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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Tajikistan

Historic Diet

Tajik Food - Plov / Pilau / Pilof
Plov / Pilau / Pilof

Tajikistan is a country isolated by mountains, meaning the growing conditions present are quite drastic. In much of the mountains there are few fruits, vegetables, or animals, however in the valleys the waters and warmer temperatures create ideal conditions for numerous fruits and vegetables to grow. Despite this, the short growing season, primarily due to the elevation, limits what can or cannot be grown in much of the country.

Most of the foods that were historically found growing in Tajikistan include berries, grapes, melons, mushrooms, figs, pomegranates, wheat, and some root crops like onions and carrots. The animal life is also limited by area and elevation, 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.

Culinary Influences

Tajikistan has had relatively few culinary changes in its history, but the changes that have arrived have had a significant impact on the country's culinary history. The earliest people, who were scarce, lived primarily as nomads, whose diet consisted almost wholly of meat and dairy products along with whatever small produce could be found in the region. However, early in the country's history the people mostly settled and this altered the diet as sustainable farming and more advanced cooking techniques became readily available.

These settlers consisted of the earlier nomadic people, the arriving Persians, and settling Turkic people. With the arrival of these people, the local lifestyle changed as did the diet. Foods arrived from both the Turkic and Persian (The Tajiks are ethnically related to the Persians) people, including pasta, plov, kebabs, and pastries. Even today the diet in Tajikistan can be described as a combination of Persian, Turkish, and Central Asian cuisine and the roots of this diet date back thousands of years.

During and after this time the Silk Road rose to prominence and, although modern day Tajikistan fell on the periphery of the major trading route, the Tajiks at the time ruled over the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, the largest cities in the trade (both in modern day Uzbekistan). The influence from this trade changed the cuisine, but not in the way many would expect. The base diet remained quite firm as few major and noticeable alterations were made to the diet; in fact the Persian base of bread, meat, and rice didn't change at all. However the addition of new spices forever altered both the Tajik and the Persian diet in a very subtle way. The temporary traders on the Silk Road left behind spices and foods that were mixed and integrated into the local cuisine giving it a unique flavor. A more obvious, but arguably less significant change to the diet came with the arrival of Chinese dishes and foods as noodle and dumplings became popular and remain somewhat common today.

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 in Tajikistan today. 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 today.

In more recent times the foods in Tajikistan have gained a more international flavor as the major cities have adopted some "ethnic" restaurants. These restaurants are severely limited and little other than Chinese, Indian, and Turkish restaurants can be found.

Staple Foods

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

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Manti/Samsa: steamed dumplings or pastry filled with meat and/or vegetables
Plov/Palav: rice fried with meat, carrots, and onions
Qurutob/Qurotob: the national (vegetarian) dish is cheese dissolved in water poured over bread then fried and topped with onions
Shashlyk: grilled mutton, pork, or chicken sometimes served with raw onions, parsley, and/or a vinegar sauce

Dining Etiquette

The Tajiks are very inviting people, especially in the rural mountains, so it is not uncommon to be invited to a local's house. 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 at their short table and will lead the ceremonies, of which there may be many. The first of these is often a cup of tea and perhaps an appetizer or soup course. In some households though, a meal may begin with a glass of vodka and you are expected to join in with the locals if they begin drinking.

Beyond the initial seating and drinking, dining etiquette is fairly relaxed and rarely will a local be offended at your mistakes. 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 as certain cuts of meat are reserved for certain people. Unfortunately, this means you must eat what you are served and as a guest of honor that could be a sheep head. If dining at a restaurant with locals, remember to avoid ordering pork products as most Tajik Muslims don't eat pork, although it is often available.

You may find that there are utensils (cutlery) present; if so use them in any manner you prefer, but ideally in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), especially if in a formal business setting. On other occasions you will be expected to eat with your hand though; be sure to only use your right hand to eat. You'll likely also be served 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 probably be served tea again and be sure to join in on this local favorite 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 10-15%.

Celebrations & Events

When it comes to celebrations in Tajikistan, 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.

Drinks

Tea is the most popular drink in Tajikistan and it is difficult to go anywhere without seeing someone with a tea glass in hand. Both green and black teas are popular, but sugar is never used with tea. If you want to try out some more traditional drinks, try kefir, which is a yogurt drink or sherbets, which in Tajikistan are sweet fruit drinks. Other available beverages include juices, soft drinks, and coffee although none are as popular as tea.

Alcohol is not real commonly consumed in Tajikistan. 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. Beer and vodka are the most popular alcoholic drinks and are available in most restaurants, bars, and shops. For other alcoholic drinks, including wine and other hard liquors, you may have troubles finding what you want. You can generally find anything in a shop, but at restaurants and bars these drinks are less common as choices are somewhat limited.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Tajikistan, but 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: March, 2013