Central Asian Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Inedible

Mystery vegetables are better than mystery meat.

– the mantra we adopted after eating Central Asian meals for over three months

Although we would not advise an exclusively culinary expedition to Central Asia, the region does have its appetizing moments. Surrounding those moments, you’ll primarily find a nomadic carnivore’s dream or a vegetarian’s nightmare.

Tea and Somsa - Nukus, Uzbekistan
Tea and somsa, Uzbekistan.

We’re told that nomads eat whatever is near. Traditionally, this meant a horse or a sheep. Not much has changed. That mindset seems to have been adapted to today’s modern table with a twist of lingering Soviet influence. In this piece, we hope to share a little bit of the flavor of Central Asian cuisine.

If you’d like to jump ahead for Central Asian Food:

From the port of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan to the eastern fringes of the Torugart Pass in Kyrgyzstan, you’ll never be far from any of these Central Asian food staples:

Plov

Uzbek in origin. Think rice pilaf with fried julienned carrots, red pepper, caraway seeds, and chunks of meat. Plov is so ubiquitous throughout the region that self-described local connoisseurs can discern differences that are imperceptible to foreigners, much like the relationship Americans have with pizza and chili. We’ll keep our radar tuned for the first Central Asian plov cook-off.

Simmering Plov (Rice Dish) - Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Plov simmering for hours in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Laghman

A satisfying dish composed of a tomato-based broth, pulled noodles, tomatoes, onions, peppers and chunks of meat.

Somsa

It sounds dangerously like a somosa (Indian pocket stuffed with potatoes, vegetables and sometimes meat), but don’t be fooled. Unfortunately, the stuffing in the Central Asian version is the result of a sheep doing a swan dive into a meat grinder. The most satisfying aspect of a somsa is the way in which it is folded and slapped on the inside of a cylindrical tandoor-like clay oven. If you are fortunate enough, you might find a somsa with a tolerable meat:fat ratio, or perhaps you’ll find yourself thanking the food gods for cheese somsas at the Zelyony Bazaar in Almaty, Kazkahstan.

Shashlik (or Shashlyk)

Skewered meat (usually mutton) roasted over hot coals. This seems to be the overwhelming favorite of most locals we spoke to – no rice, bread or vegetables to distract from the main event, the meat. The quality, fat content and elasticity of shashlik on offer varies widely and frighteningly throughout Central Asia. To avoid the looming threat of an oil slick on the roof of your mouth, you must consume it quickly while it is piping hot.

Manti

Dumpling pockets stuffed with various proportions of meat, fat and onion. The speed with which mutton fat congeals and collects on the roof of one’s mouth after eating one of these is epic.

Steamed Manti (Dumplings) - Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Steamed manti in Uzbekistan.

Shorpa

Boiled mutton on the bone with a root vegetable stew of potatoes, carrots, and turnips.

Borscht

One of the most pleasant remaining influences from Mother Russia on the Central Asian table. Though beet and cabbage soup topped with a dollop of sour cream may sound boring, we were rarely disappointed; the meat chunks were usually large enough to navigate around.

Pelmeni

Think Russian ravioli, stuffed with ground meat. The emphasis is on ground, so that any mystery bits of meat are crushed beyond recognition. Usually served in a broth or sided with sour cream. A safe bet, unless you are a vegetarian.

Bread

Called corek in Turkmenistan and known as nan (or non) almost everywhere else, Central Asian flatbread is often frisbee-shaped, but not as flexible and seems designed for longevity to outlast a long desert trek. The shape and consistency is determined by the region and a simple design is often imprinted on the top of the bread to denote where it came from. Nan from Karakalpakstan (western Uzbekistan) is so hard that it could be classified as a weapon and should be required to have the year of its creation stamped on top.

Women Bread Vendors - Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Friendly bread vendors in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Dried Fruits and Nuts

Stepping back from the world of prepared foods, one thing Central Asia does incredibly well is dried fruits and nuts. All markets from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan have aisles of dried apricots, raisins, pistachios, and every other type of dried fruit and nut imaginable.

Tea

Ubiquitous and the cornerstone of the chaikhana (tea house) culture. Large groups of men sip away the hours; you’ll often get your choice of green or black brew.

Regional Specialties

Turkmenistan Food Specialties

  • Head and legs souptorch-blackened sheep (or goat) heads and legs (with charred skin peeled and scraped off afterwards), boiled for almost eight hours with various root vegetables and whatever else happens to be on hand.
  • Chal– fermented camel’s milk. Fizzy, tangy and surprisingly unappalling. Some might even say refreshing.

Uzbekistan Food Specialties

  • Hunon – potato, carrot, onion and meat-stuffed ring-shaped pastry made from mats of dough rolled into a roulette. Delicious served with chaka (thick plain yogurt).

Kazakhstan Food Specialties

  • Zhuta – similar to hunon, a rolled, ring-shaped dough mat filled with carrots and pumpkin
  • Cheese somsa – look hard for these at Zelyony Bazaar in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Kyrgyzstan Food Specialties

  • Kurut – tart and tangy balls of dried yogurt
  • Oromo – mats of dough filled with cabbage, small bits of meat and onions. Rolled into a roullette and cooked in a special pan.
  • Beshbarmak – bits of mutton meat (or goat, in our case) mixed by hand with sopping Kyrgyz spaghetti noodles and meat broth
  • Ashlianfucold noodles, vinegar, peppers and sometimes egg
  • Ganfan – consistently good Dungan Chinese-inspired dish of rice in a spicy meat and vegetable broth.
  • Chochvara – dumpling pockets (much like pelmeni above, but fried), served with a spicy tomato-based broth.
  • Kymys – fermented mare’s milk, the king of Central Asian beverages. The best stuff supposedly comes from Song Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan Food Specialties

  • Yak yogurt – tangy, strappy and surprisingly tasty; you’ll find it in select homes in the Pamir region
  • Yak meat – anything aside from bread and potatoes in the Pamir region is reason for celebration. Yak is surprisingly edible and is the meat of choice served to honored guests.
  • Kurtob (or Kurtab) – refreshing rustic dish composed of alternating layers of strips of bread and yogurt mixed with onions, tomatoes and coriander or parsley. Ask the women at the Pamir Lodge in Khorog to whip up a batch. It’s a godsend after eating only potatoes and bread for days on the Pamir Highway.
  • Nahud sambusa good luck finding these chick pea somosas called out in the Central Asia Lonely Planet. We sought them out, buttonholing all the old ladies at each of the major markets in Khorog and Dushanbe, and we came up empty-handed.
  • Gandush kugathe search for the elusive nahud sambusa at the Shah Mansur Green Bazaar in Dushanbe yielded this murky bean porridge-like soup topped with fresh herbs. Not quite what we asked for, but good enough for those going meatless.

Meals of salvation and desperation:

  • Snickers – depending on how much of the local food you’ve recently consumed, eating a Snickers bar in Central Asia can be something of a transcendental experience
  • Condensed milk on flatbread – when there’s absolutely nothing else to eat and it’s -10C outside, this makeshift meal at the bleak cafeteria on the desolate Kyrgyz-Chinese border (Torugart Pass) begins to taste like ambrosia

Restaurants and experiences of note in Central Asia:

  • Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Carpinka restaurant serves a snappy, unfiltered beer that, for a sip or two, might fool you into thinking you are somewhere in Central Europe
  • Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Lebanese Kitchen near Hotel Dostuk. Although it’s not dirt cheap, you’ll do your body well by loading up on vegetable-heavy dishes here. The mezze platter is delicious and enough for four people to share.
  • Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Concord (Alatoo Square) – where the name of the doomed luxury plane is misspelled and all the Russian waitresses are dressed like flight attendants. Lunch specials are a good value and the atmosphere is almost delightful.
  • Karakol, Kyrgyzstan: Zarina Café – pelmeni in a pot, served hot and smothered with warm sour cream and cheese. Balance it with the spicier chochvara.
  • Karakol, Kyrgyzstan: Traktiry Kalinka – beer on draft ; go for the ashlianfu spicy gelatin glass noodles
  • Ashgabat, Turkmenistan– get your fill of kebabs at the entrance to Gulestan, (aka, Russian Market). Rumor has it that the meat is in fact camel.

Karakol’s Animal Market

Old Kyrgyz Man with Kalpak, Smoking - Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Smoke break at the Karakol Sunday animal market.

If you tire of eating animals, head on over to Karakol’s Mal Bazaar (Animal Market) in eastern Kyrgyzstan to see them alive. We conducted a quick survey on livestock prices. Prices in Kyrgyz som ($1 = 35 som):

  • A fat mare (for milk and/or food): 40,000 – 50,000
  • Riding horse: 30,000 – 35,000
  • Cow: 23,000-33,000, depending on its size and whether it’s male or female
  • Sheep: 5,000-12,000, depending on size and whether it features one of those jiggly, chunky rumps
  • Goat: 3,000-5,000
  • Yak: 10,000-30,000
  • Donkey: 2,000
  • Yurt, to house you and your animals: 50,000-60,000

If you want to know what a Central Asian market looks and sounds like, watch our video.

View the Central Asian Food and Markets photo set here.

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Comments

  1. says

    Most days when I come and read your entries I am jealous of your ongoing adventures. Today, as I was eating my four-cheese cavatappi with spinach, I was perfectly content to be where I am. :)

    Of course, this is coming from the woman who can’t even watch much of what Anthony Bourdain eats on television. Sad, huh?

  2. says

    Nicole: What we endure to keep ourselves – and our blog – well fed. Your comment reminds me of a recent conversation I had with my father:

    “OK Dad, gotta run and get some breakfast.”
    “Oh, what are you going to eat?” He’s excited to hear what exotic dish is up next.
    “Oatmeal. Audrey will probably order French toast.”
    “Oatmeal?!?! You’re kidding me!”

    I suppose he expected some exotic fish-broth morning soup served in a jungle hut. Truth is that it’s nice to give the taste buds a rest and occasionally retreat into comfort food. I followed up with the fact that last night’s dinner was pizza and tagliatelle with cream sauce.

    By our rationale, we must keep things balanced and occasionally give our taste buds a rest so that they are ready to tackle the next new thing. So cavatappi with spinach sounds pretty good right about now.

    The more we travel, the more we appreciate the variety and selection of ethnic foods we had access to while we were in the States.

  3. says

    Michael: Right on. Tell a friend. Nothing against Bourdain, but I chuckled when I saw the list of international destinations in the “On the Road” section of his site: Paris, Iceland, New Jersey, Vietnam, Malaysia. And we don’t have assistants or a crew. I suppose he gets some points for eating the beating heart of a cobra, though.

    About that book, we have somewhat secretly deluded ourselves into thinking that our blog may form the foundations of a book some day. If you know any publishers, alchemists or anyone schooled in re-aligning the stars in the sky, please let us know.

    In the meantime, the pavement, the people and the markets await.

  4. Joe says

    Hi again,
    Laghman, I’ve not heard that word but have had that dish many times at my maternal grandparents home. It was a personal favorite of gramps and still is for me. He was born somewhere in the south of Russia near Kiev but
    must have had an Asian in his family tree somewhere along the way, he had almond shaped eyes.
    The market pictures are great.
    Thanks again.
    Joe

  5. says

    Joe, that’s interesting that your grandparents used to make laghman but never called it as such. Maybe it has another name closer to mainland Russia and Ukraine? Do you have your grandmother’s recipe to share?

    The Soviet Union had a tendency to move people around, voluntarily and involuntarily, so it is very possible that your grandfather’s family originated in Central Asia but lived near Kiev. Could be some interesting family research.

    The food markets were some of our best memories from that region – full of color, life and expression! We hope a fraction of that came through in the photos.

  6. says

    I realy liked Central Asian food.
    I like Shurpa,Bishbarmak,achuchuk,samsa,shashlik,plov.
    I recomend every body to move to Central Aia it can change your life well.
    I’m from Ukraine still miss Uzbekistan Tashkent.
    Uzbekistan is my favourite country.

    [duplicate link removed]

  7. says

    I think the entire population of Tajikistan should take mandatory cooking lessons – or at least introduced to the concept of butchering an animal by type of meat/body part/cooking method. I’ve never lived in a place where the local cuisine wound up being a disappointingly bland use of local ingredients. I’m surviving on Oranges imported from Pakistan at the moment.

  8. says

    @Emily: I can’t say that cuisine was the highlight of our visit to Tajikistan, either. However, that kurtob in Khorog was a site for sore eyes (and weary stomachs) after all the bread, potatoes and butter tea in the Pamirs and Badakhshan. Thankfully, the people in that region make up in warmth what they may lack in food variety.

  9. says

    I was actually a little sad to see that Kazakhstan’s list was so small. The cheese samsa is kind of like a quesadilla on steroids; absolutely delicious — but not the talk of the town. Most are for sale at around 100 Tenge, or 68 Cents (that being the more expensively priced).

    It might be an interesting note to mention that while Kazakhstan has an extensive list of delicious foods to enjoy, they’re all taken from different cultures. Beshbarmak is the pride of this country, for example. Any Kazakh-born will ask you if you’ve tried “our national dish, Beshbarmak… delicious, yes?”

    Plov is also a country favorite and also one of my own. Oh, and if you’re going to the Zeylony (Green) Bazaar in Almaty, I’d say, try a donar. Another food not originally from Kazakhstan but still worth the buy if you’re wandering around hungry. It’s a big burrito stuffed with tender meat, french fries, onions, carrots and cucumbers, all panini-pressed together.

    If you’re looking for a taste of American-style coffee, not far from the Green Bazaar is 4A Cafe, a shop owned by a man born in Boston. The baristas speak English and the coffee is exceptional. I mention this because of the Snickers referrence — sometimes it’s good to go to what’s familiar, even when you’re surrounded in delicious cuisine.

    So that’s my two cents. I just felt I had to speak up for my beloved Kazakhstan because there’s a lot of good eats worth finding while in country. :)

  10. says

    @Valentina: Thank you for your comment. We were fortunate to try a number of dishes that you mention. Actually, we had a memorable beshbarmak during Ramadan at Song-Kul, Kyrgyzstan:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/10/goat-and-five-fingers/

    Plov is excellent, one of our favorites. I think we had some in Almaty. We also ate it quite often throughout Uzbekistan:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/picture/1201957606/

    (We even ate some recently at our Kyrgyz friends’ house.)

    We might have had a donar (doner?) at Zeylony Bazaar, but I actually remember having a really good one in another not-so-touristy Almaty neighborhood (forget the name) with our friend who lives there.

    I would have hoped that our website is a testament to adventurous eating — and not just to wear the “look what I ate” badge, but to understand what the facets of a cuisine say about a culture. If we had our way, we’d probably never eat Snickers again. But when you’re stuck in the mountains with rock-hard bread and a sheep’s eyeball (after having eaten goat blood soup for the last two days), sometimes a Snickers is in order.

  11. mehmet ali ekiz says

    Boyyy the places were you have been are turkic not russian and eben if they can talk rusian thats a must have to talk or die action … i know the ressemblence between a mongol turk and a russian,so keep your head cooland say never rusian against a turk

  12. says

    @mehmet: Many parts of Central Asia may be historically ethnic Turkic. However, after the countries were absorbed into the Soviet Union, there was a lot of intermarriage between locals and Russians. So, I suppose you have pure ethnic (Turkic) locals, Russians, and those whose parents are of mixed heritage. And in the end, most often speak Russian to one another, regardless of their heritage. At least that was our experience in terms of how we witnessed business being done and Central Asian people interacting with one another.

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