While most people don’t travel to the Caucasus and Central Asia solely to explore its foods, we did have our share of pleasant to exceptional eating experiences there. These included discovering some new-to-us cuisines and dishes that are unique to this region.
In full disclosure, we also occasionally felt the wrath of a post-Soviet culinary hangover. So if you are interested to know what constitutes a good eating experience (heavenly bread, smooth vodka, and elusive vegetables) or what continues to haunt our food dreams, read on. Here are our picks for the best markets, food, drinks and more of the edible variety across the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) and Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).
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.
Honorable Mention: Osh and Uzgen, Kyrgyzstan
Competition for plov is stiff throughout Central Asia, but in Kyrgyzstan everyone agrees that the best plov is in Osh and Uzgen. Made with special red rice (devzira) from Uzgen and simmered for hours with onions, yellow carrots, meat (usually lamb) and cumin, this is one darn hearty and delicious dish. You can also learn how to make it yourself in this plov cooking course in Osh.
Best Soup: Ashlan-Fu in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
One of the best loved and famous dishes in Karakol is this spicy, cold soup called ashlan-fu. This Dungan (Muslim Chinese) specialty is made with sliced potato starch, wheat noodles, a vinegar-chili sauce and a topping of chopped herbs. It's also known as the local hangover cure.
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.
Best Family Meal: Dungan Family Dinner in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
The Dungan are a Chinese Muslim people are one of the different ethnic groups that have made Karakol their home. Having emigrated to this region 140 years ago they have kept their culinary and cultural traditions alive. One of the best ways to experience this is with the Dungan Village Visit and Family Dinner Tour offered through Destination Karakol. With a minimum of eight homemade dishes filled with different flavors, textures and styles, you will not walk away from this dinner hungry. Plus, you'll have a chance to visit a local family home and learn more about Dungan culture.
Best Dumplings: Khinkali from Georgia
These beautifully twisted knobs of dough are usually stuffed with meat and spices and served boiled. Sprinkle with black pepper and take small bites from the side, slurping broth as you go so that you don't burn yourself. Simple and delicious.
Honorable Mention: Maida Manti in Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Maida manti are small handmade dumplings filled with mashed potato and steamed to perfection. Although you can find the larger meat-filled manti cousins throughout the region, maida manti are found only in Osh. Eat with spiced red onions and sour cream.
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.
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 for us again. Are you wondering why we are so excited by yogurt? It was often the only non-meat item on offer.
Best Vodka: Turkmenistan
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever claim to be vodka experts. Most local vodka in this region 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.
Best Meat: Lali’s shashlik in Kakheti, Georgia
She said it would be the best shashlik (grilled meat) 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.
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.
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.
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?
Best Market: Osh, Kyrgyzstan
This was a difficult choice with competitors like Ashgabat’s colorful Tolkuchka Bazaar in the running. However, Osh's sprawling Jayma Bazaar wins with an overwhelming diversity and abundance of just about everything, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and ethnicities. In addition, it's one of the oldest in the region dating back 2,000 years to when Osh was a big trading center along the Silk Road. (Update: Some of the Osh market was destroyed in 2010 during ethnic conflicts, but it has been rebuilt. During our 2017 visit we were pleasantly surprised to still find the similar labyrinthian market alleys.)
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.