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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Kyrgyzstan

Historic Diet

Kyrgyzstan is a country isolated by mountains to the east and plains to the west, meaning the land has been fairly isolated throughout history and the growing conditions present are quite drastic, especially due to a short growing season. In much of the mountains there are few fruits, vegetables, or animals and hence the population is sparse as there is little to eat. However, as the elevation drops so does the food options. Most of the foods that were historically found growing in Kyrgyzstan include berries, mushrooms, wheat, and some root crops like onions and carrots, but little else.

The animal life is also limited in scope in Kyrgyzstan, but some larger mammals are present and have been used for food for thousands of years. These animals include goats, sheep, and horses, all of which were and still are used for their milk as well as meat. Fish and other seafood are almost completely absent in the local diet since the country is landlocked; however along the shores of their many mountain lakes and rivers fish can be found and are eaten.

Culinary Influences

Kyrgyzstan has had relatively few culinary changes in its history. The earliest people lived primarily as nomads, whose diet consisted primarily of meat and dairy products along with whatever small produce could be found in the region. Even as late as 100 years ago the country still had numerous nomads eating a similar diet, however for most of the population, they had settled and had an altered diet.

The people who settled early were former nomads, but also numerous Turkic people arrived to influence this settling. With these people and this lifestyle change came changes to the diet as new foods were available to farm and new cooking techniques could be undertaken. Pasta, plov, kebabs, and pastries all rose in popularity among the people due to this settling effect.

During and after this time the Silk Road rose to prominence and Kyrgyzstan was on the periphery of this famed route. The influence from this trade changed the cuisine of the people in more ways than just the settling of Turkic people. People from the east, south, west, and north arrived in great numbers (temporarily to trade), often times bringing foods from their home to the region. Perhaps the greatest changes came with the arrival of rice from the east, and spices, most particularly from modern day Iran and the south.

The next influence, which again had a substantial impact, was the arrival of the Soviets in the early 1900s. With the Soviets came Russians and numerous Russian foods remain popular today in Kyrgyzstan. Foods like pelmani (meat dumplings), peroshki (rice, meat, or vegetables cooked in dough), borsch (beet soup), and more became popular dishes, which can still be found in the country today. The Russians also raised the interest in fish, although the poor access to seafood means its popularity is still relatively low today.

In more recent times the foods in Kyrgyzstan have gained a more international flavor as many cities have adopted some "ethnic" restaurants. These restaurants though are limited to what the local people have grown accustomed to and enjoy, including Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Turkish restaurants. More often than not, these outside influences have altered home cooking more than they have created the establishment of restaurants.

Staple Foods

Bread: the local bread is generally flatbread called nan and is served with nearly every meal

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Besbarmak/Beshbarmak: the national dish, which means "five fingers" is boiled mutton (or another meat) with noodles and broth traditionally eaten by hand
Lagman/Laghman: noodles with vegetables in a spicy broth
Manti/Samsa: dumplings filled with meat and/or vegetables
Plov/Paloo: rice fried with meat, carrots, garlic, and hot peppers
Shashlyk: grilled mutton, pork, or chicken sometimes served with raw onions, parsley, and/or a vinegar sauce

Dining Etiquette

The Kyrgyzs are very inviting people so it is not uncommon to be invited to a local's house, especially in the countryside. If you do get an invitation, be sure to bring a gift; local sweets or, if you know your host drinks alcohol, a bottle of vodka is a great gift. Once you arrive for dinner remove your shoes and leave them at the door. Let you host show you a seat and lead the ceremonies; as a guest there may be some ceremonies. The first of these is often a toast with a glass of vodka (for the locals that do drink alcohol); if invited to give a toast in return, be sure to mention the hospitality of your host and remember, turning down vodka is rude so good luck.

After you're seated, dining etiquette is fairly relaxed and rarely will a Kyrgyz be offended at your mistaken dining habits that don't translate. Once the food is served, and there may be multiple courses so don't overeat, you will likely find that the host will serve everyone. Unfortunately, this means you must eat what you are served, and as a guest of honor, that could be a sheep head. You'll probably also be served kymyz, which is mare's milk, especially if you visit in the summer months. If dining at a restaurant with locals, remember to avoid ordering pork products as most Kyrgyz Muslims don't eat pork, although it is sometimes available.

You may find that there are utensils (cutlery) present and if so use them in any manner you prefer, but ideally in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left). On other occasions though you will be expected to eat with your hand; be sure to only use your right hand to eat. You'll also be served flat bread with your meal, which must be eaten in its entirety and placed directly on the table when not eating it; again use your right hand to eat your bread. When the food is finished, you will likely be served tea. Be sure to join in on this local favorite and socialize to close the meal.

If dining out at a restaurant, check your bill to see if a "service charge" has been added; it usually is in nicer restaurants. If not be sure to leave the server a tip of about 15%.

Celebrations & Events

When it comes to celebrations in Kyrgyzstan, the largest festival is most certainly nauryz, which is a New Year festival that is celebrated each year on the spring equinox. This event celebrates new life as the historically nomadic people have survived the long winter. During this event the people generally join together to celebrate by eating a number of traditional dishes including lamb or sheep, mare's milk, and other traditional foods.

For more personal celebrations like a birthday or anniversary sheep is the traditional dish; in the past a whole sheep was killed, while today this is less common. From the sheep, soups, meats, and sausage are made and served. These foods are also usually served with plov, a traditional rice dish. For funerals and weddings, a horse is usually eaten instead of sheep. Nearly all celebrations are also accompanied by vodka and kymyz, fermented mare's milk. Beshbarmak is also a common dish served for some personal events, including the birth of a new child, a death, or to celebrate an important birthday.

Drinks

For a traditional drink in Kyrgyzstan, ask for kymyz, which is mare's milk, but if you want to join the locals in the present, ask for tea, which is the favored beverage in the country today. Kymyz is generally only available in the summer and it can be served as is or fermented so is alcoholic; be sure to find out what version you are getting if you prefer one over the other. Another traditional drink is maksym, a carbonated drink made from grains. Juices, soft drinks, and coffee are also available, although none are as popular as tea.

Alcohol is popular in Kyrgyzstan, despite the fact that the people are primarily Muslim, a religion that outlaws alcohol, however due to the people's long history under Soviet rule there is little taboo with drinking alcohol today. Even for locals who don't drink they rarely take offense when others drink. Kymyz is the most cultural alcoholic drink in Kyrgyzstan, although today this beverage is not as popular. Beer and vodka have taken over as the alcoholic drinks of choice in the country today and if dining out these are the most readily available. If seeking out other drinks like wine or other hard liquors you will be able to find them, although they may have been sitting on the shelf for some time.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Kyrgyzstan, but in Bishkek and in some mountainous areas it might be safe. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: September, 2012