Trans Eurasia travel

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If you’re invited home for a meal this can be your best introduction to local customs and traditions as well as to local cuisine. Don’t go expecting a quick bite. Your host is likely to take the occasion very seriously. Uzbeks, for example, say mehmon otanda ulugh, ‘the guest is greater than the father’. It’s important to arrive with a gift. Something for the table (eg some fruit from the market) will do. Better yet would be something for your hosts’ children or their parents, preferably brought from your home country (eg sweets, postcards, badges, a picture book). Pulling out your own food or offering to pay someone for their kindness is likely to humiliate them (although some travellers hosted by very poor people have given a small cash gift to the eldest child, saying that it’s ‘for sweets’). Don’t be surprised if you aren’t thanked: gifts are taken more as evidence of God’s grace than of your generosity.

You should be offered water for washing, as you may be eating with your hands at some point. Dry your hands with the cloth provided; shaking the water off your hands is said to be impolite. Wait until you are told where to sit; honoured guests are often seated by Kyrgyz or Kazakh hosts opposite the door (so as not to be disturbed by traffic through it, and because that is the warmest seat in a yurt). Men (and foreign women guests) might eat separately from women and children of the family.

The meal might begin with a mumbled prayer, followed by tea. The host breaks and distributes bread. After bread, nuts or sweets to ‘open the appetite’, business or entertainment may begin. The meal itself is something of a free-for-all. Food is served, and often eaten, from common plates, with hands or big spoons. Always eat, offer and accept food with your right hand, never your left. Pace yourself – eat too slowly and someone may ask if you’re ill or unhappy; too eagerly and your plate will be immediately refilled. Praise the cook early and often; your host will worry if you’re too quiet.

Traditionally, a host will honour an important guest by sacrificing a sheep for them. During these occasions the guest is given the choicest cuts, such as the eyeball, brain or meat from the right cheek of the animal. Try to ensure that your presence doesn’t put your host under financial hardship. At least try to leave the choicest morsels for others. If alcohol consumption is modest, the meal will end as it began, with tea and a prayer.