Central Asia is, simply put, not a culinary destination. While there are some regional dishes of note, which when well-prepared are tasty, none would rank among the world’s most delicious, and restaurants offering a truly high standard of skill and quality are quite rare. Sheep fat is the predominant recurring theme. So often do we find ourselves longing for the edible delights of China, or Thailand, or almost anywhere else in the world… sigh.
First, some classic dishes served all across Central Asia. (Given the common Turkic background of most of the Central Asian ethnicities, and with surprisingly little variation in Tajik areas, the cuisine is fairly similar throughout the region.)
The food most dear to a Central Asian’s heart, I think, would be shashlyk, or meat on a skewer. Now, it may almost be a stretch to call this a “dish,” but it is definitely one of the most common foods eaten out (as in Iran and Turkey, I suppose, although the Central Asian variety is decidedly inferior). Shashlyk is usually chunks of lamb meat, and not the ground sort that is called kofte in Turkey and kubideh in Iran, sometimes alternating meat/fat/meat/fat. The fat is especially prized by Central Asians, although we usually just spit it out after taking a nibble for flavor–in fact, we often do the same with the bits of meat because it can be impossible to separate it from the fat.
With roasted vegetables (not too common)
A common site–a man fanning a shashlyk fire
Plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan (derived from Iranian polo, I suppose), is available in other parts of Central Asia as well. The plov pictured here, from Bukhara, was surprisingly good–often, plov is way too greasy (on the upside, no chapped lips!).
In pan, a mountain of plov next to a pool of fat
Served up, topped with sweet stewed carrots, reconstituted raisins and meat
Dumplings exist across the entire stretch of Asia from Korea to Turkey, and are even called by the same name (mandoo in Korea, manti in Turkey as well as in Central Asia, both derived I believe from the Chinese mantou). Central Asian manti is generally filled with bits of lamb, lamb fat and onions. This picture probably makes them look more appetizing than they are (not only chapped lips, but glossy cheeks!).
The younger brother of the manti, chuchvara, which are really quite similar to Chinese wantons. Chuchvara are similar to (Russian) dumplings called pelmeni, which are sometimes served in soup.
Just as manti exist horizontally across Asia, samosas exist vertically from the Indian subcontinent into Central Asia. One of the most common snacks, somsas can be triangular or square. Here, some huge ones sold at a bus station.
In the oven (called a tamdyr, similar to the Indian tandoor)
My favorite Central Asian food, although one that really varies in quality. Generally, laghman (from the Chinese lamian, I believe) is better the closer to China you are. In an Uzbekistan homestay I once had it made with instant noodles, another time with spaghetti–a travesty, really. In Kyrgyzstan it was often delicious. [Addendum: Laghman as served in Xinjiang China has become one of my favorite foods in the world.]
One is often served basic soup, or shorpa (similar to Indian shorba). This soup has some stuffed vegetables, or dolma (just as in the Mediterranean)
A simple but tasty stew that we were served at a guesthouse. We think that this (in contrast to shashlyk) is close to what Central Asians eat on a day-to-day basis at home.
Everything of course is served with bread. Big and beautiful, bread (generally called nan, as in India) is central not only to the meal but to the hearts and cultures of all of the Central Asian nations. The patterns are made with special stamps.
On display in Bukhara
Most famous (although in my opinion not most delicious), the nan of Samarkand
Just as important as bread is the local beverage of choice, tea. Tea in Central Asia is surprisingly high quality, and you often have the choice of black or green, although green is more common. You are usually served tea with a plate of snacks and copious amounts of bread.
Moving on to country-specific specialties:
Shirchai, tea with salt and yak butter eaten with chunks of bread torn in, was described to us as the “national food” of the Pamiris. We believe that this is similar to other salty buttery tea drinks served in high altitude areas such as Northern Pakistan and Tibet.
Breakfast in the Pamirs or in Kyrgyzstan was usually a rice porridge, sometimes served with an odd sauce that looked like vegetable oil. It tastes like it looks, although Derek liked it with butter and sugar added in.
The Kyrgyz, living as they do among milk-producing animals, always have on hand all sorts of dairy products, some of which are better than others. Some butter and cream served with bread.
What to do with all the dairy? Some of it is dried into little cheese/yogurt balls sold throughout Central Asia. People often snack on these, and like to hand one to visitors, which puts one in an uncomfortable situation because the balls are often quite difficult to eat–hard as a rock, chalky and extremely strong-tasting. But good with beer, we are told!
Another Kyrgyz specialty, the “national dish” if you will, is beshbarmak, which is noodles with lamb. The concoction tastes more or less like sheep fat, a flavor we have become quite accustomed to at this point. The second is beshbarmak Kazakh-style, which is apparently made with much wider noodles and soupy.
In addition to more purely local food, Russian and even Korean food is often available in Central Asia. The Korean food is generally served by ethnic Koreans, who were forcibly relocated by Stalin from the Russian Far East (near Vladivostok near Korea) to Central Asia because he was afraid of their possible allegiance to Japan (which seems like a rather quacky idea to me).
What I believe would be described as goulash, with various salads, served in Osh
Food served in a Korean restaurant in Uzbekistan. As you can see, it’s not what a Korean from Korea would consider Korean food (it was served with bread!), but it was tasty nonetheless.
Perhaps more recognizably Korean is kykcy (from Korean guksu), which is a sort of Russified/Central Asianized naengmyun.
Finally, can’t forget the fruit! Central Asia has a wealth of fruit, especially melons and apricots/peaches/plums. Much of this is available in dried form, along with a variety of seeds and nuts well in excess of what you can find in most other parts of the world.
Watermelon for sale
Dried fruit and nuts