By Megan Stetzel
Nestled in the middle of Asia is Kyrgyzstan, a fascinating country filled with unique culture, nomads, beautiful mountain ranges and equally stunning lakes. As a vital part of the Silk Road, and having only been a sovereign state since 1991, Kyrgyzstan has seen an influence from many cultures and empires over the years including Russian, Uyghur, Dungan, and Uzbek.
The people of Kyrgyzstan certainly are the jewels of the country but the cuisine is a close second. Rich with interesting meats, dairy products, and warm goodness, this food will stick to your ribs and get you ready for a trek into the hills.
A Meat Lover’s Paradise
Meat takes the main stage in this area of the world. Mutton, beef, and even horse meat are served at every meal. As a primarily nomadic culture, Kyrgyz people often raise their own produce and livestock. Maintaining a garden can be challenging in the mountains, so a lot of the food typically comes from animals that are easily herded.
- Paloo or Plov – a popular dish throughout Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has its own variety. Shredded carrots, rice, and garlic are sauteed together and then slow cooked meats like mutton or beef are added. Hot chilies or fried garlic are often served as toppings to give the dish a little extra flavor.
- Beshbamark – a horse meat stew served over homemade noodles.
- Shorpo – a clear broth meat soup with potatoes.
- Shashlik – delicious meat kebobs marinated for hours before cooking and grilled over open coals. Shashlik is typically mutton but in the bigger villages you can find chicken, beef, or even fish near the lakes!
Bread is the other main component of any meal in Kyrgyzstan. It comes in all shapes and sizes. Most matriarchs feel that their recipes are best, and it is extremely shameful to waste it. One local told me that if he buys a loaf of bread and doesn’t eat it all before it goes bad he literally has to hide it in his garbage bag so that no one yells at him for seeing him carrying a bag of garbage with bread in it!
If you enter any house or yurt in Kyrgyzstan it is customary to be offered bread and tea even if you’re only staying for a few moments. There are a few varieties ranging from flatbreads similar to naan to thicker more sturdy Russian-style varietals. They are often served with a variety of jams, jellies, honey, and butter.
On the Side
Noodle dishes like Lagman are extremely popular as well. Lagman can come as a dry fried dish or a soup. Both versions are made from thick wheat noodles and vegetables and peppers tossed in a spicy vinegar sauce. Make sure to wear darker clothes when tackling Lagman as the noodles are known for splashing around!
Dumplings are also a common component of Kyrgyz food. Samsas are little pockets of fluffy pastry stuffed with meat and vegetables that are very similar in style to Indian Samosas. Manty are the steamed variety also filled with meat and vegetables.
If you’re traveling to Kyrgyzstan, you have to try the national drink of kymyz. It is made from fermenting mare’s milk and almost resembles a milky Kombucha. It is slightly alcoholic so don’t go operating heavy machinery after sampling it.
Kyrgyzstan is not a vegetarian or vegan-friendly country traditionally. If you stay in the capital of Bishkek or in some of the other major towns like Cholpan-Ata, you may be able to find cuisines from around the world or vegetarian-friendly establishments. If you are trekking and planning to stay with nomadic families in yurts, it can be quite challenging finding dishes that don’t contain meat. A few dishes to look for are fresh carrot salads with a spicy, citrus sauce or borscht, a beet-based soup that is often sans meat.
If you follow a gluten-free diet, many of the dishes are safe to consume as seasonings and preparations are very simple here. Although bread is served with every meal, there are usually plenty of other dishes to be had. Stay away from noodle dishes and dumplings as both are primarily wheat based. Definitely eat as much Shashlik as possible, though!
I hope this helps to shed some light on a culinary region that you may not have thought of. A trip to Kyrgyzstan is sure to make a tummy very happy!
Note: If your travel plans include crossing the border into China, be sure to read this first!
Megan is a girl that shouldn’t travel. She’s gluten free, allergic to everything else, falls off motorcycles, poops her pants, gets bit by stray dogs and yet she’s still been traveling the world for 3 years and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. She writes about all of this and more at Forks And Footprints.