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I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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Sunday
Feb032008

eating along the silk road: kyrgyzstan’s tradition of generosity survives

 

We hopped out of our dusty car and were greeted by a young boy who led us around back to a small restaurant. I slipped off my shoes, and entered the dim, cool hut with my socks on, and sat cross-legged in a semi circle on the blue-and-white checkered blanket.

Even though it was May and the markets were already full of strawberries from the warm, sunny days, the evenings were surprisingly chilly. The eating room, which was one of four set apart from the open-air kitchen, warmed quickly with the heat of six hungry travelers.

Our group settled into a semi-circle facing the door so we could keep an eye out for the waiter. Minutes later, our server appeared -- the same boy who greeted us. The slim boy was about 12 years old with wide cheeks and shiny black hair wearing a red soccer T-shirt. He held a basket of unleavened bread in one hand and a pot of tea in another. He came back several times, bringing teacups and silverware, and then bowls filled with a mixture of cooked tomato and onions as our appetizer.

After hours of not eating, my stomach lurched with hunger. I tore a piece of bread, spooned the sauce over it, and gulped it down.

The boy returned with a steaming platter of rice pilaf and stewed beef. The moist, mildly-spiced dish of which I never learned the name, offered simple, savory flavors and was a satisfying main course. I enjoyed it with my two photographer colleagues and Kyrgyz guide, who were traveling with me to record a USAID project on land reform for my work. When we were ready to go, we learned that the dinner bill had already been paid. We looked at Almaz, our Kyrgyz guide. He smiled and shrugged. “Thank you,” I said.

We met and talked to more than 20 people while traveling in Jalalabad. The next day we met up with a shy, gold-toothed widow who lived in a simple, one-room house invited us in for tea. Mansura Mamsadikova, a 49-year-old mother of two teenagers, filled our cups with the steaming liquid then surprised us with a plain but generous meal of bread, peanuts, jam, and mints.

Mansura, who dressed in layers of purple cotton and wool, told me about how, after her husband died, she was able to reclaim her land because of a U.S. foreign aid project. “We cultivate the land ourselves,” she said, about her and her two children. “We grow rice, carrots, and wheat.”


Mansura and me in her Jalalabad home
Photograph taken by Ben Fraser and Laura Miller

We heard Mansura’s story and so many like hers -- one generous bread loaf and cup of tea at a time. Like Mansura, everyone we met was so willing to give and to share food and drink. I later learned that generosity was the key to surviving the nomadic life that had dominated the region for centuries. The rural citizens still thrive on an informal economy of mutual favors. Kindness toward others has become a way of life.

While in rural Kyrgyzstan, I ate boiled eggs and cold cuts for breakfast and slurped the national stew called “laghman” at a roadside restaurant in Tokmok, mid-size city outside of Bishkek. Laghman, an occasionally oily but rich, peppery mutton and noodle stew with onions, carrots, garlic, green radishes, and tomatoes, is the kind of food you would eat before herding cattle up a mountain slope in the biting cold. It's peppery and gamey and quite satisfying.

At the end of our trip, we returned to the capital of Bishkek, a bustling city of nearly a million people. It seemed like worlds away from the small, rural communities we had visited. While citizens in the rural areas speak only Kyrgyz, Russian is the dominant language here.

I cozied into a chair at the “Opera Lounge,” a candle-lit area with couches and tables at the Hyatt. A flautist playing Western classical music accompanied soft voices and clinking of silverware. Despite my memorable experiences in the rural homes of Kyrgyz, the modern, comfortable atmosphere was a welcome.

My waitress, a slim, young woman with silky blond hair and pouty red lips approached my table. She wore a crisp, white shirt and fitted black vest that gave her a down-to-business look, but her eyes sparkled mischievously. She asked me in a heavy Russian accent what I would like to drink.

The menu showed three wines by the glass: a Moldovan cabernet, a Chilean Merlot, and a pricey French Bordeaux. I was amazed to see Chilean wine in Kyrgyzstan and figured it was a safe bet so picked that.

“Yes, please,” she said, darting off between the tables and couches.

My mind wandered to a phone call with my husband. My birthday was just a few days away. He asked what I wanted.

I thought about it – shoes, a new dress? But all I wanted was to share a simple meal.

He laughed. “Good, I’ll make you dinner.”

Laghman

from the Golden Road to Samarqand


1/2 kg meat (beef, or mutton)
Noodles
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
1 marinated pepper
2 big onions
2 medium carrots
2 cloves of garlic
3 big green radishes
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
2-3 tomatoes (or 3 tablespoons of tomato paste)

Directions:
Chop the meat into very small pieces and sauté with butter and the red pepper in a kazan or heavy-bottomed pot. After about 5-7 minutes add 1/3 cup of cold water. Bring it to a boil and then add the onions, carrots, garlic, green radishes, and tomatoes. Steam in low heat for 30 minutes. Turn up the heat and stir for about 5 minutes. Add cold water (depending on the number of people you are cooking for, approximately 1.5 to 2 cups per person) and bring to a boil again. Lower the heat and keep for 30 minutes more. In a separate pot prepare spaghetti or linguini noodles. Put the pasta in bowls and cover with the sauce. (Too make the dish more interesting feel free to add other vegetables such as eggplant. You can also use homemade noodles or egg noodles).

Reader Comments (3)

Hi, I just returned from Kyrgyzstan and thought you might like to know that the rice dish you had in Jalalabad was most likely called Plov. I enjoyed it at the home of my new son in law's mother in Bishkek.
Joan

September 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoan

Thanks, Joan! That must be what it was. You can find a few recipes here:

http://ambarcuisine.blogspot.com/search?q=plov

September 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Hi Angela - Enjoy your blog and this post in particular very much. I'm writing a book of fiction about a man whose livelihood consists of traveling the world seeking out new and unique varieties of chile peppers. He's part of the fanatical group of spice junkies called chile-heads, and this is what I call an "epicurean adventure". My tale centers on the rumor of a new strain of pepper reported at the crossroads of the Silk Road in southern Kyrgyzstan, in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains. If perhaps you have any impressions of the Naryn Valley, or seeing peppers in the market at Osk, I would be happy to hear from you. Happy eating!

mcraft@dunemag.net

February 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan Craft

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