Suitcase and World: Central Asian Foodie.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Central Asian Foodie.

Non, a daily staple in Central Asia.  I first came across non in the Central Market in Riga, Latvia.

Central Asian food is not exactly a common cuisine in the US. The first time I tried it was in, believe it or not, Riga, Latvia.  That was on 2013 trip to the Baltics with my brother.  My first taste was of non, the traditional bread of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.  My brother and I walked by a small Uzbek bakery that was churning out loaf after loaf. There was quite a line of people queued up to buy the bread so we decided it must be good.  We got a loaf to go with the smoked fish that we had bought - that would be our picnic lunch for the day.

To me, non was very reminiscent of Indian naan.  I think they are indeed cousins.  Like naan, non is also baked in a tandoor style oven.  When I showed Pat the photo that opens up this posting, she immediately said, "bialy".  Non does look like a bialy except non isn't topped with anything.  Perhaps the two breads share some Eastern European heritage as well.  However non came to be, I have to say, it was pretty delicious to eat.  

My second taste of Central Asian food came on our last night in Riga.   My brother and I were out and about for a pre-dinner stroll.  I wanted to go back and take one last set of photos of the two Mikhail Eisenstein buildings located at Elizabetes iela 10a and 10b.  Just so happened that there was a restaurant at the basement of Elizabetes iela 10a.  It was a pretty upscale restaurant but it offered a very odd menu - Central Asian and Japanese.  We decided to give it a try - I was definitely very curious about the Central Asian side of the menu.


I ordered the beshbarmak which I found out later is is the national dish of nomadic Turkic peoples in Central Asia - more specifically, in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  In fact, it's Kazakhstan's most popular dish.  It's basically a noodle soup topped with boiled meat.  Verdict  Not good.  No, not good at all.  The meat was tough and gamey....I think it was mutton.  Soup tasted gamey and oily.  Noodles were nice and silky though.

For dessert, I ordered the chak-chak which is basically fried dough drenched in honey.  It was huge plate of chak chak and super sweet!


My third taste of Central Asian cuisine came just a week ago.  I went to visit with Pat in NYC and one day, for lunch, we headed to Brooklyn.  Pat had done some checking on the web and found a couple of Uzbek restaurants she thought we could try out.  I was up for it!  We settled on a place in Borough Park called Old Registan Restaurant.  I guess the review must have been a really old one because when we got to the address, there was no Old Registan Restaurant in sight.  But, by the Cyrillic text on the menu, it appeared there was another Central Asian or Russian restaurant in the same place.  As a man walked passed me to enter, I asked if the restaurant was an Uzbek place and he replied, "yes".  The new place is called Cafe Shirin.  I read somewhere that *shirin* means *sweet* in Persian.

We entered and when we first asked if they served lunch, it was a "no" and then a few seconds later, it was a "yes".  We decided to stay.

The menu was pretty short.  Before arriving in to NYC, I had emailed Yuriy to ask his advice on what to eat.  Looking at the menu, I recalled his suggestions.

A few of Yuriy's recommendations were on the menu so we ordered them.

The first dish that came out was lagman, a noodle soup that is traditional in Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, and Turmenistan.  I was fearful it was going to be made with mutton which is definitely a meat that I do not like much but here, it was quite tasty.  It was cold, snowy day in Brooklyn and this hit the spot perfectly.

Lagman.  Notice the mound of dill!

We ordered some samsas which are Uzbek cousins to the Indian samosa except they are meat filled.  The only veggie was a few strips of onion.  Not quite as tasty as a samosa but I can most definitely survive on these.


Pat enjoying her samsa.

We also ordered a manti.  These would be the giant cousin Turkish dumpling of the same name - mantı. Whereas for Turks, the art of mantı requires them to make the teeniest of dumplings, here it's gargantuan.  The filling tasted the same as what was inside the samsa.


We decided we needed some grilled meat.  Uzbek grilled meat on a stick is called *shashlyk*.  On the menu, it was just called kebab.  I think they did that because Americans would recognize the word.  By this time, I was so stuffed, I just had a couple of cubes of the meat.  It was a tad too salty but the flavor was good.

Kebab aka shashlyk.

We washed our meal down with green tea which is the common drink in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

The one thing we didn't get to eat was plov, the iconic rice dish of all five stans.  It's called something slightly differently in each country but it's basically the same thing - rice fried with bits of meat and veggie; the Central Asian version of rice pilaf.  I am sure that we will have plenty of it when we are in the countries.

Before we left, we chatted with a couple of the waiters - both from Samarkand.  I asked one how to say *hello* in Uzbek and he replied, *Salaam aleikum* - same greeting as what you would use in all of the Middle East.  In his email, Yuriy had asked us to say hello but I wanted to make sure I pronounced it correctly.

The food of the five countries most certainly reflects the history of the region.  Back in the days of the Silk Roads, traders moved back and forth between Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East and they brought with them foods that were familiar.  So, from the far east came noodles and dumplings and from the middle east came kebabs and yogurt.  The cuisine also reflects the nomadic roots of the people.  Dried cheese and fermented mares milk are food items common to nomads - I came across both in Tibet and Mongolia.

Based on the little bit of research I've done so far, I've come to the conclusion that you can categorize Central Asian cuisine into two categories - one in which you will find Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the other in which you will find in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. 

All five cuisines are definitely very meat centric with mutton as a common and popular ingredient.  I am not a mutton fan.  Who wants to eat old lamb when they can enjoy baby lamb?  Apparently, horse meat is also common.  I don't remember if I've ever eaten it or not but I'm up for trying some, especially horse sausage.

I don't expect much variety when it comes to vegetables and fruits.  In Mongolia, vegetable equaled onion or carrot.  Same was true in Tibet.  I think root vegetables will be common here so add beets and potatoes to onion and carrot.  Throw in peppers, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant for that Middle Eastern influence.  Surprisingly though, Turkmenistan is known for its melons. Apparently, they are a great source of national pride in Turkmenistan and subject of their own Melon Day holiday. Turkmen sources claim the country is home to up to 400 distinct varieties. Fingers crossed, it will be melon season when we're there!

Drink wise, tea works for me but there's a lot of fermented milk drinks and yogurt to be had.  I will skip those - not a fan though if the yogurt is good, I will enjoy it. Perhaps it will be like the Old Beijing yogurt that I got addicted to when I was in Beijing, China. For the most part, I see a lot of sweet fizzy drinks (read *Coke*) in my future.

Etiquette wise, it appears common to eat with your hands. I have zero skill when it comes to doing that - I've had countless chances to do it in India but it's a no go for me.  I manage to get a few kernels of rice and maybe a bit of meat or vegetable but each bite is so small, I pretty burn up the calories picking up the next bite.  Too frustrating.  I am packing along some plastic forks, spoons and knives.  Shake your head all you want but I know what I'm not good at and this is a skill I sorely lack given all the places I go to where where eating with your hands is the de facto practice.

In any event, it will be interesting to see what our meals will be like.  Pat and I are traveling on our own but will be with a guide or driver pretty much all the time.  I'll be pushing for eating at local restaurants so we can really taste the cuisine of each country.  Let's see how long we last before we bail and scream for veggie pasta!