Want to learn about Uzbekistan’s food? Looking for Kazakh recipes? Read Caroline Eden’s guide.
Caroline Eden is a travel and food writer focussing on the former Soviet nations and South Asia. Her latest book, Red Sands (£26, Quadrille) is out now.
Central Asian cuisine
Given the wide multicultural mix and geographical spread, there is no one cuisine in Central Asia; rather, within each republic – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – there is an eclectic blend. In Kazakhstan, you might eat at Russian or Georgian cafés, while in Kyrgyzstan perhaps try Uyghur or Uzbek food. Crossover dishes – the rice dish plov, manti (dumplings), laghman (noodles), samsa (savoury turnovers) and shashlik (meat skewers) – are served widely.
Tea, mineral water (Borjomi, Georgian sparkling water, is popular) and vodka or cognac are ubiquitous, but in cities such as Bishkek and Almaty, you’ll find burgeoning craft beer scenes, some of it very good. Flat golden discs of non bread, glazed, scattered with sesame seeds and baked on the clay walls of a tandyr, are served at every meal along with steaming cups of chai. Food tends to be lightly spiced and without chilli heat – cumin is common – but red hot laza, a thick chilli paste, is a welcome exception, good dabbed onto samsa or on the side with laghman. Turkish food is popular everywhere, and sushi and Korean cafés are on the rise, especially in large cities such as Tashkent, Bishkek and Almaty. Thankfully, nowadays you can get a decent coffee in most cities.
Central Asian recipes
Laghman is a Uyghur noodle dish topped with a mild stew of meat and vegetables. Uyghur cooks rightly demand that the noodles should be hand-pulled, but they are pros at the delicate and tricky art of pulling and flinging noodles, and if you’re not, well, it is challenging to put it mildly. This version (reluctantly) cheats on the noodles but brings you the warming flavours of laghman, a dish served throughout Central Asia, popular with everyone, from yesterday’s commissars to today’s chess players.
Flaky and buttery samsa, Central Asia’s beloved turnovers, are known in Tajikistan as sambusa. Elsewhere in the region, fillings are typically beef, lamb, pumpkin, spinach or potatoes but in Dushanbe there are chickpea ones and, in the springtime, herb-filled variations. This recipe combines the two. Samsa or sambusa are always eaten with green tea – this is especially the case if they’re lamb as the tea cuts through the fat
The perfect storecupboard bake. Use up that tin of peaches with this light and fluffy sponge cake, topped with a soured cream frosting.
What to eat in Central Asia
Golden non bread is typically the size of a dinner plate and has a depressed centre containing an indented pattern. A bit like a bagel, it is chewy, soft and crisp all at once.
Quince is popular here, especially in Uzbekistan, usually going onto plov or, best of all, cooked into jam. Perfectly paired with warm non bread at breakfast time.
Cooked in tandyr ovens, samsa are triangular or square pastries typically filled with lamb but also potato, pumpkin and, in Tajikistan, where they are known as sambusa, greens and chickpeas. Very lightly spiced, if at all, topped with a few black sesame seeds.
There are many variations of plov. Layered and cooked in a cauldron called a kazan, plov is rice, onions and carrots with lamb or beef, and usually a whole head of garlic. On top, there is sometimes a chilli pepper, quail’s eggs or chopped quince.
In the 19th century, Muslim Dungans in China escaped persecution by fleeing to Central Asia. Ashlan-fu – cool noodles served in a spicy vinaigrette broth, topped with shreds of omelette, vegetables and chives – is one of their most popular dishes, and rightly so.