FOOD IN TURKMENISTAN
Turkmen food is more similar to food found in Turkey, the Middle East, China and Muslim countries than food found in Russia. Because Turkmenistan is a Muslim country pork is hard to find but mutton and other sheep products and pultry are common. All parts of the sheep, including the eyeballs, brains, head and tail, are eaten. Mutton itself is often fatty. Beef, camel meat and goat meat are served in some places. Fish and caviar from the Caspian Sea are available.
Turkmen have traditionally eaten great discs of whole-wheat bread cooked fresh everyday. A typical dinner consists of pilaf and bread and vegetables. Pots of mutton are cooked above mud-walled stoves were prepared for special meals. A popular snack is dried melon, which looks like twisted cinnamon bread. Melons are popular as they are throughout Central Asia. Turkmenistan has even dedicated a special holiday - known simply as Melon Day - to celebrate the fruit's delights.
Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “I spent... my time in Ashgabat doing what Turkmen like doing most: sitting on a lovely carpet, eating my way down a spit of lamb kebab or through a mound of rice plov. Always there was hard bread, sometimes dumplings; usually there was tea, sometimes wine.[Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]
The most popular dish in Turkmenistan is pilav, better known as pilaf, or in Russian, plov. It is cooked from lamb, carrots, rice and onions. Shurpa is another common dish. It is a soup made with mutton broth with potatoes and tomatoes. The most widespread meat dishes are: chorba, gainatma, dograma, govurma, govurdak, shashlick (kebap). Besides mutton game meat is very popular: partridges, hares, goitered gazelles. Turkmenistan melons are known for their honey-like. They were exported even during pre-Islamic times.
The world's first pears, apples and apricots evolved from wild plants found in Central Asia. Melons are very popular in Central Asia. They are sweet and delicious and are full of water and act as natural canteens. Melons are often served as a dessert or snack with tea. Markets are often filled with huge piles of them. Melons are often given as a gift and a gesture of welcome and farewell.
Niyazov renamed some foods.
Turkmenistan has develop under the influence of its unique history and geography. The traditional Turkmen nomadic lifestyle and the severe conditions of living in the desert have both shaped the culinary traditions of the Turkmen. Among the main features of Turkmen cuisine are its simplicity and low cost both in terms of ingredients and cooking methods. [Source: advantour.com <=>]
Turkmen national cuisine has a lot in common with cuisines of other Central Asian people, particularly the Uzbeks and Karakalpaks. However, it differs from them in a number of features, namely the large variety of fish dishes owing to Turkmenistan’s location on the Caspian Sea. Turkmen use different vegetables than Uzbeks and Tajiks and eat them in different ways. Radish and tomatoes are used more often. Onions are eaten raw and used as a seasoning. Pumpkins and carrots are rarely used.
Turkmen like to use mutton fat and sesame oil for frying and cooking meat, course-grain dishes sweets. The spices used in Turkmenistan are slightly different from the ones used in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Turkmen widely use red and black pepper, mint, wild parsley, azhgon ( a spice also known as jowan caraway, bishop's weed or carom that originated in the eastern Mediterranean, possibly Egypt,,buzhgun (galls of a pistachio tree). Instead of turmeric Turkmen use saffron and garlic.
Modern Turkmen cuisine is known for its dough-meat dishes. Ones similar to Kazakh beshbarmak are "gulak", "belke", "kurtuk". Manty are called "berek".Some people think they are unique Turkmen dishes but they are simply common Central Asian dishes with Turkmen names.
Turkmen Dishes include a surprising number of vegetarian dishes: cornmeal pancakes, herb-filled pastries, masishulye (mung bean porridge), pumpkin and corn meal, and kutab (pumpkin and spinach pie). The meat dishes tend to be heavy and laden with fat or grease. Among these are gouk (round bread with mutton fat), kuurma (lamb cooked in its own fat), lyulya kebab (seasoned mince lamb), shurpa (mutton, potatoes and vegetables with parsely and soul cream), kakmach (mutton with hot, spicy gravy), fat soup and camel intestine. From the Caspian Sea comes excellent caviar and delightful smoked sturgeon.
Turkmen like camel and sheep milk. They are used as the basis for fermented dairy products such as "agaran", "chal", "kara gurt", "telemeh", "sykman", "sargan". Cow milk is used for making creamy and melted butter, sour milk ("gatyk"), a special kind of sour milk called "suzmeh" and a hard cheese called "gurt" (curd). "Peinir" cheese is made from goat's and sheep's milk. Camel milk is used for making Turkman favorite beverage "chala".
Most dairy products are served with soups and main courses. To make suitli ash (dairy mash): put salt and sugar and washed rice in boiling water to make mash. In 20 minutes pour in hot milk and continue cooking on small fire for another 30 to 40 minutes. Serve with butter.
Turkmen Bread and Dough Dishes
Traditional Turkmen bread is called chorek. Among the most popular breads are various flatbreads made from sour dough (katlama) and yagly çörek (literally "oily bread"), a flaky, layered type of flat bread made with butter. Turkmen bread is prepared differently from other breads in the region in thick, round disc-shaped loaves baked in a traditional tamdyr clay oven. Bread baked with meat inside ("etli çörek," or "meat bread") can be consumed as a meal in itself. [Source: Wikipedia]
Turkmen have a special attitude toward bread. Cooking chorek is considered an art. The tandyr (a clay oven) where chorek is baked is considered the most sacred place in a house and chorek is always treated with respect as it were an honored guest in itself. Turkmen consider bread and salt sacred. Stepping on them, Turkmen believe, will bring misfortune. [Source: advantour.com <=>]
Bread in Turkmenistan and elsewhere in Central Asia is considered sacred. It should never be cut; rather its should be broken apart with the hands. It should never be placed on the ground, thrown away or turned upside down. If you have a big piece of bread, break it into pieces and give everyone around you some pieces. After breaking a piece of bread, people cup their hands together and pass them over their faces as if washing. Thus is a Muslim gesture of thanks.
To make Turkmen bread, stiff dough is rolled out in a thin layer, greased and rolled back. The roll is cut in strips which are folded in circles. The resulted circles are slightly pressed down and rolled out. A small hole is made in the middle. Flatbreads are fried in a plenty of oil. Chorek is slapped on inside of tandyr. <=>
Turkmen Dough Dishes
Turkmenistan is known for by various dishes made from flour. Among the most popular dough dishes are patties (gutap) with different stuffings and meat cakes (etli nan). Unleavened dough is used for cooking pel'meni (borek) and noodles (unash) seasoned with sour milk. [Source: advantour.com <=>]
Etli Borek (pel'meni) is made with flour, minced mutton, onions that are chopped twice, salt, pepper and water. Unleavened dough is rolled out, cut in strips. These are used for wrapping the minced mutton mixture. The ready pel'menis are boiled in salty water. They are served with sour milk or sour cream.<=>
Shilekli (deep fried patties) are made with dough kneaded with butter and eggs and thinly rolled out and cut in 15-by-15 -centimeters squares. A twice minced salted and peppered mixture of mutton and onions is put in the middle of the square and wrapped into triangular pouches. Then the patties are deep fried.
Gutap (patties with onions) is made with stiff unleavened dough that is rolled out to two 2 millimeter layer. Flat pieces are cut out and smeared with raw egg. A mixture made of finely chopped green onion, fennel, parsley and some butter is put in the center of the flatbreads and wrapped in the form of a half moon. The patties are fried in plenty of fat. They are served hot. <=>
Turkmen Meat Dishes
Turkmen have traditionally been animal herders and thus meat and meat dishes have been a central part of their diet as long as Turkmen have been around. Turkmen prefer mutton to all other meats. They also eat a lot of chicken meat but generally do not eat horse meat or pork due to their Islamic beliefs and deep love of horses. Turkmen generally cook meat in mutton fat and sesame oil. The most widespread meat dishes are: chorba, gainatma, dograma, pilav, govurma, govurdak, shashlick (kebap). Besides mutton game meat is very popular: partridges, hares, goitered gazelles. [Source: advantour.com <=>]
Meat is cooked in a traditional way is cut in small pieces of meat and fried in its own grease. Turkmen call this "govurma". Similar to Kazakh and Uzbek "kavurdaku", it is often used as a basis for other dishes. "Govurma" is considered delicious eaten both cold and hot. It is is used for cooking soup called "gara chorba". There are also dishes from boiled and stewed meat. Turkmen roast meat on hot coals (kebap, or a shashlick). "Keyikgzheren kebap" — regarded as a national dish of Turkmenistan — is a shashlick made from a young mountain goat meat. Turkmen and Tajiks like to bake meat in tandyr oven.
Turkmen people have their own cooking ways that are utilize dry hot winds and heated sands of the desert. Meat dried meat in the wind under the scorching is called "kakmach", or "garyn" in the dialect of the Tekke tribe. To make sausage the Turkmen way: a mutton bowel is rubbed with salt and spices and stuffed with finely cut pieces of meat and fat. Then the bowel is sewn up and buried inside heated sand during daytime. In the evening it is tied to a high pole until it is completely dry. After that the meat inside acquires a special pleasant flavor and can be stored for long time.
Gainatma is made with fatty mutton cut in pieces with bones and put into cold water with of onions. When soup starts boiling washed peas are added and the mixture simmers on a small fire. Twenty minutes before it is ready potatoes, tomatoes and spices are added.
Chekdirme is made with fatty chunks of mutton fried in fat until browned. Raw onions, tomatoes, potatoes cut in large pieces are added with pepper and salt and fried and then stewed in a little bit of of water. To make kokmach cut mutton into 10 to 15 centimeters strips and beat and tenderize. Then add salt, pepper and fry in mutton fat. Serve with french fries or rice. For govurma (fried mutton) cut bone-free mutton in pieces, add salt and pepper and fry until ready. Serve strew with fried onions and greens.
Steppe shashlick is made of mutton cut into 10 to 15 centimeter strips. These are used for wrapping a mixture of chopped onion, garlic, greens, salt and spices. The resulting shashlick is put on skewers and fried on hot coals. To make lyulya-kebab: mix mince mutton, onions, fat, salt and pepper and shape into small sausages that are fried in oil, stewed with onions and served with churek.
Turkmen Poultry and Fish Dishes
Trans-Caspian Turkmen are known for cooking up great dishes made from water fowl such as ducks and geese. Stewed stuffed poultry is a traditional dish of Trans-Caspian Turkmen served at many restaurant. To make it: A bird is plucked, singed and wiped dry and salt is rubbed on the inside. Stuffing is put inside and the bird is sewn shut and fried in sesame oil inside a pig-iron cauldron. After 20 minutes 1½ cups of water is added to the cauldron and the dish is stewed on small fire. Spices are added. The bird is constantly turned and basted. When all the water evaporates the bird is taken out. The remaining stuffing is cooked with water and already-prepared rice. When it almost ready salt and saffron are added. [Source: advantour.com <=>]
The bird is then put with its front downwards into a pit made in rice and cooked further on small fire for 10 minutes, and then left under the cover for another 10 minutes without the fire. Before serving the bird is cut into chunks. Rice and stuffing are put on different parts of a plate without being mixed. The bird is stuffed with onions, dried apricots, raisins, lemon juice, garlic, pepper and azhgon (zira). Vegetables and dried fruit are fried in sesame oil with spices and juices. The stuffing is to be left for 10 minutes until cool. <=>
Fish dishes are popular among Turkmen living on the shores of the Caspian Sea. They mainly use sturgeon, beluga sturgeon, herring, stellate sturgeon, sea and river pike, perch, catfish, mullet, sazan and kutum caught in the Caspian Sea and the rivers that flow into it. The pilav made in the Caspain Sea region is often cooked with fish. The type of fish used usually depends on waht fresh just-caught fish are available. These fish can be roasted on a roasting-jack, fried in cauldrons, or dried, stewed or boiled. Fish is normally served with sweet-sour sauce and spices. <=>
Salmon is sometimes used for cooking shashlicks ("balyk shara") and "govurdak" using the same cooking methods as meat. For "balyk shara" marinated pieces of fish are put on a roasting-jack alternating with onion rings and roasted on heated coals. For "balyk gavurdak" (as well as for ordinary "gavurdak") small bone-free pieces of fish are fried in own grease in a cauldron. Sometimes a little amount of sesame oil is used. Other fish dishes — "gaplama", "chyome", "balyk berek", "balykly yanakhly ash" — are much more complex. Some of them are similar to pilav and manty which are normally cooked from meat. <=>
Dograma, Pilav and Other Turkmen Feast Dishes
It is a well known that Central Asian people always serve up pilav at festive events and feasts. But it is not the only one. Among some of the others are are "Dzhazhyly bukche" — pelmeni (dumplings) made with sheep kidneys, liver, lungs and heart. To make it: carefully washed the sheep parts, cut them in strips and fry them in tail fat with salt. When semi-cooked, add eggplants, onions, radishes, tomatoes, Bulgarian pepper, potatoes cut in small cubes with finely chopped garlic and cayennes. This fragrant mixture is cooked in a cauldron. While it cools prepare the dough pockets. Stiff fermented dough is rolled out in small 15 centimeters circles. Put the cooled-down vegetable-meat mixture in a circle and make it into a little poach. The ready "poaches" are placed into the cauldron with boiling oil and fried until golden brown. [Source: advantour.com <=>]
Kazanlama is a dish with an ancient history that has traditionally been cooked in the desert with saxaul (a desert bush) and sand by shepherds. To make it cut a lamb carcass into large chunks and marinate them in salt, garlic and paprika. Let it soak while a turns fire becomes coals. Remove a thin layer of ashes and put the marinated meat directly onto the heated coals. When all chunks are in place the fire is covered with a big cauldron which in turn is buried in slightly wet sand which is carefully tamped. After about an hour, remove the cauldron, revealing juicy, chunks of lamb. The fragrant smoke from saxaul coals gives the meat a delightful, unique taste. <=>
To make Turkmen pilav cut moderately fat mutton into small pieces and fry it a small amount of of cotton oil, which gives it an original flavor. When the fried slices of meat become brown, chopped onions are put in the cauldron, followed by thinly cut carrots. When the entire water evaporates, the onions and carrots are ready. Then slightly salty hot water added and the entire mixture is cooked for another five to 10 minutes. After that rice is added. It should be applied evenly to cover the meat completely. After that the heat is turned up. When water is completely absorbed by rice the upper layer of rice should be carefully overturned and the entire dish is cooked further under the cover on small fire. The rice is ready when the grains turn yellow. The cauldron is removed from the fire and left to cool for another 10 minutes. The rice is then placed on a big plate and the carrots and juicy meat are placed on top. Traditionally pilav is eaten with hands.<=>
Dograma is eaten throughout Central Asia but Turkmen regard it an original Turkmen dish. Prepared for special events and religious holidays, this dish is said to be very ancient and is said to have been an integral part of sacrifices rituals. To cook dograma you only need fresh mutton, onions and bread. First bake chorek, traditional Turkmen bread. The dough is kneaded without yeast. While the bread is baking, mutton is cooked in a big cauldron with only salt and a few fresh tomatoes, The mutton should be boiled properly to ensure that meat easily separates from bones. The cooked meat is taken out of the broth and left to cool down. <=>
Often the entire family and invited neighbours participate in making dograma. Chorek is crumbled by hand into small pieces. Onion is very finely cut and mixed with crumbled chorek. Afterwards this mixture is wrapped in gauze and left for a while. Boiled mutton is mixed with chorek and onion crumbs. Fresh bread quickly absorbs the fragrance of meat and onion so even this "dry mix" is very tasty. Ideally the mixture is put into a cup with hot mutton broth and sprinkled with black pepper. <=>
Shurpa is one of the most popular Turkmen and Central Asian soups. To make it: cut potatoes in large cubes, put them in broth and bring them to boil; then add tomatoes, fried onions, carrots, flour, bay leaves, salt, pepper and cook until ready. Before serving, put a piece of boiled mutton and sour cream in a bowl. Ro make Shurpa-mash (soup with mash) put some rice in a broth and bring it to a boil, then add mash, carrots and onions cut in cubes, stewed tomatoes and cook. [Source: advantour.com <=>]
Dogroma chorba is made by boiling mutton, kidneys, the heart and lungs with addition salt, pepper and tomatoes. The cooked contents are taken out and cut in small pieces. Churek is broken into pieces and mixed with chopped onion. Meat, churek and onion are mixed and covered in broth and cooked until ready. To make nokudly chorba (pea soup with mutton) cut mutton with bones, put in water and cook with peas and pepper. Chop and stew onions then put them in the soup 15 to 20 minutes before it is ready. To make unash (bean soup bean with noodles) boil mutton and beans. After an hour add noodles, stewed onions, pepper and continue to cook until ready. Serve with sour milk. <=>
Umpach-zashchi (soup with flour) is made first by baking wheat flour in a frying pan with grease until brown color. Then dilute with water, and add finely cut stewed onion, salt, paprika and boil for a while. Serve strew with parsley or coriander. To make gara chorba (soup with tomatoes) cut mutton into pieces and fry until browned. Add chopped onions and fry together with the mutton, then put meat and onion into a deep bowl, fill it with water, add tomatoes and cook until ready. Before serving strew the soup with chopped onion. <=>
Kyufta - shurpa (soup with meat sausages) starts with peas cooked in broth. To make the the sausages mince the meat twice and mix it with semi-cooked rice, some salt, pepper and eggs and shape into sausages. Put potatoes into the broth, bring it to boil, then add stewed onions, carrots, sausages, tomatoes, pea broth and cook until ready. To make mastava (soup with rice and vegetables) cut beef into pieces, put in cold water and cook until ready. Then filter the broth and add potatoes cut in large cubes, tomatoes cut in quarters, stewed onions and carrots, rice, salt, pepper and bay leaves. Serve with sour cream and parsley or fennel sprinkled on the meat. <=>
Turkmen Desserts and Sweets
Turkmen sweets are mainly similar to the traditional sweets found throughout Central Asia, Turkey and the Caucasus. Halva, baklava, sherbet, navat, and bekmesam are particularly popular. Bekmes is a syrup or fruit juice concentrate made without added sugar. Often referred to as fruit honey, it is consumed both as a tasty drink, dessert topping or a dessert in its own right. There are many recipes to cook bekmes. Each Turkmen tribe has its own one, that takes into account which berries or vegetables are available.[Source: advantour.com <=>]
Nabat (navat, quinoa-shakeri) is made from different-sized sugar crystals grown on the threads. Turkmen nomads used to consume nabat as a kind of sweet. Nabat is produced through the recrystallization of sucrose from syrups saturated with sugar. Turkmen believe it has healing properties.
Baklava (pakhlava) is a traditional Turkish and Central Asian confection of flaky, puffed pastry with walnuts in syrup. It is traditionally made in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for Navruz. Halva is another traditional dessert associated with Central Asia. It is made from sugar, nuts, and oil crop seeds or wheat flour. The most common type of halva is sesame halva made from ground sesame seeds.
“Pishme” cookies and “chapada” crumpets are especially loved by the Turkmens. Pishme is made from diamond-shaped pieces dough fried in oil. Chapada is a kind of cake, the size of a small plate, made of dough and fried until golden brown. Melons and watermelons are a favorite food among the Turkmen people and often eaten instead of sweets.
Drinks in Turkmenistan
As is true throughout Central Asia, Turkmen drink a lot of tea. Green tea (gok chai) is drunk all the year round, at all hours. In the Turkmen language, "chai" can refer to eating a meal or sitting down for a visit. Black tea (gara) is consumed by Turkmen drink mainly in autumn and in winter is more popular in western Turkmenistan than in the eastern part of the country. Black tea is sometimes brewed with camel milk on coals. Traditionally, every tea drinker had his own china teapot and cup. In the Dashoguz region, it is sometimes drunk "Kazakh-style" with milk, often to disguise the salty taste of the drinking water in that area.. [Source: advantour.com, Wikipedia <=>]
Turkmen prefer camel and sheep milk. Cow milk is used for making "gatyk", a special kind of sour milk. A thick drinking yogurt similar to kefir, gatyk is often served with breakfast and sometimes used as a condiment on börek or manti, replacing the traditional sour cream. The best known Turkmen dairy products are "agaran", "chal", "kara gurt", "telemeh", "sykman" and "sargan". Most dairy products are served with soups and main courses. Sherbet is a traditional drink of Central Asia. In the old days, it was prepared from Cornelian cherries, or rose hips with the addition of spices. Today sherbet is made from fruit juices with spices and ice cream.
Bekmes is a syrup or fruit juice concentrate made without added sugar. Often referred to as fruit honey, it is consumed both as a tasty drink, dessert topping or a dessert in its own right. There are many recipes to cook bekmes. Each Turkmen tribe has its own one, that takes into account which berries or vegetables are available. "Berzenghi" is a popular mineral water.
Fermented Camel’s Milk and Alcoholic Drinks in Turkmenistan
Vodka is the most popular alcoholic beverage, due to its low cost, followed by beer, wine, brandy, and sparkling wine Turkmen wines are produced locally. The most popular brands are "Dashgala", "Yasman Salyk" dessert wine, and "Kopet Dagh" fortified wine. sine
The drink Turkmenistan is known best for is chal (fermented camel's milk). Turkmen, Kazakh and Karakalpak nomads have traditionally liked consumed it. Camel’s milk can be fermented because it has a high sugar content. An early morning glass of breakfast chal in Turkmenistan is said to wake you up faster than a double espresso.
Chal is called "chala". Elsewhere in Central Asia it is often called shubat. It is a white sparkling beverage that has a sour flavour. Because it is extremely perishable and requires very specific preparation procedures, it is generally consumed close to where its made, soon after it is made and presents great challenge for importers to ship outside Turkmenistan. Chala is similar to the Kyrgyz drink shoro. It is said Turkmen like put a dollop of agaran (a type of butter) on the surface of chal. [Source: Wikipedia]
After sampling chai, one traveler remarked: "I tasted the famous chal, fermented camel's milk, and it proved wonderfully cooling in the intense heat. To make chal, the cream is skimmed off the milk, and the milk is thinned with water and left to ferment slightly (that skimmed-off cream, when it too is fermented slightly, becomes agaran, a rich, thick and extremely nourishing treat)."
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016