Kyrgyz food guide: what to eat in Kyrgyzstan
Let me be honest, for many Kyrgyz food is not love at first bite. Many travellers struggle with the bland and greasy food in Kyrgyzstan. In the average roadside restaurants choices are limited and simple. Dishes are often characterized by chunks of mutton that have more fat than meat on them. The variety is whether it comes with potatoes, noodles or rice. Truth is that most restaurants go for quantity and not quality.
Kyrgyzstan will never be the culinary destination that neighbouring Uzbekistan is, but it isn’t all that bad either, especially once you know what to try and where to go. Kyrgyz food is actually quite diverse with lots of influences from China, Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Meat and dairy products are prominent, because of its nomadic past. Furthermore, it is easy to find central asian classics such as plov and laghman or Russian dishes like pelmeni and borscht.
Try any of those in a homestay and it will be very different from the Kyrgyz food you get in a restaurant. The best Kyrgyz food is still made at home where families use fresh ingredients and their own traditional family recipes. It’s good news that most cities in Kyrgyzstan have excellent homestays through the CBT.
At a homestay you will often be invited to sit at the table called dastorkhon. Besides the food or tea you will be served you will also find small bowls with sweets, biscuits, butter, bread, dry fruits or other things that come along with your meal.
Bishkek, Osh and Karakol are the best places in the country to try Kyrgyz food. These cities have an increasing number of restaurants that cater to tourists and where the food is tasty. In Osh and Karakol you will also find some regional specialities that you won’t find elsewhere in the country.
The best Kyrgyz food
Beshbarmak is one of the most beloved Kyrgyz dishes. It is often considered to be the national food of Kyrgyzstan, although Kazakhstan believes it’s theirs. The origin lies in the nomadic past that the Kyrgyz and Kazakh people share.
Traditionally beshbarmak is made from horse meat with noodles in an onion broth. Nowadays it is more common to see mutton or beef meat. The name translates as five fingers, because you should eat this by hand.
Where to eat: restaurant navat in bishkek
Kuurdak is another popular Kyrgyz dish that is characterized by grilled mutton, fat and onions. Often it includes a little bit of vegetables too such as potatoes or carrots. This dish is a hit or miss. When it is prepared well, it is absolutely delicious. However, in a lot of restaurants they overdose on the fatty meat parts making it hard to digest for foreigners.
Where to eat: restaurant Dastorkhon in Karakol
Dimlama is one of my favourite foods of Kyrgyzstan. Probably because unlike most other Kyrgyz dishes, meat is not the main ingredient. Dimlama is a vegetable stew with lots of potatoes, carrots and bell peppers and just a little bit of meat.
Apparently it is actually an Uzbek dish, but I never saw it there. In Kyrgyzstan it seems to be quite popular, although there you won’t see it on a restaurant menu either. I had it at several homestays in Kyrgyzstan and it was always delicious.
Where to eat: homestay
Another Kyrgyz dish more rich in vegetables than meat is oromo. Thin layers of dough are filled with a mixture of cabbage, carrots, onions and meat. Fillings can differ and you also find oromo with potato or pumpkin. Shapes also vary. Some roll it up in a pie, others make rounds and some serve the filling and dough separately.
It’s rarely on a restaurant’s menu. Even though it only has a few ingredients, it takes a while to make it. Consider it a treat when it is served at a homestay.
Where to eat: homestay
Lagman is an Uyghur dish with noodles, meat and vegetables. Over the years it has become a central asian classic that exists in different varieties. First of all, the noodles can be served with or without a broth and second of all there are different types of noodles. Bozo laghman comes with fried noodles and gyozo laghman with boiled noodles.
Not one laghman is the same and if you order it in a restaurant it can be very hit and miss. I have had terrible laghmans with chewy noodles and bland vegetables. However, I had some delicious ones too. The best was in a simple roadside restaurant on the way from Bishkek to Osh and that one was absolutely mouthwatering.
Where to eat: uyghur restaurants in bazaars often serve good laghman.
Manti are dumplings filled with meat that have become hugely popular in central asia. Sometimes the dish is considered to be turkish, but it is more likely that it originated with turkish and mongol tribes that spread this recipe throughout the silk road from China to Turkey.
Each region has its own version. Manti in central Asia are relatively large and steamed in a special metal steamer called a mantovarka. Although the filling is often and preferably ground lamb meat, there are lots of varieties. In Kyrgyzstan you will also find manti with beef, cabbage, potato or pumpkin.
Where to eat: chaikhana Navat in Bishkek
Shashlik is as simple as grilled meat on a skewer and you will find it everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. Once you enter any bazaar you will soon smell the roasted meat that is sold by street vendors as a quick snack. Just follow your nose or watch out for the smoke that comes from the barbecues. Every cook uses its own marinade and mix of spices and that’s why shashlik never gets boring.
Where to eat: at the bazaar
Horses have always played an important part in Kyrgyz culture. In Kyrgyzstan it sometimes looks like you will see more horses than people. They not only provided transport and company to the nomadic people, but also milk and meat.
Horse meat remains a priced delicacy in Kyrgyzstan, but something most people can’t afford regularly nowadays. Therefore mutton, sheep and beef is much more common, although even that is not within everyone’s budget. If you want to try horse meat look out for kazy or chuchuk (horse meat sausages).
Where to eat: Dastorkhon in Karakol
Samsa’s are savoury meat pastries that are extremely popular throughout central asia. The best are still baked in a traditional clay oven called a tandoor. When you see one you know you are in for a treat. Straight from the oven and still warm they are one of my favourite snacks in the region. Most are filled with a mixture of meat, onions and spices, but you will also find ones filled with cheese, potato or pumpkin.
Where to eat: at bazaars look out for the traditional clay ovens.
Kyrgyz food in Karakol
Karakol is a great food destination in central Asia. This multicultural city has a number of good restaurants where you can try traditional Kyrgyz cuisine in addition to a bustling bazaar with lots of street food options. Through destination Karakol you can join a Dungan family dinner or a Karakol food tour.
Karakol has a small Dungan population. The Dungans are exiled Chinese Muslims that fled over the Tien Shan mountains to Kyrgyzstan. Although they quickly assimilated into the Kyrgyz culture, they kept their own cuisine and introduced a number of dishes to the Kyrgyz people. One of them is Ashlan fu and it has become very popular in Karakol. So much so, that there are a number of restaurants that only serve this one recipe.
Ashlan fu is a spicy cold noodle soup with lots of vinegar and chili. People eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. A bowl will cost you less than 1 dollar so there really is no reason not to try this. Some people find it the best food they tried in Kyrgyzstan, but personally I wasn’t a huge fan.
Where to eat: Ashlan fu alley at the bazaar in Karakol.
Kyrgyz food in Osh
Osh is the main city in the Kyrgyz part of the Fergana valley. Like Karakol, Osh is another great food destination. With a large Uzbek community and a number of other ethnic minorities, the cuisine in Osh is as varied as its population.Through Destination Osh you can go on a foodie tour, a plov journey or a bread making course. However, it’s not difficult to explore the regional specialities on your own as well.
Maida manti are one of the few vegetarian dishes in Kyrgyzstan. The small and handmade dumplings are filled with mashed potatoes and served with spiced onions and sour cream. This variety of the beloved central asian manti dumplings is only available in the region of Osh and makes a delicious lunch.
Where to eat: Oybek mantikhana in Osh
Gok Chuchvara is similar to maida manti, but here the filling is made of local greens. Another healthy dish that is great for vegetarians.
Where to eat: Oybek mantikhana in Osh
Plov is everywhere in central asia, but what makes it unique in Osh is the use of red rice and yellow carrots. This red rice only grows around nearby Uzgen in the Fergana valley. Even if you had enough plov already, it is worth trying out the Osh variety.
Where to eat: Oybek mantikhana in Osh
Kyrgyz food with an uzbek influence
Nobody really knows where plov originated, but it became Uzbekistan’s national obsession where no party is complete without heaps of this dish. The main ingredients include rice, onion, carrots, spices and meat, but lots of varieties exist. Despite the simple ingredients it’s a time consuming recipe and a good preparation is key.
Wherever plov really comes from, it’s not only popular in Uzbekistan. It is a beloved dish in most of central asia and russia. Uzbek plov is considered to be the best though and is often advertised as such. Travelling through central asia you will find plov everywhere. The eventual plov overdose is inevitable. But once home you will miss it.
Where to eat: it won’t be difficult to find plov, but for a guaranteed good quality head to restaurant Navat or Cafe Faiza in Bishkek
Bread is essential in Uzbek cuisine. Traditionally it is baked in a tandoor oven and beautifully decorated with patterns made with a special bread stamp called a chekichs. Some look so beautiful that it’s almost a pity to eat them.
These beautiful flatbreads are now found in bazaars throughout central asia including Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyz food with a russian influence
Borscht is one of my favourite soups in the world and I was therefore glad to see it was a common item on most restaurants menus in Kyrgyzstan. This beet soup with vegetables and meat tastes best with a dollop of sour cream.
Where to eat: Cafe Faiza in Bishkek
Pelmeni is another common russian dish you will find in restaurants throughout Kyrgyzstan. The dumplings are often served in a broth with some herbs, spices and onions. It is a light lunch that is a safe choice if you want to avoid fatty meat dishes.
Where to eat: Tsarski Dvor in Osh
The Russian influence on Kyrgyz food means that blini’s are a common breakfast item in Kyrgyzstan. The thin Russian pancakes come with different toppings. For breakfast they are often sweet such as sugar or honey. In some restaurants you can also order them for desert with icecream.
Where to eat: Karakol meeting point
Kyrgyz food: drinks
At first sight it seems that everyone drinks tea all day long. However, if it comes to drinks there is a whole lot to explore in Kyrgyzstan.
Kymyz is the number one national drink in Kyrgyzstan. Like I said before, horses have always played an important role in Kyrgyz culture. Horse milk is a priced commodity believed to have healing properties, especially in the form of fermented mare’s milk.
In the Suusamyr valley that is said to have the best quality of kymyz you can even go to the Baytur resort. Here you can take a multiple day Kymyz treatment that people believe can cure a number of diseases.
Fresh Kymyz is only available in the summer when it is often sold in the mountains at the side of the road in reused bottles or at the bazaars in the major cities. Nowadays bottled kymyz is year round available in some of the supermarkets in Bishkek. I must be honest that I wasn’t a very big fan of the sour and fizzy taste.
Maksim is a drink made out of fermented grains, usually malt. It’s sometimes also known as Shoro for the company that introduced Maksim as a commercial drink all over Kyrgyzstan. Before that it was something that nomadic families made at home in Kyrgyzstan.
Bozo is another fermented grain based drink with a low alcohol content. This drink originated with the Turkic people in central Asia, but became so popular that it spread throughout the region as far as the Caucasus and the Balkans. Different grains can be used such as maize, millet, wheat or barley.
Jarma is another cereal drink that is similar to maksim, except that it isn’t fermented and mixed with ayran instead of water.
Chalap is a salty drink made with a local type of strained yoghurt called qatiq and suzma.
Kyrgyz food: snacks
These small pocket-sized balls of hard white cheese made from sour milk or yoghurt are central asia’s favourite dairy snacks. Nomads used them for long journeys, but nowadays young and old nibble away when they feel like.
Kurut has an intense salty taste that is hard to digest for those not used to it. I have had many instances in local buses and shared taxis where I was offered kurut and where I had to politely try to eat them without looking too disgusted.
They are sold in huge quantities in bazaars and in supermarkets you can find them prepackaged. I even saw kurut lollipops.
Borsok is a simple dish made out of fried dough that is very important in Kyrgyz culture and it’s a common item on the dastorkon (table). For every special occasion piles of borsok are prepared. Whether it is because of the visit of a guest, a wedding or a birthday.
Borsok is also used to honor the ancestors and the dead. It is an important part of funerary traditions and people believe that the smoke and aroma from frying the borsok carries on to heaven to feed the spirits of the dead.
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