Kyrgyz food is the product of a long history of pastoral nomadism and is overwhelmingly meat-based, which means that virtually all of the traditional dishes contain meat. If you are vegetarian you can, however, ask for vegetarian food and in many cases will receive a tasty vegetarian meal without much hassle, or you can purchase your own fresh fruit, vegetables, and fresh bread from one of the many small stands or food bazaars that are ubiquitous in every city. While some people from the West think of large vegetables as desirable, small and flavourful is the rule here. The same approach is valid for pistachios and almonds as well. Washing vegetables before consumption is recommended.
Besh barmak (literally: five fingers, because the dish is eaten with one’s hands) is the national soupy dish of Kyrgyzstan (Kazakhs would probably disagree). For preparation, a sheep or horse is slaughtered and boiled in a large pot. The resulting broth is served as a first course. The meat is then divided up between those at the table. Each person in attendance receives the piece of meat appropriate to their social status. The head and eyes are reserved for guests of honour. The remaining meat is mixed in with noodles and, sometimes with onions, and is traditionally eaten from a large common dish with the hands, although nowadays more often with a fork or spoon. If you can land an invitation to a wedding, you’ll most likely get a chance to eat besh barmak, although you can also find it in traditional restaurants. Kyrgyz people like soupy food in general, those foods that are served as a kind of pasta in Russia such as pelmene, they prefer as soup.
Most other dishes encountered in Kyrgyzstan are common to the other countries of Central Asia as well. Plov or osh is a pilaf dish that at a minimum includes julienne carrots, onion, beef or mutton, and plenty of oil, sometimes raisins. Manti are steamed dumplings that normally contain either mutton or beef, but occasionally pumpkin. Samsa are meat (although sometimes vegetable or cheese) pies that come in two varieties: flaky and tandoori. Flaky somsa are made with a phyllo dough while tandoori somsa have a tougher crust, the bottom of which is meant to be cut off and discarded, not eaten. Lagman is a noodle dish associated with Uyghur cuisine, but you can find everywhere from Crimea to Ujgurs. Most of the time it is served as soup, sometimes as pasta. The basic ingredients of lagman (plain noodles and spiced vegetables mixed with mutton or beef) can be fried together, served one on top of the other, or served separately. Shashlik (shish kebabs) can be made of beef, mutton, or pork and are normally served with fresh onions, vinegar and bread.
Almost all Kyrgyz meals are accompanied by tea (either green or black) and a circular loaf of bread known as a lepeshka. The bread is traditionally torn apart for everyone by one person at the table. In the south of Kyrgyzstan, this duty is reserved for men, but in the north it is more frequently performed by women. Similarly, tea in the north is usually poured by women, while in the south it is usually poured by men.
At the end of a meal, Kyrgyz will in some cases perform a prayer. Sometimes some words are said, but more often the prayer takes the form of a perfunctory swipe of the hands over the face. Follow the lead of your host or hostess to avoid making any cultural missteps.
Drinking is one of the great Kyrgyz social traditions. No matter if you are served tea, kymys, or vodka, if you have been invited to a Kyrgyz person’s table to drink, you have been shown warm and friendly hospitality. Plan to sit awhile and drink your fill as you and your host attempt to learn about each other.
When offered tea, you might be asked how strong you want it. Traditionally, Kyrgyz tea is brewed strong in a small pot and mixed with boiling hot water to your desired taste. If you want light tea, say ‘jengil chai’. If you want your tea strong and red, ‘kyzyl chai’. You might notice that they don’t fill the tea cup all the way. This is so that they can be hospitable and serve you lots of tea. To ask for more tea, ‘Daga chai, beringizchi’ (Please give tea again). Your host will happily serve you tea until you burst. So once you’ve truly had your fill and don’t want to drink any more, cover your tea cup and say, ‘Ichtym’ (I’ve drunk). Your host will offer a few more times (and sometimes will pout if you say no), this is to make sure that you are truly satisfied. Once everyone at table has finished drinking tea, it is time to say, ‘Omen’, and hold your hands out palms up and then brush the open palms down your face.
Restaurants and cafés give free refills of hot water if you want to drain your tea bag once more. You usually pay per tea bag.
When entering a local store, you might goggle at the amount of vodka on display. Introduced by the Russians, vodka has brought much joy and sorrow to the Kyrgyz over the years. Most vodka you will find for sale was made in Kyrgyzstan and can provide travellers with one of the worst hangovers known, mainly if you are stupid and buy one of cheaper ones. But for approx. €2 you can have good Kyrgyz vodka, e.g. Ak-sai. Some professional vodka drinkers say that this is because foreigners don’t know how to properly drink vodka. To drink vodka in the right way, you need to have zakuskas (Russian for the meal you eat with vodka). This can consist of anything from simple loaves of bread to full spreads of delicious appetizers. Quite common are sour or fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and of course meat.
First, find someone to drink with. Second, choose your vodka: the more you spend, the less painful your hangover. Third, choose your zakuska, something salty, dried, or fatty. This is so that the vodka is either absorbed by the food or repelled by the fat. Fourth, open your bottle… but be careful, once you open it you must drink it all (a good vodka bottle doesn’t have a cap that can be replaced). Now, pour your shots. Fifth, you will toast! You must toast! Toast your friends, toast their futures, toast their sheep, toast their cars. Sixth, drink! Drink it all! Now chase it with a zakuska and repeat until you can’t see the bottle or it is empty.
If you are drinking with locals it’s not a problem to skip a round. They would just pour you a symbolic drop and when they are clinking glasses you have to use your right hand and slap sparing partners’ glasses slightly instead of your glass.
The Kyrgyz for generations have made their own variety of beverages. At first, these drinks might seem a bit strange, but after a few tries they become quite tasty. Most are mildly alcoholic, but this is just a by-product from their fermentation processes.
In the winter, Kyrgyz wives brew up bozo, a brew made of millet. Best served at room temperature, this drink has a taste somewhere between yogurt and beer. On cold winter days, when you are snowed in, five or six cups gives you a warm fuzzy feeling.
In the spring, it is time to make either jarma or maxim. Jarma, a wheat based brew, has a yeasty beerlike quality but with a gritty finish (it is made from whole grains after all). Maxim, a combination of corn and wheat, has a very sharp and zesty taste. It is best served ice cold and is a great pick me up on hot days.
Summer sees yurts lining the main street selling kumys (Кумыс), fermented mares milk. Ladled out of barrels brought down from the mountains, this traditional drink is one of more difficult to get used to. It has a very strong and pungent foretaste and a smoky finish. Kumys starts off as fresh horses milk (known as samal), the samal is then mixed with a starter made from last year’s kumys and heated in a pot. The mixture is brought to just before boiling and then poured into a horse’s stomach to ferment for a period. A local grass called ‘chi’ is then roasted over a fire and cut into small pieces. Once the milk is finished fermenting, the roasted chi and milk are mixed in a barrel and will keep for the summer if kept cool.
Tang is another drink thought to be useful for the health and good for hangovers. It is made from gassed spring water that is mixed with a salted creamy yogurt called souzmu.
Kyrgyz have their own cognac distiller, which produces excellent, albeit highly sweet cognac, with the preferred brand being “Kyrgyzstan Cognac”, which the locals sometimes call Nashe Cognac, meaning “our cognac”.
You can also find an excellent selection of not so excellent local and imported beers as many Kyrgyz have been taking to drinking beer versus harder spirits. Locally produced beers include Arpa, Nashe Pivo, and Karabalta. Arpa is highly recommended by beer connoisseurs. While being considered a common person’s beer, its style is somewhat similar to an American Pale Ale (less hoppy than its Indian counterpart). Due to the fact that Kyrgizes prefer more vodka than beer (actually, half litre of each costs the same), beer is staying in tubes for longer time. Regular cleaning service is not common. Bottled beers are better, except their strange habit to pour all the beer into the glass at once.
There are also a multitude of bottled waters (carbonated or still) from various regions of the country. Especially popular with southerners is the slightly saline “Jalalabad Water”.