Kyrgyz Cuisine: What to Expect as You Travel through Kyrgyzstan
What does traditional Kyrgyz cuisine look like? Food in Kyrgyzstan is heavily meat and dairy based with few spices, but hearty flavor!
Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic heritage has produced a unique group of dishes that constitute Kyrgyz cuisine. Because nomads in Kyrgyzstan were and are herders, meat is the main attraction in Kyrgyz dishes. As such, Kyrgyzstan’s traditional cuisine will pose challenging for vegetarians, mainly if traveling in the mountains and rural areas. Larger cities, however, have plenty of options available for the non-carnivorous. While Kyrgyzstan has adopted some dishes from neighboring countries, true Kyrgyz dishes have some of the following characteristics.
Most food in Kyrgyzstan has at least some meat in it, whether it is mutton, beef, or horse. Mutton and beef are more commonly used because horse is more expensive. Meat is usually boiled, not fried or baked. For example, one of the most traditional nomadic dishes served in Kyrgyzstan is called besh barmak. It’s boiled meat that’s then shaved and served over a fresh pile of noodles with some onions and sauce. Another example is monty: meat, onion, and fat-filled dumplings cooked via steaming.
Working hard at high mountain elevations, nomads feast on a lot of carbs and starches. Most dishes are served with lots of bread, rice, noodles, and potatoes. Bread is a staple at every meal, but it’s usually eaten plain, no butter, when it’s alongside a main dish.
Kyrgyz people do not add lots of spices to their food. Some dishes are served in a kind of broth or sauce, but the flavor is meant to subtly compliment the flavors already present in the dish, not cover them up. If you like spicy food, you’re generally out of luck in Kyrgyzstan. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the kind of spicy that makes you think you just swallowed a lava flow), Kyrgyz food is a 1 or 2 at best.
FRUITS & VEGETABLES
Farming wasn’t originally a popular vocation amongst the Kyrgyz, so fruits and vegetables weren’t as plentiful and as such, not used heavily. However, nowadays, farmers in Kyrgyzstan are producing some good quality organic produce and you will notice restaurants offering nice, fresh salads. Be aware though that the term “salads” in relation to Kyrgyz cuisine does not usually mean lettuce-based. Expect lots of tomatoes and cucumbers.
Fruits aren’t used in Kyrgyz dishes at all. They’re usually just eaten fresh or canned to make jam.
(It’s important to note that it’s possible to find dishes in Kyrgyzstan that look like meat and vegetable stir fries, but these dishes have been adopted from surrounding countries and do not represent authentic Kyrgyz cuisine.)
There are many dairy products in Kyrgyzstan since nomadic herders have so much access to it! You won’t notice dairy in dishes though. They’re usually a side item or a beverage. For example, the national drink of Kyrgyzstan is fermented mare’s milk, called kymyz.
Traditionally, many nomads cooked in a large pot called a kazan. Restaurants in the cities may not always use this method of cooking, but nomadic and village families still do. Imagine a kazan as a huge, heavy wok sitting over a fire. Some kazans are so big that families can boil an entire sheep in one!
If you’re traveling in Kyrgyzstan, try as many dishes as you can. You’ll find Kyrgyz people very warm, hospitable, and happy to introduce you to Kyrgyz food, whether they’re a waiter recommending a new dish at a restaurant or a guest house owner cooking a homemade meal for you during your stay.