Spoiler alert: it’s hearty, it’s humbling and it involves horse.
I woke up in my capsule in Bishkek with desert mouth. The vital signs of a hostel in the morning – bags zipping, doors slamming, toilets flushing and teeth being cleaned – told me my boyfriend was also showing signs of life.
A capsule hostel feels a lot like living in a human filing cabinet. My sliding door would have been aptly labelled “grappa victim”.
If I had hoped to write about Kyrgyz cuisine, I was off to a rough start.
The only thing I could stomach was pirozhki, a deep-fried dough stuffed with mashed potato. These “Russian pies” are the kind of food that you’d eat guilt-free in your 20s, but, in your early 30s, when paired with The Fear, get you googling heart disease and lamenting your life choices.
We were about to begin a two-week tour with Hospitality Kyrgyzstan (the Kyrgyz community-based tourism association) swapping hostels for yurt camps and homestays. All up, we were to spend more than 70 hours in our driver’s immaculately kept 1998 two-tone Toyota Hiace, as we road-tripped from Bishkek to Sary-Chelek Lake near the Chatkal mountains and Uzbekistan, to Song-Kol, some 3000m above sea level, and on to Tash-Rabat, a 15th-century Caravanserai, before finishing up at Karakol and Ala-Kol lake, which was set to stage the World Nomad Games.
I didn’t think a lot about the food before going to Kyrgyzstan. I mostly fretted about my ability to ride a horse and handle homemade spirits (both fears proved to be well-founded).
It’s only now, two months on, that I can bring myself to write about Kyrgyz food. That’s not because there’s nothing to say, but because everyone in our party got briefly, brutally, sick (excluding of course our driver, a Russian man with a stomach of steel who spent his spare time reading Czech detective novels and drinking homemade vodka).
Writing about meals you’ve offered in sacrifice to the god of good health from a wonky, weathered long drop a mile from your yurt takes a strong constitution.
Kyrgyzstan can be brutal.
Brutal because the fix for a crook gut is vodka and salt.
Brutal because a lot of the people cooking for you seem to be children.
Brutal because the traditional drink, kumis, is fermented horse milk and the house pour is generous.
But it was also humbling.
Humbling because every night you’re invited into a family’s to home to eat at their table.
Humbling because a teenage girl has to fetch water from the river every time a tourist wants a cup of tea.
Humbling because you’re being served a banquet of manty and mutton broth in some of the most isolated wilderness in the world.
Most of all it’s wonderful.
Wonderful because a cow is eating a watermelon.
Wonderful because buckets of freshly picked peaches line the roadside.
Wonderful because horses have right of way.
Wonderful because a toddler, waking to find her yurt filled with foreigners, scowled and then showed us where the puppies lived.
I didn’t anticipate any of this on that first day in Bishkek as I nursed that greasy pirozhki like a lousy hostel-slumming slob.
The truth is Kyrgyzstan is the closest I’ve come to paradise. Not the paradise that’s pitched to you on billboards, but a Garden of Eden, a place where you catch a glimpse of what the earth might look like untouched.
It sounds romantic but I’m serious. I hadn’t realised there were entire countries with glistening lakes filled with rainbow trout that are completely free from development.
Kyrgyz food gave me a window into this isolated, nomadic way of life.
The staples of Kyrgyz meals are horse meat, mutton, beef and dairy. It’s homely food, made to nourish. It’s high in salt, a good thing when many people live and work at altitude. Fat is also prized and it’s no wonder with winter temperatures dropping to -30° C in some places.
Kyrgyz soups like shorpo – a meat broth with carrots and potatoes – are rich, and for a cuisine that uses very few herbs and spices, you’re going to want to make sure you like dill.
Dishes like beshbarmak, a boiled meat broth poured over noodles, are hearty, and lagman, a noodle and meat soup derived from the Chinese lāo miàn, speaks to a culinary tradition steeped in service to the Silk Road.
No table is set without crusty flatbread, tea, jams and clotted cream or complete before a prayer or ‘omeen’ is spoken, where you sweep cupped hands over your face in thanks.
You are treated to tables piled with familiar treats as well. I’d often feel like I was at my own Nan’s place being fed pikelets and jam. For breakfast you’re offered sugar biscuits and instant coffee if you need it, all in a warm yurt draped in vibrant carpets.
I ate the best tomatoes and honeydew melon I’ve ever eaten and highly recommend a hearty serving of manty (spiced mutton dumplings) to fuel a day’s hiking.
If you get to Kyrgyzstan, learn some Kyrgyz and ask the questions I didn’t:
Ask how to make kumis.
Ask where to pick wild pears and walnuts.
Ask how they keep the shashlik so tender.
And get all your answers before you start on the grappa.