Authentic Kyrgyz cuisine revolves around few key ingredients - the main one being meat. Nomadic people didn’t have the luxury of having a garden full of fresh vegetables or have the means to haul and store them in harsh mountain climates. These limitations resulted in many variants of meat dishes and dairy products - two ingredients that were readily available to a nomad living in pasture lands high in the mountains. Scarcity of produce compelled people to experiment different techniques to extract best possible flavors from what they had. Most of which got passed down generations and made it all the way to a 13 year old kid in a small village. I had to milk two cows three times a day, so by the time I graduated from high school i learned how to produce 8 other dairy byproducts with no other added ingredients besides salt.
“Acquired taste” is what, probably, describes Kyrgyz cuisine the best
"An acquired taste is an appreciation for something unlikely to be enjoyed by a person who has not had substantial exposure to it”.
Though it’s true for some traditional drinks, simple recurrent experience is not enough to fully appreciate Kyrgyz cuisine. Food culture is deeply intertwined with the collectivist values of the people. These values dictate how food is prepared, how it’s served, and even where guests sit depending on their status. Unlike food cultures of countries like France and Italy where food preparation is a hobby and an artistic expression for oneself Kyrgyz culture puts emphasis on the food being prepared by one set of people for another set of people which derives from the core values of collectivism -“ prioritization of the group over the self.”
Social hierarchy or your place at the table.
There’s an intricate set of unwritten rules that if not followed by the hosts and everyone at the table can lead to hurt feelings and have in fact led to conflicts in the past between tribes and families. These traditional table etiquette rules are ever present in the lives of modern Kyrgyz people. Before I sat down to write this blog I asked my mom how often these misunderstandings happen when she attends large social gatherings to which she replied with “frequently”. In pair with century old cooking practices these customs make up the Kyrgyz culinary experience. Social standing of the guest determines where they sit at the table and which cuts of the meat they are served. Factors such as age, gender, whether you are local or travelling guest, and if you are an immediate family or someone representing the in-laws (in-laws having the higher status) help the hosts to find your spot along the table. Further away you are sat from the door the higher your status deemed to be. So, if you are invited to a feast and you are being pushed to closer to the head of the table or to occupy the “tor” (place of honor) then it’s just the hosts and other guests observing the protocol. Whilst you are being accorded a new status in the main dining room there’s a council of aunts and uncles deciding which cut of the meat you will be served. Now this is where things get political. Sit a guest at the wrong side of the table or serve them a cut that doesn’t match their self-perceived social status and you’ll have an offended guest.
By the end of the evening as the main meal you’ll be presented with your cut of the meat. In a traditional setting this piece will be times bigger that what you can actually eat in one sitting. So, don’t feel obligated to finish it. Eventually you’ll be given a bag to take it home with you along with other items.
“Operation tote bag”
When I was a kid and my parents left the house to go to a wedding I could always count on them coming back with bag of goodies. Leaving a wedding or other celebratory dinner with a bag full of stuff from the table is a cultural phenomenon that I never took interest in as kid. Apples, bananas, candies, chocolate bars, pastries, couple of chicken legs and beef all in the same bag, borrowing flavors from each other was a treat to a kid that just spent 500 calories rallying up 200 ducks.
Only as an adult, when I was handed a bag at the end of my friend’s wedding I had to think about about my stance on this century old tradition. I refused to take anything with me then for two reasons - one: I lived alone and didn’t have hungry kids waiting for treats at home and two: going to an after party at a chic club with a see through plastic bag filled with meat didn’t match my outfits’ ensemble of the night. Later, however, I gave it a great deal of thought and came to the conclusion that it was in fact a very useful and, despite its century old history, timely tradition. In times of overproduction and food wastage at unprecedented levels this tradition should, perhaps, be adopted by other cultures as well.
At some point in our lives, we have all indulged in the fantasy of time travel. I certainly have. Every time I do so Silk Road era Kyrgyzstan ends up being on the top of my list. I would give kidney and a half to go back in time to travel some 70 plus kilometers from where i am right now to a bustling ancient city of Balasgun. To wander it’s dusty streets Silk Road was instrumental not only in the movement of goods, but of culinary practices, techniques, cooking know-hows, and of course, ingredients and herbs, among which was tea. First introduced by the Silk Road merchants into the region tea remains an irreplaceable and undisputed drink of the Kyrgyz and of Central Asians for centuries. Tea-houses (chaihana) were the early versions of coffee shops, community centers, book clubs, debate clubs and played fundamental role in community building during that era. As you travel around Central Asia you’ll see plenty of tea houses starting from chic outfits with intricate interior designs occupying thousands of square meters as well as small huts with few tapchans set outside. As you travel along Central Asian valleys take a moment to visit a chaihana and enjoy a satisfying and hearty drink infused with herbs, honey and bits of various fruits.
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