Welcome to the first and only Golden Camel Awards, a camel’s eye view of the best and worst that Central Asia and the Caucasus have to offer!
While most people don’t travel to the Caucasus and Central Asia solely to explore the cuisine, we had our share of pleasant eating experiences there. We also occasionally felt the wrath of a post-Soviet culinary hangover. If you are interested to know what constitutes a good eating experience (heavenly bread, drinkable vodka, and elusive vegetables) or what continues to haunt our food dreams, read on.
Three questions you may be asking yourself:
Q: Do camels really have good eyesight?
A: Probably not, but the title seems like a catchy and appropriate one for the series.
Q: Are there camels in the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan)?
A: We suppose there may be a stray camel or two here and there throughout the Caucasus region, but camels are really a Central Asian fixture.
Q: So why include the Caucasus in a survey called the Golden Camel Awards?
A: As we identified highlights of our journey through Central Asia, our experiences in the Caucasus continually kept creeping into the discussion. We also tend to view our travels through the Caucasus and Central Asia together as one regional set of experiences (much like we do our experiences in Southeast Asia). Although the countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus differ from one another in many ways, they all share some common features because they are post-Soviet Asian states.
Without further ado, let’s eat!
Best Market: Osh, Kyrgyzstan
This was a difficult choice with competitors like Ashgabat’s colorful Tolkuchka Bazaar in the running. However, Osh's sprawling market wins with an overwhelming diversity and abundance of just about everything, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and ethnicities.
Honorable Mention: Telavi, Georgia
The quirky main market in Georgia’s Khakheti region features the best in diversity that the Caucasus has to offer and will leave you mildly nostalgic for the days of yore. Good-looking produce and gregarious people (Georgians, Azeris, and Armenians among others), too.
Best Fruit: Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan wins for its immaculate grapes and fresh figs, whose taste could only be made better if they came with a harem in tow.
Honorable Mention: Turkmenistan
The melon capital of the universe. Turkmenistan features a national holiday to celebrate and honor the fruit so near and dear to the hearts of its countrymen.
Best Milk Product:matsoni (yogurt) from Svaneti, Georgia
The fresh, overnight yogurt sensation is fantastic throughout Georgia, but Svaneti is the place where it approaches the sublime. The best yogurt, by the way, comes from the same house that features the worst toilet. No kidding…and hopefully no connection.
On a serious note, it’s difficult to express how stiff the competition is in this category. Milk products throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia were so fresh that they literally redefined our taste program. Yogurt will never be the same again. Are you wondering why we are so excited by yogurt? It was often the only non-meat item on offer.
Most Questionable Food Hygiene: a Ramadan goat feast
Yes, a goat feast in its entirety – at Kyrgyzstan’s Song Kul Lake. We cannot get that man’s grotty, leathery hands out of our minds…and he couldn’t keep them out of our food!
Best Plov: Flamingo Café in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Just across the street from Hotel Orzu. Approximately $1 gets you a tomato salad and a beautiful plate of freshly cooked wedding plov (the variety which includes not only carrots and meat, but also chick peas and a few raisins for good measure). The rice is not too oily and the meat is sparse and delightfully lean.
Best Vodka: Turkmenistan
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever claim to be vodka experts. Most local vodka tastes downright awful. That is, until we tried Turkmenistan’s wheat vodka. The Arslan brand (named so because it makes one feel like a lion after just one shot) is smooth, remarkably drinkable and best consumed while contemplating the viability of Turkmenistan’s 1,270 square mile man-made lake in the middle of the Karakum Desert.
Most Bizarre Menu Item: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Leave it to an oddly translated menu at a Chinese restaurant to serve up “frog paws” and “shark lips.”
Best Meat: Lali’s shashlik in Kakheti, Georgia
She said it would be the best shashlik we’d ever had, and she was right. No sauce – just pork, salt, and pepper. Oh, and copious fresh vegetables, a five-liter gas can of brown wine, two drunk Kakhetians and a guitar.
Honorable Mention: Deniz Patisserie café, Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Iskender Kebab – think kebab (chunks of spiced meat, not the ground stuff) topped with yogurt and thin strips of bread.
Best Indian Food: Yerevan, Armenia
The Indian food at the restaurant on Tumanyan Street behind the Opera House is tasty and spicy; they offer a broad array of Indian food, not just the typical Punjabi gravy train favorites. Their food qualifies as the best Indian food we had tasted in five months.
Best Ice Cream: Tbilisi, Georgia
Just beyond the covered area at Rustaveli metro station (in the opposite direction of McDonald’s) lay a hole in the wall that serves up creamy relief from the summer heat.
Honorable Mention: Nukus, Uzbekistan
The ice cream man at the back of the market pleads no contest when it comes to “who’s the creamiest”, but his soft serve is pretty good and a steal at $0.10 a cone.
Most Mysterious Meat: all throughout Central Asia
There’s nothing like digging into a somsa and finding a bunch of onions and heaps of fat chunks and mystery meat fresh from the grinder. Aside from the dough in which it is encased, a Central Asian somsa can be absolutely inedible, unless you happen to be starving on the steppe.
Best Central Asian Meal: Malikjon Guest House in Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Whether you call it hunon or oromo (as the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz do, respectively), this ring-shaped stuffed pastry made from mats of dough rolled into a roulette is the essence of refined Central Asian cuisine and is delicious when served with a side of chaka (thick plain yogurt). Place it in the context of a delicious meal including eggplant salad, sweet seedless grapes, fresh soft figs and homemade kefir (mildly sour yogurt drink) and you have the spectacular $4/person spread which appeared at our table courtesy of the mother and daughter sweeties at the Malikjon Guest House in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
Most Pleasant Western Eating Oasis: California Café in Osh, Kyrgyzstan
We didn’t say best meal or most elaborate. But, how about a pleasantly consistent cup of coffee, something resembling brunch food, or Mexican fare that comes pretty close? Don’t laugh – things like these take on added importance when it seems that all you can get is meat and bread. If you’ve traveled for an extended period of time in Central Asia, you know what we mean. Man cannot live on plov, shashlik, laghman and somsa alone. And that’s when California Café’s breakfast burritos, pizza, and pastas all come to the rescue.
Honorable Mention: The best of both worlds (eating and free wifi) at Café Bourgeois in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Lovely lattes and chicken sandwiches with fries, all while cruising the internet. The staff are incredibly friendly, too.
Best Pizza: Bistro Restaurant in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
We admit it; we do sometimes break down for a good pizza or decent glass of wine. Bistro Restaurant in Tashkent filled both requirements and served vegetables grilled in a wood fired oven. Located at Movarounnakhr 33, Tashkent.
Best Bread: Georgian tonis puri from Borjomi, Georgia
For the best of the best, try the bakery next to the Borjomi bus station. Perhaps the bread is so good because they use the local – and still revered – Borjomi water. An immaculate bread-eating experience on its own gets taken to a new level when Nutella is lathered on top.
Best Sweet: Baku, Azerbaijan
Having tasted some of Güllüoğlu baklava when it was delivered to us in Prague by a friend in Baku, we were determined visit the source. We know this is really a Turkish treat (the parent company’s home location is Istanbul, Turkey), however. At any rate, the product at their Baku outpost is lovely – not too sweet and chock-full of various ground nuts.
Best Cuisine All Around: Georgian Food
This is an easy call, one we make with apologies to our other friends in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The variety of dishes (especially those including vegetables) and symphony of flavors that comprise the Georgian table cannot be matched anywhere in the region. Oh, and did we mention how wonderful the bread was?