Traditional Cuisine of Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan stood on the crossroads of the Silk Road, and the caravan routes which crossed the territory of modern Kyrgyzstan carried not only goods for trade, but also brought examples of various cultures: Roman and Greek, Turkish and Persian, Arabian and Indian, Chinese and Russian 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.
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.