While the besh-bannak is cooking, the wise man looks after the fire while the fool looks in the pot.
Traditional Kyrgyz Saying
Although Kyrgyz cuisine is unlikely to achieve international renown (many travellers agree that the food is the chief disincentive to travel in Central Asia), if you resign your- sell to a limited choice and a lot of mutton, the Kyrgyz and Russian dishes together provide a tasty and sustaining menu.
Kyrgyzstan hosts over 80 distinct cultures and nationalities. Unsurprisingly, its diverse multiethnic environment has influenced a variety of national cuisines and beverages, particularly from Dungan, Korean, Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek traditions. Kyrgyz food is heavy on meat, dairy, and bread, and light on spices.
Kyrgyz food is the product of a long history of pastoral nomadism and is overwhelmingly meat-based. And if we are saying overwhelmingly, it means really overwhelmingly. On the whole Kyrgyz food tends to be robust and fat-laden and similar to that of the other upland parts of the central Asian region.
More than anything else, most Kyrgyz greatly enjoy animal fat, particularly that of fat-tailed sheep, and from the Kyrgyz perspective the more animal fat a dish contains, the better. Such a high-fat diet suits a tough, physical lifestyle in a region where winters are long, cold and harsh, although the same diet may not be at all appropriate for those of the more temperate or Mediterranean climate. Certainly, low- cholesterol cuisine is not a characteristic of Kyrgyz cooking.
Those with vegetarian fixations may wish to revise their habits, purchase their own fresh fruits, vegetables, and fresh bread from one of the many small stands or food bazaars that are ubiquitous in every city, eat in Chinese restaurants or stay with bread and tea only. While people from the West are programmed to think of large vegetables as desirable, small and flavourful is the rule here. Same is valid for pistachios, almonds as well. Washing vegetables before consumption is recommended.
In Kyrgyz culture there are a number of special dishes that are associated with special events and religious holidays and this, coupled with a tradition of hospitality, means that some dishes are produced with great ceremony given the occasion. Kyrgyz hospitality sets great store in providing food for honoured guests. Meals are traditionally laid out on a large cloth on the ground called a dostorkon. Food is handled with the right hand only, in typical Muslim fashion, and legs and feet are tucked away from the food, as to have feet pointing at the food is considered the height of rudeness.
The piece-de-resistance of Kyrgyz cuisine is Besh-bannak ('five fingers'), reserved for special occasions and really only worth sampling in a yurt. The ritual preparation is precise, from the killing of the sheep to its presentation.
Bread. “Bread is life” is a common phrase to the Kyrgyz; therefore, bread is never to be wasted or treated with disrespect. In Bishkek there is a wide range of breads available. Outside the cities, the flat, round bread (“tandyr nan” in Kyrgyz, “lepyoshka” in Russian) is found almost everywhere. Fresh, warm, straight from the tandyr (an outdoor clay oven), it is particularly pleasant. At meals, it is usually broken, not cut with a knife and never placed on the table upside down. Boorsok is the pieces of dough, deep fried in boiling oil; it is a traditional table “decoration”. They are produced in large quantities and spread over the dastorkon (a tablecloth) or table at every major celebration. An abundance of Boorsok is seen as a sign of generosity.
Kalama – a flat, unleavened bread – there is no yeast used in the mixture – backed quickly on the top of an iron stove. This is the most common sort of bread eaten in the yurts in the mountain pastures. Kattama is another form of unleavened bread that is baked especially when there are guests. The dough is rolled into a thin layer and greased with butter and rolled to a spiral creating layers and baked on a hot iron stove.
Besh barmak: for Kyrgyz people, besh barmak is not 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). The best pieces are presented to the most honoured guests, with the head - and eyes - going to the lucky guest of honour. Traditionally, the aksakals are given pieces of the thigh bone, while female elders get the tail fat - the highly prized kuirik that delights all Kyrgyz but terrifies most Westerners. Leg and shoulder pieces go to the younger adults, while some of the remaining meat is separated from the bone and mixed with broth and a special sort of flat boiled noodles. Beshbarmak is very much a home-produced, special-occasion food, but sometimes the dish is offered in Kyrgyz restaurants, in which case it usually just means meat and noodles rather than a whole boiled sheep.
After besh barmak, the best dish to serve the honored guest is plov. 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 or beef, with onions and spices, served on a plate garnished 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.
As well as mutton, horse meat is also highly prized, although it tends to be reserved for more special occasions. One popular dish is chuchuk, horse-meat sausages, which are considered to be the ideal accompaniment for vodka drinking sessions. Other meats such as chicken and beef are less popular and are rarely eaten by Kyrgyz (although they are easily found in restaurants). At animal markets, horses for horse meat are sold separately from those intended for riding, as different criteria are at play here. Pork products are not eaten, although these can be found in Russian, Chinese and Korean restaurants.
Among a variety of drinks, one should be mentioned separately. Kymyz is the most popular drink on the jailoo (a high-altitude summer pasture), made from fermented mare’s milk, it has a strong taste not to everybody's liking. 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. Ayran (kefir in Russian) is runny yoghurt; maksym, a thick wheat-based drink that Kyrgyz consider healthy in summer, is sold at street stalls under the brand name of Shoro (who also make koumys).
Alcohol arrived with the Russians at great social cost. Vodka (arak in Kyrgyz) is the favourite; its homemade counterpart, samogon, sold surreptitiously in kiosks, is lethal. Foreign beer is present in force, but tasty local brews are Bars and Steinbrau, brewed by a local German in Bishkek. Kvas is a yeasty Russian drink made from bread.
Tea (black or green) is common and comes in various forms. In the North of the country it is usually made strong and mixed with hot water when served – but in the South it is poured direct from the pot. Don’t be surprised if you see the hostess pour the first few cups back into the pot – this is normal. It may well be served in a small bowl (“chyny”, “piala”) rather than in a cup. Coffee is more likely to be instant served, without milk. Chalap is another traditional drink that you might encounter in rural areas. It is made from kurut (small balls of cheese made from sheep milk) and then diluted with warm or cold water.
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.
A light cloth is unfolded in front of the scat of honour to serve as the tablecloth. Then from the cauldron out comes the liver, which is cut into slices, in addition to chunks of fat—all their sheep have fat tails—and the table is laid. The meal is eaten with the fingers, by making small sandwiches of liver and fat which are plunged into a bowl containing salt passed from hand to hand. The delicate flavour is delicious: I would willingly have made it my main sustenance.
The woman then takes the pieces of meat from the cauldron and begins to sort them out, the head and joints going into a wooden platter, which is passed to Auguste, who is still too ill to be able to eat any. Whereupon our host takes up the head, gouges the eyes out, and eats the points of the ears on the end of his knife. After this the platter is passed to us. The meat is delicious, and comes away of itself from the bone, so tender and succulent, that even when we are full we go on energetically chewing for the pleasure of having the feel of the firm, sweet-tasting flesh in our mouths.
When I come to a stop at last, my knife, cheeks, and all ten fingers swimming in grease, I begin to observe my Kirghiz neighbours. They are still eating, slowly and scrupulously; masticating the very tendons even. One would think they had not had a decent meal for ages. But, as Karutz writes, "To realize how they give themselves up to the pleasure of eating, one must have witnessed it oneself. Anybody who wants to know how the mounds composed of the debris of past feasts built themselves up in prehistoric caves, needs only to eat one sheep among the Kirghiz people. He will then realize what a "clean sweep" really means. Only then will he divine the zeal, the understanding, and success with which a mutton bone can be handled, the persistent and ingenious art with which it can be gnawed, scraped, bitten, crushed, broken, sucked; and how without the aid of the least instrument it can be scraped so irreproachably clean.'
"Turkestan Solo" by Dervla Murphy