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.
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:
- Regional and Country-Specific Specialties
- Meals of Salvation and Desperation
- Central Asian Eating Experiences of Note
- What to Pay for an Animal at the Market
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:
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.
A satisfying dish composed of a tomato-based broth, pulled noodles, tomatoes, onions, peppers and chunks of meat.
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.
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.
Boiled mutton on the bone with a root vegetable stew of potatoes, carrots, and turnips.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Turkmenistan Food Specialties
- Head and legs soup – torch-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
- 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
- Laghman: Hand-pulled noodles with a mixed pepper, tomato, onion and meat sauce. Quite tasty, especially with a little hot pepper thrown in.
- Ashlan-fu – cold 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 kuga – the 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.
- 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
- 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.
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.