The centre-piece of the Turkmen diet is bread (chorek), traditionally eaten as a flat, round loaf, stamped for decoration with patterns of dots supplied by a small wooden hand-stamp. Bread is treated by Turkmens not as a simple food, but as something sacred, a building-block of life. Many superstitions surround it. It is considered unlucky, for example, to leave your chorek upside down. Official visitors to a Turkmen institution such as a school are greeted by a girl in long velvet dress holding out a chorek, from which they are expected to break off a piece as a sign of the acceptance of the hospitality of the institution. If you are invited to a meal with a Turkmen family, the first food offered is likely to be a chorek, carefully unwrapped from the cloth in which it has been kept warm. You should break off a piece, and hand the chorek on to your neighbour. When you leave your hosts, you may be again offered a piece of bread, as a talisman for the journey. Chorek is delicious when fresh and warm, but hardens quickly, rather losing its appeal.
The chorek is made in a conical clay-oven, or tamdyr. You will see these in the courtyards of houses throughout Turkmenistan, in towns as well as rural areas. The tamdyr, like the bread itself, is treated with reverence. It is considered unlucky even to destroy a tamdyr, which is why you will sometimes see a bright new tamdyr standing next to an old, abandoned one.
Bread also features heavily in one of the most traditional Turkmen dishes, dograma, a heavy soup containing torn pieces of chorek, onions and roasted meat. Families tend to reserve dograma for religious festivals, especially Kurban Bayram, and a more omnipresent soup is chorba, usually made with large lumps of fatty mutton, halved potatoes, and whatever vegetables are available. Soups are usually eaten with brightly coloured papier-mache spoons.
Turkmen cuisine features several other dishes well known across Central Asia, including manty, like large ravioli, usually filled with minced meat and onion. These are served with sour cream and eaten by hand, the juices from the ravioli parcels dripping down your arm. Another Central Asian staple is plov, a rice dish incorporating meat (usually chunks of mutton), onion, garlic and carrots, cooked up in a heavy round pot called a kazan with the aid of huge quantities of cottonseed oil, which gives the finished dish a distinctly oily taste. Along the Caspian coast, you can sometimes find a fish plov, made with sturgeon and raisins, which makes a great alternative to the fattier meat version.
As everywhere in the region, kebabs (here usually known by the Russian word, shashlik) are very popular. You will see the special barbecue stands, mangal, outside restaurants and cafes across the country. Purists argue that shashlik tastes at its best only when the gnarled, twisted wood of the desert saxaul is used for the barbecue. The shashliks are skewered lumps of lamb, mutton, chicken, pork or sturgeon, or a version called lyulya, a long sausage of minced lamb, all served with pieces of raw onion and some sprinkled greenery. Turkmen kebabs tend to be fatty.
The more traditional Turkmen dishes are not always easy to find in Turkmenistan's restaurants. Most Turkmens rarely eat at a restaurant, except at weddings and other celebratory events, when special menus featuring Turkmen fare will be prepared, and many restaurant menus retain a somewhat Russian feel. They typically include a long list of mainly mayonnaise-heavy salads. Olivye is what is known in Britain as Russian salad. Selyodka pod shuboy, literally 'herring in a fur coat', involves pickled herring buried by layers of beetroot and mayonnaise. Russian staples such as the beetroot soup borscht, golubtsy, which are meat-filled cabbage parcels, and various types of breaded cutlets, fill up the menu and will do the same to the diner.
Turkmen dishes are easier to find in cheaper cafes around markets, and roadside truck-stops. Markets are also good places to try the popular hot pastries, most of which have a minced-meat and onion filling. Somsas are small triangle-shaped pastries, and make a good snack. Those made by the ethnic Uzbek communities in Dashoguz and Lebap regions are said to be the best. Fitchi are larger, and circular. Ishlekli are the largest of all; coronary-inducing large round pies.
Some traditional dishes are served as a particularly high honour to a guest, though if you find yourself the recipient of a sheep's head, you may wish that you had been accorded a lesser honour. One particularly impressive dish, whose name refers more to a way of cooking than the dish itself, is a tamdyrlama. Other unusual food items you might come across include nabat, a yellow crystallised sugar, and gurt, salty balls of dried curd, eaten as a savoury snack with beer. Another popular bar snack is dried fish.
Dessert is generally fruit, ice-cream, or a cake decorated with alarmingly garish icing. Fruit is definitely the best option. Turkmen grapes are sweet and juicy and, in the autumn, pomegranates are popular. Turkmenistan is, however, most famous for its melons. Fluge piles of different types of melons and watermelons dominate Turkmenistan's bazaars during the summer months. The Turkmen government released in 1999 a Turkmen Melons Atlas, which listed a total of 378 types of Turkmen melon, plus 54 watermelons and 55 pumpkins. Among the most prized of Turkmen melons is the rugby ball-shaped yellow- and green-skinned waharman.