Kyrgyzstan stood on the crossroads of the Silk Road, and the caravan routes which crossed the territory carried not only goods for trade, but also brought examples of various cultures: Turkish, Persian, Arabian, Indian, Chinese, Russian, and European and these mingled with the culture and traditions of Central Asia. As a result Kyrgyz cuisine has absorbed elements from all of the cultures with which it came into contact, and although many dishes that you will find are common throughout Central Asia, it is still possible to find examples that have preserved their original, national identity. In many areas, such as Bishkek, Russian cuisine is common, but it is now possible to find examples from all over the world, including the all embracing УEuropeanФ, Indian, Korean, Turkish and Chinese. Outside the cities local dishes, (such as Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Dungan) are more common.
Although most Kyrgyz are Muslim, there are some traditional dishes which are not strictly halal Ц such as Olovo or Kuiruk Boor.
It is said that the food in Central Asia falls into three different types: the subsistence diet of the once nomadic peoples such as the Kyrgyz (mainly meat, milk products and bread); the diet of settled Turkish peoples (the Uzbeks and Uighurs) including pilaffs, kebabs, noodles and pasta, stews and elaborate pastries and breads; and dishes which come from the South (Iran, India, Pakistan and China) with more seasoning and herbs.
In Kyrgyz culture many dishes used to have special, ritual importance, and be connected with particular calendar holidays. Although these dishes are of great interest, unfortunately, many of them are being forgotten, and have fallen into disuse whilst some, which formerly had ritual contents, have lost their initial meaning and are progressively turning into every-day dishes.
Meat is central to Kyrgyz cooking - the nomadic way of life did not allow for the growing of fruit and vegetables Ц which means that vegetarian visitors may find it difficult to find dishes that, meet their needs.
Men are often considered to be the best cooks - many think that women spoil food cooked for others - although in the yurt the kitchen implements etc. are all stored on the women's side of the yurt and hunting and implements to do with shepherding and livestock on the men's side. In many ashkana's (tea houses or cafes) and restaurants the chefs are men. Women cooks are more commonly encountered in those establishments serving Russian or European cuisines. Russian dishes such as Shchi or Borsh can be found in many places but staple items are Central Asian dishes such as manti, samsa, ploff, shashlik and laghman.
Traditionally the Kyrgyz are a very hospitable people. If a Kyrgyz family invites you for a meal then you should take a small gift, nothing lavish, for example fruits or flowers. Take your shoes off when entering the house. Picnics, especially, are served on a dostorkon, (a large cloth laid out on the ground around which the gathering sits - with your feet either to your side or away from the dostorkon), but don't be surprised if this happens indoors as well. Handle the food only with your right hand. At the end of the meal bring your two hands up to the face and drag them down as if washing the face and recite the word 'omin' - the Muslim equivalent of 'amen'. In many homes, (unless strict Muslim ones) eating will also involve drinking. Alcohol will be served and you will be expected to drink. Don't think that you can drink just a little - once started it can be difficult to decline further rounds - especially as drinks are often associated with toasts. It may be better to decide on complete abstinence (on religious or health grounds, for instance) than suffer the consequences of excessive hospitality later on.
One of the most essential features of Kyrgyz cuisine is that dishes should preserve their taste and appearance. For example, there are almost no dishes comprising puree, minced, or chopped meat, (although there are a few exceptions.) Also, Kyrgyz dishes tend to have a plain taste; sauces and spices are used in only small batches, although spices are used more often in the South. Sauces are intended only to bring out the taste of the dish - not to change it.
Kyrgyz cuisine, originating in Kyrgyzstan, is similar in many respects to that of its neighbors, particularly the Kazakh cuisine.
Traditional Kyrgyz food revolves around mutton and horse meat, as well as various milk products. The cooking techniques and major ingredients has been strongly influenced by the nation's nomadic way of life. For example, most cooking techniques are mostly aimed at long-term preservation of food. Mutton is the favorite meat, although it is not always affordable.
Besh barmak is the Kyrgyz national dish, although it is also common in Kazakhstan and in Xinjiang (where it is called narin). It consists of horse meat (sometimes mutton or beef) boiled in its own broth for several hours and served over homemade noodles sprinkled with parsley and coriander. Besh barmak translates as "Five Fingers", because the dish is typically eaten with the hands. Besh barmak is most often made during a feast to celebrate a birth or an important birthday, or to mourn a death, either at a funeral or on an anniversary. A boiled sheep's head is placed on the table in front of the most honored guest, who cuts bits and parts from the head and offers them around to the other guests at the table.
For Kyrgyz people, besh barmak isn't just an ordinary meal - it is a ceremony complete with its own traditions and customs. A whole sheep is cut up and boiled in a kazan (iron pot) until the soup from this pot is ready to be drunk and the bones with meat on them are ready to be distributed. The dish (boiled pieces of meat with home-made noodles) is eaten with the fingers (besh barmak means "five fingers" in Kyrgyz). After besh barmak, the best dish to serve the honored guest is plov.
Shashlik, skewered chunks of mutton grilled over smoking coals that come with raw sliced onions, is served in restaurants and often sold in the street. The meat is usually marinated for hours before cooking. Shashlik can also be made from beef, chicken, and fish. Each shashlik typically has a fat-to-meat ratio of one-to-one. They are delicious when eaten fresh off the grill, but after being allowed to sit for a time (as is often the case with street vendors) they cool into greasy blobs.
Shorpa (or shorpo) is a meat and vegetable soup.
Plov is generally served as an enormous mound of rice with onions and carrots, and pieces of boiled meat on top. Among other main dishes there are also manty (fist-sized steamed dumplings filled with mutton and onions), lagman (a Dungan dish of thick home-made noodles in a relatively spicy sauce, with cabbage, onions, and tomatoes), chuchpara or pelmeni (smaller dumplings filled with onions, mutton and fat, and served in a soup), kuurdak (slices of fried mutton beef, with onions and spices, served on a plate garnisned with herbs), shorpo (soup with potatoes, vegetables, and a big hunk of mutton on the bone).
The guests are also offered the different snacks as kuiruk-boor (a slice of sheep's tail fat and a slice of that sheep's liver, served together with spices or shashlyk - smoked kebabs of mutton (or beef, chicken, liver, or various fishes), served with onions in vinegar.
Noodles and dumplings
Manty are boiled dumplings filled with ground meat and onions.
Samsa (samosa) are little pockets of meat and vegetables wrapped in flakey pastry, very similar to Indian samosas. They are stuffed with mutton and fat most often, but are also made with chicken, cheese, cabbage, and beef. The can be bought in most bazaars or on street corners in larger cities.
Lagman (or laghman) is a very popular noodle dish. It consists of thick homemade noodles covered in chopped peppers and other vegetables and served in a spicy vinegary sauce. Lagman is served everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, but is said not to be a Kyrgyz dish at all, but rather a Dungan one.
Among a variety of drinks one should be mentioned separately. Kymyz is the most popular drink on the jailoo, made from fermented mare's milk.
Bozo is a thick fermented millet drink, slightly carbonated and drunk mostly in the winter.
Jarma: A drink of fermented barley, drunk mostly in summer.