As the first post in our “Food in…” series, I’d like to talk about the cuisine of a region that most Americans know very little about – Central Asia. When we think about the “‘Stans,” if they come to mind at all, images of jihadists, camels, and Borat immediately come to mind. What is not immediately apparent is the warm and inviting culture of these countries, and how much Americans and Central Asians actually share in common. Learning more about food, an important aspect of culture in every part of the world, is a great way to bridge these connections and serves as a good starting point for an American-Central Asian dialogue.
Similar to American society, the preparation and consumption of food is an important aspect of Central Asian life. The specific forms these foods take differ significantly from familiar staples like hamburgers, hot dogs, and apple pie. The first thing to know about Central Asian cuisine is that pork and alcohol are traditionally not served, as this is a Muslim region. Another important bit of knowledge is that bread is very highly regarded in this region. Discarding uneaten bits of bread, even in the form of an ice cream cone or bread crust, is a cultural faux pas in these countries. Finally, this is not a very vegetarian-friendly place. If you explain why you don’t eat meat, people may not understand this and will probably ask a lot of questions but they will do their best to accommodate you.
Now, to the food!
Bread is the staple food in Central Asian cuisine. Known in many languages, including Uzbek and Tajik/Dari, as non, there are several different types of bread but you can count on at least one being present at every meal you eat in this region. Non is traditionally made in an outdoor stove called a tanoor but nowadays is also cooked in modern ovens.
Plov, or osh, is a staple in all Central Asian countries. Consisting of rice, carrots, meat, and sometimes raisins, it is a savory meal well-suited for any special occasion. Normally eaten with the hands and a piece of bread, osh is a staple at weddings, birthdays, religious holidays, and any other large gathering.
Dumplings are a common feature of many cuisines around the world, Central Asia included. You can find Turkic manti like these in all of the countries in this region, and they are also very popular in the rest of the former Soviet Union and Western China. They are usually steamed and contain meat, normally beef or goat, inside.
Sambusas, or samosas as they are known in Indian/Pakistani cuisine, are another food Central Asians share in common with neighboring regions. Normally filled with fatty meats, but sometimes pumpkin or other vegetables instead, they can be both a hearty meal and a mid afternoon snack. Like non, sambusas are traditionally prepared in an outdoor tanoor oven.
Qurutob is a traditional Tajik dish, consisting of pieces of dry bread, vegetables, and qurut (dried salty yogurt) served in a watery broth. This is one of the few vegetarian dishes native to the region. It is very heavy, and normally eaten in the cold winter months.
Besides these traditional foods, other types of cuisine are common in the Central Asian countries, especially Russian and Chinese. Even American staples like hamburgers and hot dogs are easy to find, albeit in slightly modified form.
Visiting Central Asia is a culinary adventure, and sampling the delicious foods from osh to sambusas is a treat for any traveler to the region!