I remember the first time I set foot in a yurt to share a meal with nomads. One of their baby goats was trying to “innocently” weasel their way in the door, was promptly shooed out, and everyone took a seat. As my eyes swept over the low-set table surrounded by colorful mats, animal skins, and a samovar (teapot for drinking in bulk) sitting next to our hostess, I couldn’t believe how many milk-based products I saw spread out on the table: heavy cream, kurut, freshly churned butter, milk for tea, kymyz, etc! After gawking at it all, I realized I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nomadic herding culture = natural milk factory. Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about lactose intolerance! A nomadic lifestyle is the very foundation of Kyrgyzstan’s culture, and as such, influences the cuisine of Kyrgyzstan. Travelers can expect to find huge quantities of dairy products weaved into the everyday Kyrgyz diet. Here are some of the most well-liked products you might stumble across:
Kymyz is mare’s milk that has been lightly fermented and is a staple in nomadic Kyrgyz culture. Horses roam and are bred all around Kyrgyzstan, so it stands to reason that the national drink comes from their milk. If you are lucky enough to be a guest in a nomadic household, you will undoubtedly receive a bowl of kymyz as a sign of your host’s hospitality. Kymyz has a reputation of being a cleanser for your body. Some people even go on kymyz-only diets for weeks to clean out their systems. If you’d like to pick up some kymyz during your visit to Kyrgyzstan, it’s sold fresh from May to August. While you can find it other times of the year, it’s best in the summer.
Kurut is a milk-based snack you’ll find people selling on the side of the road all over the country. It’s basically strained yogurt that you let dry, then roll into balls. Different people add different things to it, but in general, it ends up tasting pretty salty. Kurut in Kyrgyzstan comes in different sizes, but it’s a nice, cheap snack especially while you’re on the road.
Chalap is made up of dense, fermented milk, salt, and carbonated water. It’s a drink that I think is an acquired taste if you haven’t grown up in Central Asia. When I first tasted it, I felt like I was drinking smoked cheese.
Jarma is another drink with a dairy component. It’s made of ground grain which are boiled in water, left to cool, then mixed with a kind of yogurt. When you drink it, you’ll notice that the end result is actually a bit carbonated.
Kaimak is my favorite dairy product in Kyrgyzstan: thick, fresh cream! Just scoop it up with some borsok (fried, airy dough balls) and then dunk it all in some homemade jam. It doesn’t get much better than that, folks!
So if you’re a traveler making your way through Kyrgyzstan, give these drinks/foods a try at least once. You might be surprised how many of them you end up enjoying. If you want to ease into things, I suggest starting with kaimak, them moving on to either kurut or kymyz. Additionally (and most importantly), you earn some serious points with locals if you can say you’ve tried all these national products!
Photo from source: www.mountpix.livejournal.com, photo by Eric&Vivi