The Kyrgyz were until very recently, nomadic, and this reflects in their food – simple, hearty, meaty dishes, often high in fat to get you through the cold winters and to provide you with energy for all the hard work and horse riding they traditionally would do. Likewise, until even more recently, Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, and this played an equally important role in the development of modern cuisine. If you’ve travelled through other former Soviet and/or Central Asian republics, many of the dishes will be familiar – Pelmeni, Manty, Shashlik, Shorpa, Blini and of course Plov. Then you’ll come across some of the more unique dishes such as Lagman and Beshbarmark, and drinks such as Kumyz (Mares’ milk!).
Beshbarmak is one of the national dishes of Kyrgyzstan, which it shares with Kazakhstan who also consider it one of their most important creations. Beshbarmak is made of horse meat (although sometimes mutton or beef is used instead) cooked in a broth and served over handmade flat noodles. The name Beshbarmak means “five fingers” in most Turkic languages including Kyrgyz, and traditionally was to be eaten with one’s hands.
Beshbarmak is usually served on a large communal plate and is shared, especially at special occasions such as Nowruz, New Years Eve, or weddings. When mutton is used instead of horse meat, often the sheep’s head is placed on top of the dish. Likewise, when the dish is the traditional horse meat style, it’ll often have horse sausage on top as well as the chunks of meat cooked in the broth.
A very simple but extremely popular dish consisting of fried meat and onions. The word Kurrdak literally translates to roast/fried and is usually made with mutton.
More like a salad in many ways, Ashlan-fu comes from the country’s Dugan minority (originally from China) and consists of cold noodles, jelly, vinegar, and eggs with a spicy sauce. It’s popular in the summer, as a light and refreshing meal in hot weather.
Most people will tell you that Lagman is a Uyghur dish from the west of China and most evidence shows this is where the dish originated. Bordering China has meant that there is some influence on their cuisine and Lagman is one of the great imports. Extremely popular all over Kyrgyzstan, Lagman consists of thick noodles with peppers, onions, and tomatoes in a spicy vinegar-based sauce. In many ways it is similar to lots of noodle dishes you would find in China.
Another Dungan inspired dish that is popular throughout Kyrgyzstan. Ganfan f eatures a similar spicy meat and vegetable sauce as Lagman, but it is served over rice instead of noodles.
Meat and many types of local vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, onions and even some local fruits are cooked in a large, sealed pot and left to slowly stew in their own juices.
A staple across all of the former Soviet Union, if you eat meat it’s hard to go past Shashlik. Big chunks of your favourite meat cooked on skewers over hot coals. Most Shashlik restaurants sell cheap beer and have great outdoor dining options for those beautiful Kyrgyz summer nights.
Shorpa is a ubiquitous soup known Central Asia all over. Meat and vegetables in a hearty and simple soup always served with bread.
Common throughout most former Soviet countries, Paloo, is also known as Osh, or by its Russian name Plov. Plov’s spiritual home is generally considered to be Uzbekistan, and is a fried rice dish consisting of slow cooked mutton cooked in a large cauldron with thinly sliced carrots, garlic and sometimes raisins.
Another dish very common across much of the former Soviet Union, especially in Central Asia, Manty are steamed large dumplings with meat, usually mutton, and onions, with some fat to make them particularly juicy. There are also vegetarian versions of Manty which are made with pumpkins or even green herbs. Manty are usually served with sour cream and dill although it’s also common to serve them with a local chilli sauce.
Samsa are a great snack food when you’re on the go in Kyrgyzstan. They are cheap, simple, and tasty, although when it comes to Samsa there is something special about one that has been freshly baked. If the name looks familiar it’s because Samsa shares the same root word as Indian Samosas and Middle Eastern Samboosas. Samsas are good sized pastries which you can get with lamb, beef, cabbage, pumpkin and even just cheese.
Every street corner in Bishkek has a Samsa stand nearby and they are also extremely common in local markets.
Like the rest of Central Asia, bread is extremely important in Kyrgyzstan. Bread is considered sacred and represents the hard work people have put into growing, preparing and cooking food. Because of this, a meal without bread on the table is not really considered a proper meal.
Bread is never thrown away, but if it has gone bad is placed up high for animals to eat or even for homeless people. Bread is always placed the correct way up on the table and never has anything else placed on top of it except other bread.
Bread in Kyrgyzstan is called Nan and is cooked in a tandoor. Kyrgyz bread is usually quite flat as well.
Usual spreads for bread include jam, sour cream or just butter.
The most traditional beverage in Kyrgyzstan is Kymyz which is a very slightly alcoholic drink made from fermented Mare’s milk. There are similar drinks across Central Asia all made using horses’ milk.
Most Kymyz is home-made and you’ll see ladies selling plastic bottles of it on the side of the road. With that being said, a part of modern innovation is that Kymyz is becoming increasingly made by large drink companies and sold in supermarkets.
Other beverages that are traditional include Maxsim, a fizzy drink made from fermenting grains. Chalap or Tan as it is sometimes known is another dairy drink made from sheeps’ milk and has a similar taste to the Turkish drink Ayran.
One company which has made a huge name for itself producing these traditional drinks is Shoro, which was started by a single man who started making the drinks at home and selling them in the local market. Shoro branded drinks can now be found in every shop and supermarket across Kyrgyzstan.