Most Central Asia travel books point out that no one goes to Central Asia for the food. And in comparison to the great food that is available in other parts of the world, this would have to be true. I’d choose a Turkish, Indian, Chinese, or Lebanese restaurant over a Kyrgyz one any day.
There are several reasons for this, but I think the main one is that much of Central Asia was nomadic until very recently. Culinary refinements aren’t quite as easy to achieve when the main ingredients are animal products- mostly meat and milk. The Kyrgyz didn’t even make bread till the last 200 years of their over 1000-year history.
I think Uzbekistan generally has better food, but they have a longer sedentary tradition. I’ve not tasted Tajik food, but I’m inclined to think it would be very good. I’ll have to see if I can find something Tajik here- the Tajiks are Persian, and Persian food is delicious. These three (nomadic, Uzbek/sedentary Turk, and Persian) are the main types of cuisine available in Central Asia.
Beshbarmek (five fingers), is considered to be one of the few truly Kyrgyz dishes. It is made for special occasions and is basically noodles topped with meat. Koumys is the most famous Kyrgyz drink, made from fermented mare’s milk. Maksym, a thick wheat drink, is very prevelant here in Bishkek, with stands on nearly every corner. I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet.
Dungans (Chinese Muslims) prepare ganfan, meat and vegetables served over rice (I had this for dinner tonight and it was quite tasty), fyntyozi (another noodle dish), and jusai (steamed buns). There is plenty of Korean food here. You especially see lots of Korean salads available in the bazaars. Tofu is easy to find. Turkish restaurants are fairly common in Bishkek since there has been a reasonable amount of Turkish investment going on here.
Naan, the typical Central Asian flatbread (although you do see lavash, which probably has nomadic roots, is widely available in Bishkek, but we couldn’t find any tandoor naan at Issyk-Kul. My flatbreads cookbook doesn’t have much about Kyrgyzstan, and I understand better why it doesn’t. There are a wider variety of Uzbek breads. I especially want to get some bread stamps.
Plov is also pretty basic in Uzbekistan, but not so much in Kyrgyzstan, although it is generally available in Bishkek. The plov recipe I gave below is a pretty basic plov (adding shredded carrots with the onions is good too), but sometimes fruit or garbanzo beans are added.
Shashlyk, or kebabs, are easy to find here, which makes sense since meat on a stick roasted quickly over a fire is the ultimate nomadic food. I haven’t had a chance to try any here, but I’ve had Uyghur and Afghan kebabs that were wonderful.
Laghman is a very traditional noodle dish. The noodles are often topped with a sauce/stew with mutton, tomatoes, peppers, and/or onions. We’ve also had shorpo, which is the stew without the noodles. Typical Russian food is widely available, but we’ve eaten very little of that.
We like to eat salad, which we call Uzbek salad since we first had it with Uzbek friends in the US. It’s very simple to make. Simply chop tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions and mix them together. Don’t skimp on the onions since they give the salad a lot of it’s flavor. The only seasoning is salt and pepper (we like red pepper)- don’t insult an Uzbek salad with lemon juice or some other kind of dressing.
Then there are the ubiquitous meat dumplings. They are usually filled with a mixture of meat, onions, and maybe some spices. You can get them boiled (chuchvara or pelmeni), baked (samsa), fried (piroshki), or steamed (manty). Variations on this are found from China to Turkey. Samsa, manty, and pelmeni are widely available in Bishkek, and manty is available just about everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. I enjoy these, but more for a snack than a meal.
There are plenty of milk products available here. Smetana (sour cream), kefir, milk, and cream are all easy to find. Apparently they do make yogurt here (katyk), but I haven’t found any yet. I’ll have to visit the dairy market the next time I go to the bazaar to ask. The yogurt is often drained to make what I call yogurt cheese (kurtob) that is dry enough to roll into balls. I’m going to track these down too because I loved to eat these in the Middle East. The milk used is usually not pasteurized, but the cultured products are safe if they were kept refrigerated or if they are very fresh.