Food is, by far, apart from air and water, the most fundamental material needed for human survival. It is so important that we build our daily activities around it in a way that defines an entire culture’s identity.
Our journey takes us to Central Asia.
Central Asia is a region that consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east and from Afghanistan and Iran in the south, to Russia in the north. Due to its proximity to these countries, it inevitably became a melting pot of peoples, cultures, and ethnicities as is evident in the cuisine of the region.
A little tangent, since we’re mentioned the Caspian Sea from the paragraph above, you might as well visit our blog about the Caspian Sea by clicking here.
Now back to our blog (=^_^=)
From the glory days of the Silk Road, the rule of Alexander the Great, the tyrannies of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, the occupation of the Persian Empire to the late periods, as well as the take-over of Russia when all five were part of the USSR, these countries on their own have their own distinct identities but they have been so interconnected and have gone through so many changes together that they share amongst themselves many similar dishes and palates. For example, some Central Asians still choose the nomadic lifestyle as their ancestors did. They live in Yurts and live off the land and this means a few things. First, is that their diet primarily consists of meats and other by-products from the livestock they raised such as milk and cheese and second, this primary food source is supplemented by the produce they can get or grow from the land generally root crops such as potatoes, carrots, and onions. They also have wheat and rice.
One’s exploration of Central Asia cuisine would introduce one to a few key dishes which we’ll discuss in a bit but there is something we must first touch base on: Bread.
A Surprise in Every Bite
Bread is ubiquitous in Central Asia and can be seen in every meal in one form or another. You have chorek from Turkmenistan. You also have plenty of naan (or non), the regional flatbread. These come in various shapes and consistencies that change per region. Most of their bread can set aside up for desert journeys – perhaps a remnant of the Silk Road. In relation to breads, one must also touch on the topic of tandirs. These are also known as tandoor is a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking. Unlike other ovens in the west, the bread is not placed at the base of the oven but rather on the sides or rather, inner walls of the oven themselves. Just watching the process of placing the bread to the side of the oven and getting it after the bread is done can be an experience in itself. For more information about tandoors, click here.
Meats also hold a special place with the people of Central Asia. As a mostly Muslim region, Halal food takes center stage. It is perhaps because of their nomadic culture or their close connection to their livestock but no part of the animal is discarded once slaughtered.
Mutton is the most popular kind of meat. You also have chevon (goat meat) and chevaline (horse meat) although Turkmen do not partake of the latter because of how they value their horses, called akhal-tekes. Of course, the consumption of horse meat might be a turn off for a lot of people like South American guachos or cowboys from Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia or Mexico who value their horses as well.
That said, it can be safely assumed that
there are plenty of meat dishes that can be expected. If you are a visitor, beshbarmak might be served. Beshbarmak or Besh Barmak is the national dish of Kyrgyzstan and popular in Kazakshstan but can be found also in their neighbors.
The name is derived from besh meaning five, and barmak meaning finger and is eaten by hand. A sheep is slaughtered and boiled for several hours, and is then served with noodles and a medium-spicy sauce. Bouillon is then poured over the mixture. There is an entire tradition of how the parts of the animal are distributed. The elders and guests are presented with the best cuts with the guest of honor receiving the head and eyes. Plov, pilaf or palov also called “osh,” is another popular dish that originated in Uzbekistan but is cooked and served in all 5 nations.
There are about 200 varieties of plov. The main ingredients being rice, chunks of lamb or beef together with onions and carrots and other vegetables depending on where you’re having it, it’s reminiscent of risotto if it were prepared with a lot of meat. This dish is so culturally relevant that it is featured on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as listed by UNESCO.
Samsas or somsas are meat pies that are baked to golden brown perfection. These pastries, like the naan are traditionally baked in a tandoor. The dough can be just simple bread dough or intricately layered pastry dough.
Reminiscent of Indian samosas but with meat instead of potatoes, Central Asia actually introduced this to the Indian subcontinent via the traders going through the Silk Road in the 13th century. Be careful of the meat juices when biting into one.
In your travels here, you can also encounter horse meat sausages called kazy, a Kazakh dish with an intestinal outer lining. Other Central Asian countries have their own version except for Turkmenistan. This dish is usually seasoned with garlic, pepper, and salt before being stuffed into the intestine. It is quite expensive though and the sausage can be served hot or cold.
Of all the dishes you’ll encounter, none might be more popular than the kabob or kebab. Kabob is a traditional Tajik dish. Generally made from minced mutton (or beef), onions and spices. These are then balled up into sausages and fried. These are usually served with onions, green vegetables, and garlic. Prepared like a barbecue, it reminds one of the Persian influences of the region’s cuisine and this is what is peculiar about this cuisine.
Despite these relatively simple but heartening fares, perhaps one of the most opulent food in the world can be found in Central Asia: caviar. But the price of this decadent treat has its cost. Overfishing in the Caspian Sea has driven sturgeon, the fish from which caviar comes from, close to extinction.
The beluga sturgeon or ‘Huso Huso’ produces caviar consisting of the roe (or eggs) which are a world-wide fine dining delicacy. These are found primarily in the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest salt-water lake, which is bordered by Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. Up to 90 percent of the world’s caviar comes from the Caspian Sea There are 27 species of sturgeon all over the world but due to overfishing and the destruction of their natural habitats. The International Union for Conservation of Nature placed 18 species of sturgeon on its red list making it the most endangered species on Earth. This has only brought the cost of Caviar higher with the cheapest caviar being available in Turkmenistan.
Thankfully, steps have been done to try and preserve these fish and their precious roe. Moratoriums on the fishing of the endangered species and farming caviar rather than catching them in the wild are now in practice.
In going to Central Asia, you aren’t just physically traveling but it’s basically a trip down history as well not just of the wonderful locations and heritage sites but of the history and tradition you partake of in every meal. Here, you can find a journey in every morsel, a surprise in every bite.
Come taste the amazing flavors of the Silk Road with CentrAsia Tours Travel Agency now!
Rhiz Manalo is the co-partner to CentrAsia Tours a Central Asia Tourism Agency, Co-Founder, and Co-Owner of The White Dog Collective experts in corporate and SMB digitization. He is a seasoned digital marketing expert, an experienced blogger, systems architect, web designer, and a loving father to a beautiful 7-year-old girl whom he misses so much!
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