FOOD IN KYRGYZSTAN
Food found in Kyrgyzstan maintains links to the country’s nomadic traditions and also is influenced by food from Russia, Turkey, the Middle East and other Central Asian countries. The staples of the Kyrgyz diet, and the diets of most of the traditionally nomadic people in Central Asia, are boiled mutton, flat, crusty round bread, rice and tea mixed with sheep or horse milk. Kyrgyz are very fond of horsemeat. Sour cream, yogurt and sausage are used to flavor dishes. Kyrgyz like soupy food. The sort of food that is eaten in the form of pasta by Russians is etaen as a soup by Kyrgyz.
Kyrgyz food is usually meat-based and the cooking of the food is carried out without much use of spices. Dairy products also constitute a large part of the diet. Pork is easier to get in Kyrgyzstan than other Muslim countries. Even so mutton and other sheep products are the main sources of meat, followed by chicken and beef. All parts of the sheep, including the eyeballs, brains, head and tail, are eaten. Mutton itself is often fatty. Kyrgyz consider horse penis and sheep’s head to be special treats. Camel meat and goat meat is served in some places.
Restaurant offer things lie “shashlyk” (kebabs), pilaf, dumplings, and noodle soup. Russian dishes such as boiled chicken and Russian Salisbury steak continue to endure in hotel restaurants. A few European, Turkish, Chinese and Korean restaurants have opened up in recent years. There is a good selection of fruits, vegetables, dried fruits and nuts in the markets in the cities. In the countryside fruits and vegetables can be hard to come by. The best Kyrgyz food is served in homes, not restaurants, and these includes simple, working-class, unpretentious dishes. Some B&Bs and guesthouses serve these kinds of meals. Of the beaten track the safest food is something well cooked. This is usually shashlyk cooked over an open fire.
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.
According to Advantour: Kyrgyzstan stood on the crossroads of the Silk Road, and the caravan routes which crossed the territory of modern Kyrgyzstan carried not only goods for trade, but also brought examples of various cultures: Roman and Greek, Turkish and Persian, Arabian and Indian, Chinese and Russian and these mingled with the culture and traditions of Central Asia. As a result Kyrgyz cuisine has absorbed elements from all of the cultures with which it came into contact, and although many dishes that you will find are common throughout Central Asia, it is still possible to find examples that have preserved their original, national identity. In many areas, such as Bishkek, Russian cuisine is common, but it is now possible to find examples from all over the world, including the all embracing “European”, Indian, Korean, Turkish and Chinese. Outside the cities local dishes, (such as Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Dungan) are more common. [Source: advantour.com]
“It is said that the food in Central Asia falls into three different types: the subsistence diet of the once nomadic peoples such as the Kyrgyz (mainly meat, milk products and bread); the diet of settled Turkish peoples (the Uzbeks and Uighurs) including pilaffs, kebabs, noodles and pasta, stews and elaborate pastries and breads; and dishes which come from the South (Iran, India, Pakistan and China) with more seasoning and herbs. Meat is central to Kyrgyz cooking - the nomadic way of life did not allow for the growing of fruit and vegetables – which means that vegetarian visitors may find it difficult to find dishes that, meet their needs.
“In Kyrgyz culture many dishes used to have special, ritual importance, and be connected with particular calendar holidays. Although these dishes are of great interest, unfortunately, many of them are being forgotten, and have fallen into disuse whilst some, which formerly had ritual contents, have lost their initial meaning and are progressively turning into every-day dishes.
Men are often considered to be the best cooks – many think that women spoil food cooked for others – although in the yurt the kitchen implements etc. are all stored on the women’s side of the yurt and hunting and implements to do with shepherding and livestock on the men’s side. In many ashkana’s (tea houses or cafes) and restaurants the chefs are men. Women cooks are more commonly encountered in those establishments serving Russian or European cuisines. Russian dishes such as Shchi or Borsh can be found in many places but staple items are Central Asian dishes such as manti, samsa, ploff, shashlik and laghman.
“One of the most essential features of Kyrgyz cuisine is that dishes should preserve their taste and appearance. For example, there are almost no dishes comprising puree, minced, or chopped meat, (although there are a few exceptions.) Also, Kyrgyz dishes tend to have a plain taste; sauces and spices are used in only small batches, although spices are used more often in the South. Sauces are intended only to bring out the taste of the dish – not to change it. [Source: advantour]
Boiled Mutton and Kyrgyz Nomadic Foods
Kyrgyz people engage in livestock breeding as their main activity, so their foods are closely related to their economic life; meat and diary product are their staple food. In the winter nomadic Kyrgyz have traditionally eaten hard, dried yogurt — curd — cooked with water, fat and pieces of bread. A staple of the winter, curd is slowly mixed with water into paste and mixed with bread and fat and heated. Round bread is another fixture of the Kyrgyz diet. Bread was traditionally prepared on a curved griddle that resembles a wok. During the winter women traditionally spent much of their time making bread and melting snow for water.
On the food eaten by Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan, Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: The Kyrgyz “eat yak-milk yogurt, fizzy and thick, and a hard cheese called kurut, which you soften in your mouth for several minutes before chewing. Also unleavened rounds of bread the size of pizzas. Meat is reserved for special gatherings. The closest to a vegetable is a tiny wild onion, no bigger than a pea.” [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]
Kyrgyz are Muslims so they don’t eat pork and other food restricted by that religion. Their main meat foods are mutton and beef. Sometimes they eat the meat of horses, camels and fish but they never eat the meat of dogs, cats, mice, donkeys, mules or raptors. Boiled mutton and the whole roasted sheep are the main dishes that they treat guests. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]
To make boiled mutton is very simple: 1) the head, skin and innards of the killed sheep are removed; 2) then the sheep is chopped into pieces along the body; 3) it is boiled in clean water; 4) blood and grease in the soup are discarded when the water boils; 5) Lastly salt is added and the cooked mutton is served. The boiled mutton is held in wood dishes and put on a table. People eat the mutton with their hand only or knife. That is why the dish is called mutton served by hands of onself. Although boiled mutton is easy to cook, it is said to be so delicious it doesn’t need any accouterments (some Westerners might debate this). According to Kyrgyz tradition, the sheep tail is given to honored guests and the eldest man to show respect. When eating mutton, people are expected to take the piece in front of them and and not pick around for a particular piece. ~
Most people eat four or five times a day, but only one large meal. The rest are small, mostly consisting of tea, bread, snacks, and condiments. These include vareynya (jam), kaimak, (similar to clotted cream), sara-mai (a form of butter), and various salads. Kyrgyz-style round bread has traditionally been served at all meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. A meal without it is regarded as incomplete. Kyrgyz drinks tea before and after lunch and dinner and drink water or nothing with their meals.
A meal typically begins with a special tea. Placed on the dostorkhwon (table) are different sorts of bread and dairy products like: boorsuk (conventional bread), katama (deep-fried refined-starch bread), lapeshki (round bread), kaimuk (sour cream), dry fruits, dairy products like butter and sweets. After tea, koumiss and small dishes such as chuchuk (a special dish that includes cooked horse fat sausages) and a lot of baked, boiled fried and meat are served. Following the appetizers, the main course is served. [Source: kyrgyz.net.my, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website]
Kyrgyz start their day with a light breakfast between 7:30am and 8:30am that usually consists cheese, curd, bread, honey, cucumbers and pickled cabbage. Lunch is served between 1:00pm and 2:00pm and usually consists, of bread, pilaf, soup and/or mutton. The meal is usually accompanied by water or a soft drink and followed by tea. Meals on Sunday tend to be bigger and have more dishes. A standard lunch on a boat or train is borscht, rice and a slice of overcooked beef.
Dinner is usually served between 6:30pm and 8:00pm, and typically consists of boiled chicken, beef, stew, pork cutlets or Russian Salisbury steak served with pilaf, potatoes, rice, vegetables and/or salad. A light dinner is based around leftovers from the midday meal, cheese, kielbasa, sandwiches, or pasta.
A larger, more formal Russian-style dinner usually begins with appetizers and soup, followed by a main meat course, accompanied by dark rye bread and butter, boiled or creamed potatoes, and salad or winter vegetables such as cabbage or carrots. The meal ends with cheese, fruit or a sweet dessert followed by coffee and/or vodka.
Eating Customs in Kyrgyzstan
The eating etiquette of Kyrgyzstan includes the placement of a white cloth — dostorkon — -over the eating area (may be a table or the floor). A meal ends with a thanks given to God with in the form of a loud “omin”. Picnics, especially, are served on a dostorkon. People are expected to sit with their feet either to their side or away from the dostorkon. Handle the food only with your right hand. At the end of the meal bring your two hands up to the face and drag them down as if washing the face and recite the word “omin” – the Muslim equivalent of “amen”.In many homes — unless it is a strict Muslim one — eating also involves drinking. When alcohol is served guests are expected to drink. Don’t think that you can drink just a little – once started it can be difficult to decline further rounds. [Source: kyrgyz.net.my, official Kyrgyzstan tourism website, advantour]
Bread is considered sacred by the Kyrgyz and must never be placed on the ground or left upside down. It is never thrown away, and leftovers are fed to animals. Do not start eating the food until the host invites you to the table. And, always let the eldest or honored guests try the food first. Hosts do not usually ask the "Would you like to drink something?" question, they just give it to you. At the end of a meal, a quick prayer may be said. This is from the Qur'an, but it honors the ancestors. The hands are held out, palms up, and then everyone at the table cover their face in unison while saying omen. Kyrgyzstan say it is a sin: 1) To leave your food on the table untouched; 2) To eat food while standing; 3) To treat any food scornfully. [Source: everyculture.com, fantasticasia.net ~~]
According to safaritheglobe.com: After you're seated, dining etiquette is fairly relaxed and rarely will a Kyrgyz be offended at your mistaken dining habits that don't translate. Once the food is served, and there may be multiple courses so don't overeat, you will likely find that the host will serve everyone. Unfortunately, this means you must eat what you are served, and as a guest of honor, that could be a sheep head. You'll probably also be served kymyz, which is mare's milk, especially if you visit in the summer months. [Source: safaritheglobe.com ]
You may find that there are utensils (cutlery) present and if so use them in any manner you prefer, but ideally in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left). On other occasions though you will be expected to eat with your hand; be sure to only use your right hand to eat. You'll also be served flat bread with your meal, which must be eaten in its entirety and placed directly on the table when not eating it; again use your right hand to eat your bread. When the food is finished, you will likely be served tea. Be sure to join in on this local favorite and socialize to close the meal.
There are special seating arrangements for guests. The eldest person or honored guest is usually invited to sit either at the head of the table, or "tyor" they call it in Kyrgyz (the seat most distant from the door). Young people or hosts sit by the door to act as "waiters". They bring and take away dishes, pour tea, and do other things. In general, the younger you are, the more work you do. Going to somebody's house take some sweets or souvenirs for children. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
During holidays and personal celebrations, a sheep is killed and cooked. In the north, the main course is beshbarmak, which is accompanied by elaborate preparations. The sheep is slaughtered by slitting its throat, and the blood is drained onto the ground. Then the carcass is skinned and butchered, and the organ meats are prepared. The intestines are cleaned and braided. The first course is shorpo, a soup created from boiling the meat and organs, usually with vegetables and pieces of chopped fat. The roasted sheep's head is then served and distributed among the honored guests. The fat, liver, other organs, and the majority of the meat are divided equally and served to the guests, with the expectation that they will take this home. Guests receive a cut of meat that corresponds to their status. The remaining meat goes into the besh-barmak. It is shredded into small pieces and mixed with noodles and a little broth, which is served in a communal bowl and eaten with the hands. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
In the south, the main course is most often plov. The sheep is killed and prepared in the same manner as in the north. Shorpo also is served, and the meat, fat, and organ meats are shared and taken home in the same way; however, it is rare for the head to be eaten. Plov is served in large platters shared by two or three people, and often is eaten with the hands. For a funeral and sometimes a marriage, a horse will be killed instead of a sheep. The intestines are then used to make sausage.
Horsemeat and Unusual Foods in Kyrgyzstan
At feasts the guest of honor is given the right eyeball of a grilled sheep and eats it while the other guest applaud. He second most honored guest receives the left eye, the next two are given the ears. See Below
Horse meat including offal is a popular delicacy in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where nomadic traditions have been revived since the collapse of the Soviet Union."Chuchuk" is a traditional horse meat sausage. Homemade horse sausage sells for about $3.25 a kilo. It is said to be made from “the best part of the horse.”
In the old days, Kyrgyz were fond of eating horsemeat and lice. One 19th century naturalist wrote: “Our host’s son was deep in sleep...Meanwhile his affectionate and devoted wife profited the opportunity to clean his shirt of the vermin [lice] swarming in it...She systematically took every fold and seam in the shirt and passed it between her glistening white teeth, nibbling rapidly. The sound of the continuous cracking could be heard clearly.”
Five Years in Jail for Insulting Kyrgyz Horse Sausage?
A Scottish gold miner was arrested on charges that carry a five-year in term for comparing Kyrgyz sausage to a horse penis in front of local Kyrgyz at a mine where he worked. Ben Farmer wrote in The Telegraph, “Michael Mcfeat was arrested under race hate laws in the country after his remarks on Facebook about the horse meat sausage known as chuchuk caused a temporary strike. The 39-year-old posted a picture showing people apparently in a canteen, saying his colleagues were queuing out of the door for their "special delicacy, the horse's penis". [Source: Ben Farmer, The Telegraph, January 3, 2016 |*|]
“An interior ministry spokesman told the AFP news agency that Michael Mcfeat, who works as a Welding Superintendent for Toronto-based Centerra Gold, was detained by police after posting the comment. Mr Mcfeat, of Abernethy, Perthshire, now faces racial hatred charges, which can bring three to five years in prison under Kyrgyz law. He later removed his comments and apologised. He said: “I truly never meant to offend anyone and I'm truly sorry as it was never my intention." |*|
“His parents, John and Marilyn, said their son had simply posted "praise" together with a picture of him and his colleagues enjoying a New Year's Eve meal. John Mcfeat, a 63-year-old farmworker, said their only son had meant "nothing bad". He said: "He's out there as a supervisor welder to help the Kyrgyz, and it was a New Year's meal and he was praising everything that the chef had done, but its just gone crazy... "He said it was a lovely meal, with the local delicacy, horse sausage meat, but he put 'horse penis'. |*|
“Michael's mother Marilyn, 62, said: “It was just a throwaway comment. He said it was an amazing meal. We want to be careful what we say, so nothing is misconstrued, but if this so serious, as it appears to be, should somebody not have been in touch with us?" Michael's wife Amanda, 40, a book-keeper, added: "It was just a Hogmanay feast, and put up a picture of his colleagues at the meal and praised the chef and said the Kyrgyz were queuing out of the door for their special delicacy, the horse's penis.” The British embassy confirmed it was looking into the case. A spokesman said: ““We are in contact with the local authorities after a British National was detained in Kyrgyzstan and are ready to provide consular assistance.” |*|
Clay Eating in Kyrgyzstan
Clay eating is a common practice in Kyrgyzstan. Describing some clay hunters at work in a sand pit near Naryn, Ethan Wilensky-Lanford wrote in the New York Times, “Scanning the ochre earth, they fanned out, approaching three-meter, or 10-foot, cliffs on other side of the site. Plucking a clump of dusty earth as if picking fruit from a tree, the younger of the two popped a sample in her mouth, letting the dirt float on her tongue like a lozenge...’It’s oilier here, tastier.’...Her companion after homing in on a good site, ‘It was too salty over there, and not very good...This is a bit more fatty,’ she said, smacking here lips to savor the flavor.” [Source: Ethan Wilensky-Lanford, New York Times, August 10, 2005]
“Saginova and Kasmanbetoba use their strong stubby finger to crumble handfuls of earth into raisin-sized lumps, which they daintily place on their tongues with grace and ease that appear well-practiced and ordinary, like a shopper sampling nuts at a bulk market. They sample dozens of deposits in several minutes, and, after finding a promising site, break apart large chunks of clay into manageable pieces, which they drop into plastic bags to bring home.”
Pregnant and women and women who are anemic are said to be among the most avid consumers of clay, believing it is rich in minerals and vitamins. Doctors however generally discourage the practice. The director of a medical institute in Bishkek told the New York Times, “There’s more trash in here than iron. You go straight to the devil if you eat this clay. The people are sick. When they have low iron, they develop the desire to eat this clay, plaster, chalk, or uncooked meat. They’ll eat eggshells, pull the bark off trees. It’s even written in the medical literature that they will eat building materials.”
The clay is known locally as gulpota. There are many people who eat it who don’t appear to have iron deficiencies. One women interviewed by the New York Times in the Osh bazaar in Bishkek said she began eating it to prolong her life and said she prefers the chalky, grey clay from the Batken region more that red iron-rich clay from Naryrn. After purchasing a half kilogram of the stuff for around 12 cents she said, “This one tastes like butter. It’s sweet, not too salty, this Batken clay, and very good. It doesn’t scratch your teeth, like sand. This is from nature, and only found in Kyrgyzstan.”
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.
Last updated April 2016