Kyrgyz food

by Pam Jeffcoat

samsa (not tandoori, but tasty anyway) Ten years ago, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, one of the small republics above Pakistan and Afghanistan and bordering Western China. Along with several of its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan had been a Soviet republic since the 1920’s. However, when I was there, many Russians who’d lived there for a couple of generations were moving out, and Kyrgyz traditions were becoming more widespread. The people who call themselves “Kyrgyz” traditionally were nomads, excellent horsemen, and sheep herders. Now they mostly live in Soviet block apartments, but traditionally they lived in yurts, like Mongolian yurts. Their language is related to Turkish and Uzbek, and they are Muslim, sharing many religious and cultural traditions with other Turkic peoples throughout Central Asia. During my time in Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan, I experienced not only Kyrgyz and Uzbek food, but also some of the customs surrounding food which I’d now like to share.

As you might expect, much of the traditional Kyrgyz diet is centered around sheep, although they use horsemeat as well. There isn’t a lot of cattle in this area, and pork is not eaten as it is generally not allowed in Islam. Most meat dishes by default contain sheep, “koi et”. If there is to be a village celebration, someone will say “We’ll cut a sheep.” They mean cut its throat. I referred to this once as “killing” a sheep and my neighbors looked at me like I was crazy. “You don’t say “Kill.” That’s what you say about a person. You just CUT a sheep.”

The sheep has different parts, and special ones are given to the guest of honor at the celebration. The head is cut off and roasted and put in the middle of the table (or floor, if there is no table) and at some point the eyes are cut out and offered to the more important guests. At a feast, the first course might be broth with sheep in it, the second might be dumplings containing sheep and onions (called “manti”), but the main course would likely be “plov”, pilaf in other languages, a dish made largely of rice and –you guessed it – sheep. To make plov, get a kazan (sort of a heavy, deep version of a wok). It could be the size of half your stove top, or an outdoor version might be big enough to give a large child a bath in. Heat up about a quart of sheep oil and fry small onion and carrot strips in it. Then add chunks of sheep (or beef) and fry some more. Then add water and rice, cover and cook until done. A more Southern version could also include chickpeas, raisins or “aiva,” quince – which looks kind of like a granny smith apple covered with fuzz, and tastes like Styrofoam until cooked.

shorpo (soup)mantiplov

pictured above: Meatball Soup, Manti, Plov

People in Kyrgyzstan don’t think about food in terms of calories, and don’t go out of their way to exercise. Yet they are mostly not fat, and certainly don’t have the obesity problems America does. They place a high value on fat, and meat dishes are not considered tasty unless there are at least a few chunks of solid fat in the dish. Fat is considered the best part of the dish and essential to life. Kyrgyz people could never understand why I, the weird American girl, avoided the fat parts of their dishes and also went out of my way to go jogging and get other forms of exercise. Looking back, I can see they had a much healthier concept of food than I did. They valued food as a sacred thing and did not waste it. Bread had to be broken a certain way, and if you turned it upside down and broke it the wrong way, you would be scolded. Guests were lavished with food, and on feast days the tables were piled high, but on regular days portion sizes were not big. There was not much in the way of desserts.

One healthy aspect of the Kyrgyz attitude toward food was just logistics. There was not much prepared food or junk food available on the street, and what there was, was too expensive for most people. There were few to no restaurants, and again, they were expensive. People had to prepare their own food. Also, “preparing” meant more than it does here. There were no microwaves. In order to just make rice, you first had to “clean” it, meaning sift the little rocks out of it so you wouldn’t break your teeth.

When a meal was over, everyone would put their hands together and say “amen” as the official closing of the meal. Then they would go about their business until the next meal. Nobody snacked, and you would not see people walking down the street eating candy bars or sipping Starbucks drinks. It was not considered polite to walk around eating. An exception to this rule was semechki, sunflower seeds, which were sold on the street – not packaged, but scooped up in old newspaper clippings for a few cents. One way to pass the time was to crack open semechki and spit out the shells.

The one “fast food” I did see people eating, and which I learned to adore, was samsa, pockets of dough with meat, onions and an obligatory piece of fat, slow cooked in a tandoori-style oven and available on the street. These were also packaged in pieces of old newspaper.

With all the emphasis on meat, you might wonder about fruit and vegetables in the Kyrgyz diet. That depends entirely on the season. In the summer, you will find every variety of fresher, better-tasting fruits and vegetables than I’ve ever found in a U.S. grocery store. Of course, organic is all they have. In the winter, you can only find potatoes and a weird type of green turnip.

Kyrgyz people pride themselves as being more hospitable than anyone else in the world, and this has to include food. A standard way of being friendly includes “inviting someone to tea.” It didn’t take me long to realize that “tea” never meant just tea, but actually an entire meal where I would be the guest of honor. “Come to us for tea” meant I’d be spending all afternoon and into the evening with my hosts. Food was the main way to show friendship. Sometimes, when I have no time for lunch and I find myself needing to drive by a fast-food place and "grab something" to eat in my car on my way to the next meeting, I find myself missing the unhurried pace of the Kyrgyz village and the calm and sane manner people went about eating there.

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