Traditional Kyrgyz cuisine is centred mainly around meat, with a few staple dairy products. If you are wondering what on earth you are going to eat when you visit Kyrgyzstan, you are in for a treat. (Well, a food-adventure anyway). The food is a unique mixture of influence from cultures that surround Kyrgyzstan geographically. As well as foods that pretty much came along the Silk Road trading routes and jazzed it up a little.
We found it interesting to learn about the food in Kyrgyzstan, especially seeing as our understanding of Cyrillic is close to zilch. It’s hard to recognise smaller restaurants in the cities and towns. There are some larger brands that have signposting in Kyrgyz/Russian and English, but namely it feels like a guessing game.
Street food consists of pastry snacks and sweets. And based on the pastries, we found we could smell the signs of a stand or stall before we could hope to translate the visual signs. Each mealtime table is laid with fruits and treats like glass jars of grapes and packaged sweets. Tea is served with every meal.
Kyrgyz Cuisine you need to try
The following are nine Kyrgyz food dishes you do need to try in Kyrgyzstan. And for that one other dish; that I’ll leave as ‘optional’….
Beshbarmak is the most famous or iconic dish of Kyrgyz cuisine. I have to say I was confused on looking it up online… The first explanations to pop up described beshbarmak as being a direct translation for ‘five fingers’ because Kyrgyz people traditionally eat the dish with their hands. Now I am not sure about this entirely, given that it is a mainly (flat) pasta dish. But utensil choices aside, beshbarmak is pretty darn tasty.
Traditionally, horse or sheep meat was used in the dish. Nowadays it seems to vary quite a bit depending on where you are eating (in a city restaurant or nomadic family homestay). Cooked meat is served on top of traditionally prepared pasta that has been shaped into thin squares or strips. And beshbarmak is often served with a liquid meat broth on the side, or poured over the top.
We are big fans of plov. Similar to Indian pilau or pilaf, plov is a staple dish throughout Central Asia. In Kyrgyz cuisine, plov is mainly made of meat, carrots and rice. (Dried fruit and nuts are commonly used in plov made in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). So for us, plov was an easy go-to dish for mealtimes in Kyrgyzstan. And especially for the kids.
A unanimous favourite of Kyrgyz cuisine as voted by our kids. Pretty much as close to a flaky pastry samosa as you are going to get in Kyrgyzstan. Definitely make the most of that! The filling inside a samsa is usually made from mutton meat and onions, and it can sometimes have potatoes in as well. They are delicious hot but can be eaten as a cold snack at pretty much any time of the day. (These are one for your Kyrgyz-cuisine bucket list!).
Manti = dumplings. Say no more… Dumplings in Asia, as a general rule, are just awesome. In Kyrgyzstan, manti are usually made using a combination of beef, lamb, cabbage, pumpkin or potato. And just a warning (for deliciousness rather than dietary), often fat is added to the meat mixture inside manti.
In the city markets you can find stalls selling manti as an individual street food snack. Or you can order it in any roadside restaurant stop (added bonus: it’s easy to pronounce and therefore easy to order!).
Laghman is one of the most cooked dishes in Kyrgyz cuisine. It is a comforting noodle and broth dish that is easy to see where it gets it popularity. In Kyrgyzstan, it is considered a national dish of the local Dungan ethnic minority group that nowadays live largely in Karakol. (After our four days in Karakol we surmised that if the town was to have a signature dish, it would surely be laghman. Well, laghman or ashlyamfu, but I will get to that shortly).
Influence on the traditional roots of laghman originate in Xinjiang, a northwestern region of China. The name laghman translates to hand-pulled noodles, which describes the main ingredient of the dish. The fresh noodles are served with a thick soup or broth, and often some kind of meat.
Like laghman, Ashlyamfu is a popular dish in Kyrgyzstan particularly in the Karakol/eastern Kyrgyzstan regions. Ashlyamfu is a traditional dish of the Dungan culture. The Dungan people are indigenous of Eastern Turkestan, which is nowadays the state of Xinjiang, China. So, you might have guessed it; ashlyamfu is a noodle dish.
However, this noodle dish is not traditionally served hot. Ashlyamfu is more of a cold sand style of noodle dish. And in saying that, I am going to admit that for us, ashlyamfu is the one negotiable dish we found in Kyrgyzstan. (Even over kurut; they’ve grown on me!). Maybe because we spent quite a lot of time in the cooler, higher altitudes, that when we returned to lower altitude we weren’t quite ready for a cold meal. Or perhaps it is just one of those dishes. Regardless, you can’t leave Kyrgyzstan without at least considering it. You are in Kyrgyzstan, after all…
Kuurdak is one of the oldest dishes in Kyrgyz cuisine. It is a meat dish made with roasted meat and offal, fat or oil and fried onions. The meat is most commonly mutton, beef or horse meat. The onions and meat is fried first with a mixture of spices. In a restaurant, often the dish is served on a hot plate so it comes out sizzling. We had no idea what it was on a menu, but our driver insisted we must try kuurdak for lunch with him. I still don’t know what kind of meat we had at the time (or offal). But as they say, when in Rome…
I know I’ve written about this marginally unfavourably as an interesting dish of Uzbekistan too, but you probably do need to try kurut at some point. It is as strange as it sounds. Kurut is essentially small, hard and salted yoghurt balls made from goat milk. It is a popular snack in Central Asia and I could barely stomach it at first. Somehow (why?!) the taste grew on me a little, and I have to say it almost tasted nice as a snack alongside a cold beer as we sat out a yurt in Bokonbaevo.
Not exactly a Kyrgyz cuisine staple listed in the Lonely Planet guide for Kyrgyzstan (and don’t tell my Mum!). But Cognac in Kyrgyzstan is cheap. Like, crazy cheap. You can buy it in the tiny convenience stores that have rows of alcohol and Russian vodkas. A bottle of Cognac is around $6 – $10 USD. I’ve only ever tried cognac before (likely because in NZ it is around $100 NZD for a bottle!). So at first we thought maybe it was a cheap kind of whisky or rum that wouldn’t be too expensive to knock off. But it definitely didn’t taste like rum! Some of the drivers at Song Kol Lake had a bottle of ‘the best cognac’ they wanted to share with us. And I’ve got to say it went down a treat when it was zero degrees outside surrounded by snow-capped mountains…
Kymyz is a very traditional name in Kyrgyz cuisine. It is a drink made in many parts of Central Asia and Mongolia as well, using the milk from a horse (mare). The mares milk is fermented and definitely an acquired taste. The fermented milk is mildly alcoholic and hence somewhat of a ritual associated in the drinking and sharing of kymyz. Serving a bowl of kymyz to guests continues to be an important part of nomadic hospitality and so the ritual of sharing in a drink of kymyz is a key tenet of Kyrgyz culture as well as cuisine. Plus, the benefits of fermented horse milk are believed to strengthen gut health and improve digestion. Fresh kymyz is only available in the summer months when nomadic herders have their horses at pasture.
So what do you reckon? Would you give it a try? Leave us a comment below and tell us which one of the list you reckon could be negotiable…