The Traditional Food of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz food is the product of a long history of pastoral nomadism and is overwhelmingly meat-based. Those with vegetarian fixations may wish to revise their habits or purchase their own fresh fruits, vegetables, and fresh bread from one of the many small stands or food bazaars that are ubiquitous in every city. While people from the West are programmed to think of large vegetables as desirable, small and flavorful is the rule here. Washing vegetables before consumption is recommended.

Besh barmak (“five fingers”) is the national dish of Kyrgyzstan. For preparation, a sheep or horse is slaughtered and boiled in a large pot. The resulting broth is served as a first course. The meat is then divided up between those at the table. Each person in attendance receives the piece of meat appropriate to their social status. The head and eyes are reserved for guests of honor. The remaining meat is mixed in with noodles and, sometimes with onions, and is traditionally eaten from a large common dish with the hands, although nowadays more often with a fork or spoon.

Most other dishes encountered in Kyrgyzstan are common to the other countries of Central Asia as well. Plov or osh is a pilaf dish that at a minimum includes julienne carrots, onion, beef or mutton, and plenty of oil. Manti are steamed dumplings that normally contain either mutton or beef, but occasionally pumpkin. Somsa are meat (although sometimes vegetable) pies that come in two varieties: flakey and tandoori. Flakey somsa are made with a phyllo dough while tandoori somsa have a tougher crust, the bottom of which is meant to be cut off and discarded, not eaten. Lagman is a noodle dish associated with Uyghur cuisine. The basic ingredients of lagman (plain noodles and spiced vegetables mixed with mutton or beef) can be fried together, served one on top of the other, or served separately. Shashlik (shishkebabs) can be made of beef, mutton, or pork and are normally served with fresh onions and vinegar.

Almost any Kyrgyz meal will be accompanied by tea (either green or black) and a circular loaf of bread known as a lepeshka. The bread is traditionally torn apart for everyone by one person at the table. In the south of Kyrgyzstan, this duty is reserved for men, but in the north it is more frequently performed by women. Similarly, tea in the north is usually poured by women, while in the south it is usually poured by men.

At the end of a meal, Kyrgyz will normally perform a prayer. Sometimes some words are said, but more often the prayer takes the form of a perfunctory swipe of the hands over the face. Follow the lead of your host or hostess to avoid making any cultural missteps.

Tea and vodka are the primary drinks of many Kyrgyz residents. There are numerous different varieties of teas and vodkas. In addition, you can find many western soda brands including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, all authentic.

Kyrgyz have their own cognac distiller, which produces excellent, albeit highly sweet cognac, with the preferred brand being Kyrgyzstan Cognac, which the locals sometimes call Nashe Cognac, meaning our cognac.

No trip to Kyrgyzstan wouldn’t be complete without trying Kymyz, pronounced Koo-mus made of fermented horse mare’s milk. Many roadside stalls in the spring sell this sour beverage to passer-byers. Most Kyrgyz will claim outrageous health benefits to drinking it.

You can also find an excellent selection of local and imported beers as many Kyrgyz have been taking to drinking beer versus harder liquors. Locally produced beers include Arpa, Nashe Pivo, and Karabalta. Arpa is highly recommended by beer connesseiurs. While being considered a common person’s beer, it’s style is somewhat similar to an American Pale Ale (less hoppy than it’s Indian counter-part).

There are also a multitude of bottled waters (gas and no-gas) from various regions of the country. Especially popular with southerners is the slighly saline Jalalabad Water. There are also numerous stands selling non-alcoholic fermented grain drinks highly popular with the locals, called Shoro.