Written and photographed by Richard Barnes
Despite their close proximity to one another, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan seem to have more differences than similarities. One is perched high in the mountains with a culture steeped in yurts, nomads, and horses. Meanwhile, the other bakes in the desert surrounded by some of the most breathtaking architecture in the Islamic world and peppered with bazaars hawking an intoxicating mix of handwoven carpets and colorful spices.
One thing that they do have in common, however, is equally rich (and delicious) culinary traditions. This region of the world has been at the crossroads of culture and trade for millennia, leading to a rather dazzling array of dishes on offer in both nations, many of which can be found in both countries. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you find plov (in the form of paloo) on the menu in Kyrgyzstan or steaming bowls of laghman on sale in Uzbekistan.
In spite of the occasional crossover in fare, there are bound to be some differences, what with the diverse distinctions that exist between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan when it comes to geography, history, lifestyles, and customs. Whether hearty, filling Kyrgyz favorites made for alpine meadows and days of nomadic wandering or aromatic Uzbek meals of beef, grains, and fruits spun from centuries of settled agriculture, each flavorful cuisine is the result of generations of tradition.
So, without any further ado, let’s check out some of the tastiest treats on offer in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as the cultural heritage that helped to create them.
Kyrgyzstan is a country built on mountains – literally. In fact, 94% of the nation is mountainous. And not just any mountains, but the highest in Central Asia. Add to that the fact that the vast majority of the county (almost 90%) rests more than 4,900 feet above sea level and an average elevation of 9,020 feet, it’s safe to say that Kyrgyz food is made to stick to your ribs and keep you feeling toasty as you go about your day. If that has you dreaming about nourishing filled with meat and bread, you’re on the right track.
Just as intrinsic as geography to Kyrgyzstan’s culinary culture is its history as a nation of nomads. For centuries, shepherds in the Pamirs and Tien Shan Mountains would follow the seasons and their herds, moving through the valleys and peaks as the weather changed. As a result, mutton, beef, and horse meat tend to be staple ingredients in Kyrgyz cuisine, along with dairy products.
Aside from hearty meat dishes, one thing travelers in Kyrgyzstan can always rely on is a healthy serving of hospitality. From vodka toasts to breads ready to be slathered with homemade jams, a Kyrgyz family will never let a guest leave hungry.
Dishes with lamb and onions feature prominently in Kyrgyz cuisine
The name of this traditional nomad dish translates as ‘5 fingers,’ a reference to the fact that the dish is traditionally eaten with the hands. Finely chopped boiled meat – generally horse meat, although lamb is also quite common – is mixed with noodles and onion sauce. It is often served with shorpo, a type of mutton broth.
Horses are intertwined with many aspects of Kyrgyz culture, so it’s unsurprising to find fermented mare’s milk as a common beverage in Kyrgyzstan. Tangy and slightly alcoholic, it’s certainly an acquired taste (read into that what you will). However, it’s definitely something you have to try if given the opportunity.
This traditional Kyrgyz meat dish is one of the country’s oldest dishes and is made from lamb, beef, or occasionally poultry. The chosen protein is fried with onions and spices as a base, with carrots, potatoes, and squash being added if the chef desires. Traditionally, and slightly confusingly, this dish is cooked in one of two scenarios: when the guests are in a hurry or when no one is in a hurry and a sheep has just been slaughtered. In the latter scenario, the kuurdak will be followed by beshbarmak.
With a clear Chinese influence from centuries gone by, this tomato-based noodle soup containing thick, hand-pulled noodles and chunks of lamb is an ever-present delight and is particularly welcome after a long hike through the mountains.
A favorite of Kyrgyz families, this literal pinwheel of flavors features diced meats and veggies encircling layers of handmade dough. It’s time-consuming to make, but delicious to eat – especially when served with a heavy sour cream called kaymak or ketchup.
It seems like almost every culture has its own unique take on stew and this dish is Kyrgyzstan’s version. Starring a flavorful medley of meat, potatoes, vegetables, spices, and sometimes fruit, this hearty meal is, surprisingly, most prevalently served during the warmer months when a wide variety of vegetables are in season.
Kyrgyzstan is a meat-loving nation, so it should come as no surprise that these skewered, grilled cubes of meat are a Kyrgyz mainstay. Marinated mutton – interspersed with chunks of extra fatty bits for extra flavor – is the most common, but beef and chicken are also popular choices.
Contrary to their nomadic Kyrgyz neighbors, Uzbeks have always tended to be more settled people. This stability, along with Uzbekistan’s fertile land and pleasant climate, has helped to foster an enduring agricultural tradition. Grain farming and the raising of both sheep and cattle are especially pervasive and as a result, these ingredients are pillars of Uzbek cuisine as well as a whole host of vegetables, fruits, and other proteins like horse and camel meat.
Additionally, Uzbekistan’s central location along the Silk Road (like Kyrgyzstan) has led to an infusion of ingredients and cooking styles from nearby countries. In fact, traces of Persian, Russian, Ukrainian, Caucasian, Uyghur, and other European, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines can be found in markets and kitchens throughout the nation.
Dining in Uzbekistan is generally a choreographed but casual affair. Diners gather either around a low table or occasionally on the floor, often eating with their hands. No meal in Uzbekistan is complete without sweets which, happily, come first. Fruits and other treats give way to salads and other vegetables, after which soups find their way to the table. Finally, the meal comes to an end with the main course. By the end of it, ten dishes or more – many of which were likely made by the man of the house – may have passed your plate.
Central to all meals in Uzbekistan, bread (or lepeshka) is something you will enjoy every day, with a vast number of varieties covering an array of flavors. Generally speaking, the majority are crispy, circular-shaped pieces of dough that are cooked in a tandoor oven after being stamped with a decorative design. According to Uzbek tradition, it should never be cut with a knife. Instead, it is ideally broken by a married man at the table and placed near each place setting (with the flat side down so as to not be disrespectful).
A cross between Chinese jiaozi and Georgian khinkali, these lovely little snacks can be found all over Uzbekistan. Usually filled with ground lamb, they are steamed and then served with a hefty dollop of sour cream. There are also plenty of vegetarian manti options, with the most popular fillings being potato, pumpkin, or occasionally cottage cheese.
More commonly known as pilaf to English speakers, the national dish of Uzbekistan belies its slightly drab sounding name. This particular specialty is a particular point of pride for Uzbeks. In fact, there are over 100 different variations on plov. A mouthwatering mixture of rice, lamb, grated carrots, and onion form the base along with chickpeas, berries, and raisins for good measure. The dish does vary across the country, but an especially lovely variant can be found in Bukhara. After a hard day of sightseeing, this is the perfect dish to enjoy whilst taking the weight off your feet. Be sure to wash it down with some local Uzbek vodka if you’re feeling particularly adventurous.
These tasty snacks – and Uzbek breakfast staples – are can be found at kiosks and markets all over the country, however, the best ones can usually be found well away from the tourist spots. As the name suggests, there are similarities between these and Indian samosas, although samsa pastry is a little lighter. Generally speaking, these delightful pastry pockets are filled with ground lamb. Occasionally, though, it will be a mixture of lamb and beef. If you’re needing a break from all that meat, potato samsa are also plentiful.
Don’t confuse kazan kebab, or qozon kabob, with those delectable skewers of grilled meat (which you can also find throughout Uzbekistan, so don’t fret). Rather, the chosen protein – generally mutton but also beef, chicken, or horse – is stewed on the bone instead of charbroiled before being garnished with an abundance of pickled onions and herbs and served with potatoes. The result is tender meat that is full of flavor.
Soups hold an important place in Uzbek culinary culture. Even during the warm summer months, it’s one of the first courses served during a meal (what better way to use all those fresh vegetables?). The most popular soup is shurpa, which can be found in restaurants and kitchens throughout the country. Stuffed with chunks of lamb and vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and onions and flavored with dill and parsley, it’s a warming start to a meal.
Although not an edible treat, tea is central to enjoying food in Uzbekistan. This herbal infusion, especially green tea, is the accompaniment to most meals in Uzbekistan, save for those times when something stronger is required. A symbol of hospitality, do not be surprised if a friendly local invites you into their home for a warming cuppa as you walk down the Kolkhoz Canal in the heart of old Tashkent.
Dining in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is as much an odyssey through their cultures, customs, and histories as it is an exploration of flavors. On our upcoming culinary journey, discover A Gastronomic Tour Through Central Asia with Anissa Helou, an 11-day journey where travelers won’t just get to taste these delicious dishes – they’ll get to learn how to make them for themselves from the people who know them best: the local Kyrgyz and Uzbek people.