Introduction to Central Asian Cuisine
Food’s an important part of any trip. We both worry and get excited about all the delicious things we might taste during our travels. We’ve put together a food guide so that if you’re about to embark on a journey through Central Asia, you’ll know what to expect. We’ll unravel the mystery of Central Asian Cuisine and such names as lagman, plov, manty, beshbarmak you’ll encounter on a typical restaurant or café menu. We’ll also give you a bit of background about the cultural and historical peculiarities of the region’s food habits. You’ll understand the basics of a Central Asian nomad’s diet based on meat and dairy, see how that differs from the settled people of the region with their love of vegetables, rice and noodles as well as the Russians who influenced the region when it was part of the Soviet Union. You can download our Central Asian Cuisine with pictures and a short description of meals to take on your journey.
Bread – Lepyoshka, Tandyr Nan, Patyr Nan – Лепешка /Нан
In Central Asia, a meal without bread is considered incomplete. It’s almost sacred here! You’ll find a variety of bread in stores and cafes, but the most common and popular one is a round shaped flat white bread. Typically, it’s baked in a fire oven known as a tandyr (tandoori). As you travel, you will discover that the taste and shape of this bread will vary slightly from place to place.
Boorsok / Baursak / Pishme (TM) – Боорсок/Баурсак
In Central Asia, little fried pieces of dough are made for special events or respected guests. They’re also served as appetizers in restaurants. They’re a bit like doughnuts, but not sweet. However, we do like to eat them with homemade jam or dip them in honey. Most restaurants, hotels, and guesthouses will serve them like this.
The salad that’s most typical in Central Asia is a tomato, cucumber and onion salad. The dressing can be mayonnaise or oil, but most often it’s just sprinkled with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs. Most of the salads are made with produce that’s grown locally. You can also get carrot, beet or cabbage salad. However, if you travel in summer, your seasonal salad will be tomato and cucumber.
However, if you’re in a larger city, or a restaurant with a more extensive menu, you’ll find a much wider variety of salads from which to choose. You’ll find everything from Caesar to Greek. Many local salads, soups, and meals include a generous portion of additional herbs like dill, parsley, chives or cilantro. Other herbs like basil, oregano, and rosemary are used less often in Central Asia. It’s best to try out the salad with herbs first, but remember if that makes the flavor too strong, you can always ask the chef to prepare a salad for you without them.
In Central Asia’s major bazaars you will come across stands with a variety of Korean salads. These spicy specialties are very popular among locals. They are home produced following old family recipes from the Korean families that were relocated to this region during the Soviet era.
Soups – Суп
Soups are very popular in Central Asia, even on the hottest of summer days. Shorpo or Shurpa is a meat broth soup with big pieces of meat, very often fatty mutton. Its other ingredients comprise pieces of carrot and potato and of course a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Variations of this soup also include noodles or beans cooked in the meat broth. They are very popular in mountainous regions of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Borsch – Борщ
As you might expect from the influence of Soviet times, borscht is also popular. This red beet soup originates from Eastern Europe and Russia and is now widely found in Central Asia too. It contains meat, usually beef, as well as potatoes, cabbage, red beets and a bit of carrot and onion to round out the flavor. It’ll be served with a swirl of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill, but you can ask for it to be brought to the table without this garnish.
Lentil soup – Чечевичный суп [Chechevichniy Sup]
You’ll find lentil soup on offer in many restaurants, especially in large cities. The best cream of lentil soup is served in the region’s Turkish restaurants. Lentil soup is also often served with a spoonful of sour cream – remember you can opt out of this if you wish – and a slice of lemon. The lemon can be squeezed into the soup to taste.
Plov |Pilaf |Paloo |Osh |Ash – Плов | Пилав | Палоо | Ош| Аш
There are around 200 varieties of plov. It’s so important that it is featured on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as listed by UNESCO. Nationwide competitions are held to see who can make the best plov. It is of great social and cultural significance to the local population and as a consequence, served at all big events and ceremonies. Its main ingredients are lamb or beef fried in a large kazan (cauldron) with onions and yellow or orange carrots. It’s cooked for around an hour. It can be served additionally with kazy (local sausage), eggs and, occasionally, with lemons. The best places to try plov in Central Asia are Samarkand, Penjikent, Shymkent and Osh, although every city and even family has its own special plov recipe.
Besh Barmak (KG) | Naryn (UZ) |- Беш Бармак
Besh Barmak literally means five fingers, as people used to eat it with their fingers in earlier times. It is the national dish of Kyrgyzstan but can be found also in neighboring countries. First, the meat is boiled for a couple of hours and in its broth, noodles are cooked. Afterwards, small pieces of meat are mixed with the noodles and onion broth sauce is poured over the top.
Kazakh Besh Barmak has large homemade pasta and large pieces of meat over it.
Kurutob/Qurutob – Курутоб
Kurutob is the national dish of Tajikistan. It is served in a large wooden plate in the center of the table and traditionally eaten by hand, however, nowadays it is also served with spoons or forks. Its main ingredient is a flat bread called Patyr or Fatyr made out of puff pastry. It is mixed with a salty dairy sauce, fresh herbs, tomatoes, and onions drizzled with hot oil. It has no meat. The best place to sample it is in Dushanbe.
Kuurdak – куурдак, куырдак, говурдак
Kuurdak is a one pot meal consisting of fried meat, potatoes and onions. Traditionally it is made from mutton or beef with a generous portion of fat. First, the meat is fried with onions and then stewed. When a sheep is freshly slaughtered, the liver, kidney and heart would be used in this dish. This is more common in homestays or guesthouses. In cafes, it is usually served just with meat and without such internal organs.
Chuchuk (Kyrgyzstan) | Sujuk/ Kazy (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan) – Казы
This traditional delicacy is served as an appetiser or together with national dishes such as plov and beshbarmak. It is a type of meat sausage, generously spiced with black pepper. It is basically horse meat with fat stuffed into thoroughly washed and salted intestines. There is also a smoked variety as well as the more commonly served fresh one; both are usually served cold.
Meat Skewer – Shashlyk – Шашлык
Shashlyk is a very popular meal in a region stretching from Central Asia to Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. It is usually made from mutton or beef; alternating pieces of meat and fat are well spiced and marinated. It is served with pickled onions. It can be ordered as an add on to the main national dishes or separately as a side dish. In many cafes you can also get chicken, chicken wings or assorted shashlyks, prepared just like at barbecues over hot coals.
Cutlets with a garnish – Kotlety s garnirom – Котлеты с гарниром
You could be forgiven for assuming cutlets are simply meat, but in Central Asia that’s not the case. This dish consists of minced beef mixed with bread, milk or butter, onions and sometimes herbs. The resultant patty is then fried in a pan or steamed in a special pot. It’s served with mashed potatoes, rice or buckwheat. Sometimes all three can be combined in one plate.
Laghman – Лагман
Lagman is basically handmade pulled noodles in a meat or vegetable sauce. The meat is usually beef, while the vegetables include bell peppers, garlic, onion and fresh herbs. Depending on the location, additional vegetables are added. It has numerous variations from soups to main course dishes. Plain Lagman is a soup, Gyuro Lagman is the one on the photo. Boso Lagman has fried short noodles. If you find the same sauce served with white rice the dish will be called Gan Fan. Its origins can be traced to China, to the Uighur and Dungan minorities of Western China.
Manty – Манты
Manty is a dumpling stuffed with minced meat, fat and onions. It is cooked over steam and served with ketchup, vinegar or sour cream. There are also variations with pumpkin or potatoes without meat, though you won’t find these in every restaurant. One portion usually comprises five dumplings. Small pieces of dough with a meat filling looking like ravioli are called Pelmeni, pieces filled with mashed potatoes are called vareniki.
Meat dishes are very popular in Central Asia. Meat is usually cooked right through, though a handful of places in the big cities will accommodate a taste for rare or medium steak, usually in international restaurants. Everywhere else, you will be served your meat well done. You can also take a look at a local menu in one of the renown restaurants of Bishkek – Supara with a variety of national and international dishes.
Samsy is another type of local fast food, sold almost everywhere in cafes in fast food chains or made at home.
Indian samosas, triangle-shaped dough stuffed with meat or vegetables, were introduced to India by Central Asian traders in the 13th and 14th centuries. In Central Asia, they are always stuffed with meat and onions, and unlike samosas, baked in the oven and never fried. Occasionally, you’ll find samsy with a cheese or potato filling.
Tandyr Samsy – Тандыр самсы
Tandyr samsy is quite different from regular samsy as it is baked in a special tandyr (tandoori). These are fire clay pot ovens. The dough is filled with meat, fat and onion stuffing, however, it has more sauce in it. It is usually served with a pot of tea or even a meat broth. You need to cut the hard bottom side, eat the inside filling with a spoon and then soften the dough in the broth or tea before you eat it.
PiroZhki – Пирожки
Pirozhki is a dough filled with mashed potatoes or cabbage. It is served with a tea as a starter or as a snack in the afternoon. It can be either fried or baked. Pirojki originated in Eastern Europe, becoming popular in Central Asia in the Soviet era.
Fast Food: Pizza/ Burgers/ Wraps – Pizza / Gamburger / Shaurma – Фаст Фуд /Пицца/ Бургер/ Шаурма
Fast food is widespread in Central Asia, although it’s only in Kazakhstan that you’ll find the international fast food giants like McDonalds or Burger King. In the other Central Asian countries, you’ll have to be content with local variations of burgers and pizza. You can even find pizza with traditional sausage. Outside the cities, there is practically no fast food. In rural areas especially, you’ll be served a diet of local cuisine instead.
Eating in Cafes & Restaurants of Central Asia
In Central Asia, when people go to a cafe or invite guests they set the table with different appetizers, various salads, fruits, vegetables, jams, honey, and sweets. The goal is to have a table full of delicious things with plenty of choice. If you order a salad, soup, main course and dessert, it might all come at once. You are not expected to finish all the food on the table.
Eating in guesthouses
Many guesthouses and homestays in the countryside serve dinner on the floor. The floor is covered with a tablecloth surrounded by special homemade cushions to sit on. It is often done for guests as an honor in a special dining room. Stepping on the tablecloth or stretching your feet towards the tablecloth is unacceptable – you need to tuck your feet in.
Another variant of sitting on the floor is to eat at a low table with short legs. You still need to sit on the floor, but the meal stays on the table. You might worry about finishing everything that comes to the table, but that’s not expected. It’s polite to leave something, symbolizing you had enough and your hosts provided enough food.
Desert and coffee – Desert i Kofe [Десерт и кофе]
Central Asia is a tea-drinking and meat-eating destination. If you need your coffee fix after a meal, you’ll need to head off to a cafe where you’ll also find a choice of cake and desserts. However, you’ll find such places aren’t cheap – a cup of coffee can cost almost as much as a meal, expensive by local standards. In homestays and local restaurants, coffee is usually of the instant variety. Pack a small electronic Italian coffee machine if you’re a fan of the brewed stuff.
Tea – Chai – Чай
It is served in small half-filled bowls. Serving a full bowl of tea is considered impolite, whereas a full Western-style cup of tea is OK. In some mountainous regions, you’ll also find black tea served with milk, salt and butter.
Special drinks and refreshments
Kyrgyz and Kazakh people drink fermented horse milk, called Kymys, Kumys or Кымыз. It has a unique, sour taste. In Kazakhstan, you can also taste camel milk, Shubat Шубат. It is a once in a lifetime experience to try, but be aware that you might not agree with your stomach if you’re not used to it! In Kyrgyzstan, especially in Bishkek, you will see national drinks everywhere: jarma, shoro and chalap. Jarma or Shoro is a brown drink made from a mixed grain brew and chalap is a white milky drink.
Fruits and vegetables – Овощи и фрукты [Ovoshi i frukty]
The best time to taste Central Asian local produce is summer and the beginning of Autumn. Most common fruits grown locally are apples, pears and apricots. In hotter areas, you can eat grapes, peaches, watermelons, melons, and pomegranates. In fact, apples come originally from Kazakhstan, Central Asia and peaches of Samarkand were famous as a luxury good during the golden age of the Silk Road.
Dried fruits and nuts – Sukhofrukty i Orekhi – Сухофрукты и орехи
Central Asians love dried apricots, raisins and all manner of nuts. Almost every table will have a plate filled with various dried fruits and nuts. In bazaars and supermarkets, you can find a huge variety of such products, perfect for taking with you as a snack for the journey.
Kurut – Курут
Salty white dairy balls are a popular snack for locals. They’re made of suzmo or drained cottage cheese. If mixed with water you will get the refreshing drink called chalap. If formed into balls and dried, it is called kurut.
Vegetarians in Central Asia
In large cities, there are a variety of restaurants and plenty of choice in the menu. Vegetarians could try manty with potatoes or pumpkin, lentil soup, plov cooked without meat, vegetarian pizza or side dishes like vegetables, potatoes, rice or pasta.
It gets a bit tricky outside those big cities, however, as most dishes are prepared in one pot with meat. You’ll have a hard time in some places convincing the locals that a vegetarian dish can taste good. They’ve been brought up with the notion that the best flavor comes from meat and, as you’re their honored guest, will want to offer you the best food they have – which means meat! As a vegetarian, it’s still possible to travel through Central Asia of course, but make sure your guide and hosts are clear that you don’t wish to eat meat. Your travel agent can assist you with this before you leave home or during any tour your guide can assist you.