that women spoil food cooked for others although in the yurt the kitchen implements etc. are all stored on the women's side of the yurt and hunting and implements to do with shepherding and livestock on the men's side. In many ashkana's (tea houses or cafes) and restaurants the chefs are men. Women cooks are more commonly encountered in those establishments serving Russian or European cuisines. Russian dishes such as Shchi or Borsh can be found in many places but staple items are Central Asian dishes such as manti, samsa, ploff, shashlik and laghman.

Traditionally the Kyrgyz are a very hospitable people. If a Kyrgyz family invites you for a meal then you should take a small gift nothing lavish, for example fruit or flowers. Take your shoes off when entering the house. Picnics, especially, are served on a dostorkon, (a large cloth laid out on the ground around which the gathering sits - with your feet either to your side or away from the dostorkon), but don't be surprised if this happens indoors as well. Handle the food only with your right hand. At the end of the meal bring your two hands up to the face and drag them down as if washing the face and recite the word “omin” the Muslim equivalent of “amen”. In many homes, (unless strict Muslim ones) eating will also involve drinking. Alcohol will be served and you will be expected to drink. Don't think that you can drink just a little once started it can be difficult to decline further rounds especially as drinks are often associated with toasts. It may be better to decide on complete abstinence (on religious or health grounds, for instance) than suffer the consequences of excessive hospitality later on.

One of the most essential features of Kyrgyz cuisine is that dishes should preserve their taste and appearance. For example, there are almost no dishes comprising puree, minced, or chopped meat, (although there are a few exceptions.) Also, Kyrgyz dishes tend to have a plain taste; sauces and spices are used in only small batches, although spices are used more often in the South. Sauces are intended only to bring out the taste of the dish not to change it.

In 2004 a new restaurant opened in New York called “Issyk Kul” which specialises in Kyrgyz cuisine and is said to be very popular with both, the local population, but especially with Kyrgyz ex-pats. Although not specifically Kyrgyz, “Shish” restaurants, based in London, take their inspiration from the ancient Silk Road. You can find more about them at www.shish.com.

WATER

In Bishkek the tap water is generally safe to drink, but if you have a delicate stomach, or are concerned then boil the water. In rural regions especially in the south there are concerns about drinking water and it might be better to consider drinking mineral water. Bottled mineral water is available throughout the country but tends to be carbonated and a little salty, and can be an acquired taste.

BREAD

In Bishkek there is a wide range of breads available. Outside the cities, the flat, round lepyoshka is found almost everywhere. Fresh, warm, straight from the tandoor (a clay oven) it is particularly pleasant. At meals it is usually broken, not cut with a knife and never placed on the table upside down.

BOORSOK

pieces of dough, deep fried in boiling oil is a traditional table “decoration”. They are produced in large quantities and spread over the dastorkan or table at every major celebration. An abundance of Boorsok is seen as a sign of generosity.

KALAMA

a flat , unleavened bread there is no yeast used in the mixture baked quickly on the top of an iron stove. This is the most common sort of bread eaten in the yurts in the mountain pastures the jailoo.

MEAT

The most common form of meat is used in Kyrgyz cuisine is mutton. Sheep have a high place in Kyrgyz culture and the Kyrgyz use every part of the animal for something. Sheep meat tends to have more fat than that from other animals, and so it should be no surprise that fatty meat is often considered to be the best. (There is even a Kyrgyz saying “Cheap mutton has little fat”). In some households and festivals the Sheep's head, (the eyes in particular), may be offered to an honoured guest. Horsemeat is also highly revered and for special occasions and funerals it is common for a horse to be slaughtered and the cooked and presented to guests. Only young mares are used which have been fed on Alpine grasses, which are thought to give the meat a particularly good flavour. A great favourite in the countryside, (but also available in Bishkek) is chuchuk - a sort of sausage made from horsemeat. Beef is also found, but less often. Chicken is rarely used by the Kyrgyz chickens being found among settled peoples rather than nomads. Pork is not used by the Kyrgyz, but can be found in Chinese and Russian restaurants.

KATTAMA

another form of unleavened bread that is baked especially when there are guests. The dough is rolled into a thin layer and greased with butter and rolled to a spiral creating layers and baked on a hot iron stove. Kuimak liquid dough is fried in warm oil and is eaten with sour cream.

FISH

Fresh fish are caught in the lakes such as Son-Kul and Issyk Kul. Popular are the dried and smoked fish that are sold by the roadside near Issyk-Kul.

FRUIT AND VEGETABLES

most of the produce is grown locally and seasonal and there is a wide variety although recently more exotic fruits and vegetables are imported and available in the markets. You can encounter fresh produce, cooked, dried and preserved (jams/pickles etc.) Nuts are also very popular. In the South look out for Walnut Jam, made from the fruit of the tree while it is still green before the husk has formed actually the “walnut fruit” is whole and in a sweet syrup rather than a thick jam.

HONEY

is very popular and in the mountains the traveller can come across a solitary trailer, or a cluster of five or six gathered together, packed with and surrounded by beehives. The owner will happily sell a liter of fresh mountain honey (but you should have your own container if possible).

Discovery Kyrgyzstan #6

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