Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

14 May 2013

Eating my way through Central Asia

Posted by Will

As a cyclist, getting enough to eat in Central Asia presents a major challenge. I’ve harked on and on about this in previous posts and so its about time I presented a bit more information about the different dishes found in this part of the world. Using a highly simplistic and unsatisfactory out-of-ten scoring system, I have tried to rank the dishes against each other. I don’t know many food-related adjectives (expect maximum milage from ‘delicious’, ‘tasty’ etc..) but I do know what I enjoy and what I need to eat to keep going. I also have the spirit to try new, potentially vomit-inducing dishes. Surely that justifies trying my hand at a bit of food journalism.

Somsa: 7/10. Also known as Samsas and Sambusas, these greasy little pastry packets are found all over the region. The good ones are bulging with a mix of lean seasoned sheep meat and onions, come piping hot and ideally have a slightly burned and crunchy underside. The bad ones are no more than a piece of soggy half-dough wrapped around a few lumps of fat. And since somsas are usually served straight out of a covered clay oven it’s almost impossible to tell which type you’ve bought until it’s too late. In the bazaar, beside the road or on the family table: a trip to Central Asia could never be complete without a taste of the best and worse of somsa. somsa
Chorba/Shorpa: 4/10. A very watery, brownish soup which most often hides an undercooked boiled potato and fatty piece of meat (amongst other less pleasant things) in its murky depths. It’s not too bad if I tear bread into the bowl but since I’m eating bread for every other meal it’s pretty hard to swallow. Add as much salt as possible. I ate chorba for lunch every day across the Tajik heartland and unsurprisingly was hungry most of the time. Simple, quick and warming: those are the redeeming qualities. chorba
Plov: 8/10. Essentially rice cooked in sheep fat with a sprinkling of carrot and meat on top, plov looks a little like risotto. A local favourite almost everywhere, plov gets a high rating in all categories from this carry-on-cycling-connoisseur. Great taste, filling, traditional, usually served in abundance, and sufficiently varied across the region to keep my interest up. Plov is that sort of age-old dish eaten from a communal bowl, often with hands and has no-doubt witnessed far more than any of its diners combined. p1050429-800
Manti: 3/10. Order manti and five minutes later five greasy dumplings appear, the standard Central Asian fried meat and onion combo surrounded by deliberately soggy dough. A heavy and lethargic state of being almost always follows consumption and has been known to plunge this particular traveller into a series of existential crises. Sometimes served with tomato ketchup or mayonnaise in a desperate and ultimately fruitless attempt to deceive the tastebuds, manti can not justify it’s consistent place on menus of the region. Why as much as 3/10? Well, they are filling, I’ll give them that. p1050424-800
Lagman: 9/10. I would quite happily order a lagman back in Britain. The first indication that food is moving in the ‘Chinese’ direction, lagman combines a bed of home-made noodles and a thick sauce of onions, tomatoes, coriander, thin strips of usually lean meat and other varied herbs and spices. A good restaurant should always provide a small saucer of fresh chilli. In stark contrast to manti, lagman gives life and reminds me that food in Central Asia has the potential to be incredibly delicious.  p1050422-800
Gan-Fan: 9/10. All the praise heaped on lagman should equally be piled on gan-fan. In this dish, the same tasty sauce is used to cover rice instead of noodles. Rice works particularly well when the sauce is on the watery side and is less prone to flicking tomato over the diner’s clothes and face as noodles almost always do. Only discovered a week ago, gan-fan will undoubtedly feature heavily in my life over the coming weeks. p1050513-800
Shashlik: 5/10. A skewer of sheep meat grilled over a bed of hot coals served with a plate of finely sliced raw onion shouldn’t go wrong as often as it does. The main problem is the meat. The meat quality varies from ‘vaguely acceptable’ to ‘not meat’. At the lower end of the spectrum the meat is almost certainly not all sheep. A recent scandal in Bishkek concerning government agency officials profiting from the sale of stray dog meat after culls has certainly made me think twice about getting a bite to eat from the numerous street vendors. Also, shashlik rarely comes with an accompanying carbohydrate – an issue for a hungry cyclist shashlik

Shirchai: 4/10. Only found in the Pamiri region of Tajikistan, shirchai deserves a special mention because it was pretty much the only warm thing I ate on the Pamir Highway. The dish is made from two ingredients: milk (shir) and tea (chai). And this is where the complicated part comes in: they’re mixed together. I would love to write pages complimenting the subtleties of the dish, the exact sequence in which the flavours stroke the palate, the unique and innovative ingredients … but alas, I can’t seem to find the words. On the plus side, it makes stale bread less stale. And the milk is superb.

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And a few others. Piroshki: 7/10. Deep fried dough with a thin layer of potato inside. Incredibly unhealthy but also always cheap and readily available. Yak Butter: 3/10. Could never warm up to it. Slimier than regular butter. Condensed milk tins: 9/10. 1300 calories per tin tells the story. Life-saver in the Pamirs. Now added to morning porridge and coffee. Also a key ingredient in the ‘breakfast of champions’. Breakfast of Champions: 8/10. Rice, condensed milk and a heap of chopped apricots: you won’t have to eat for the rest of the day. Snickers: 10/10. Many thanks to the Mars co-operation who create the food to which all other food should aspire.

And with that remark – the final proof that I am an enlightened and cultured human being – I rest my case. I am more than qualified to write a food post.

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8 Comments already on “Eating my way through Central Asia”
  1. 6:49 ampermalink
    14 May 2013

    charles

    Interesting lingustic parallels from south of the Himalayas.

  2. 8:23 ampermalink
    14 May 2013

    Andrew

    I’ll have to share this entry with my foodie friend Anne. She could get some inspiration from your insights in Central Asian cuisine. She has her own professional food blog and (soon) TV show – Anne’s Kitchen – http://anneskitchen.co.uk. Maybe you two could work together :P

    But mate, sounds just like Europe, what with officials profiting from questionable meat in various “meat” dishes.

    And P.S. – sheep meat = mutton ;) much like cow = beef, and pig = pork, etc. But you knew that, right!?

    Bon appetit

  3. 11:33 ampermalink
    14 May 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    I remember a holiday in Thailand where we giggled over a packet of intestine in a supermarket being labelled as “interesting” instead! Your dishes certainly look interesting! Hope you are having a nice rest. XXXX

  4. 12:27 pmpermalink
    14 May 2013

    Nevin

    Now this is my kind of post! Funnily enough, manti in Turkey are tiny little dough parcels of beef and onion which you cover in yoghurt and sumac and (I think) are delicious. The central Asian version definitely doesn’t look as appetising! Hope you had a great time with Luke xxx

  5. 2:22 pmpermalink
    16 May 2013

    Andrew Johnston

    Damn – Vica has just put Manti onto her canapé menu!!! keep it coming. Ax

  6. 12:17 pmpermalink
    12 Jun 2013

    Laurens

    I wish I could upload a pic of the ‘Johnston-sludge’ we had for breakfast yesterday!

  7. 2:52 pmpermalink
    15 Jul 2013

    Kyrgyzstan – von der Askese in die Oase | die Vielfalt der Welt entdecken

    [...] vielfältigen Küche zu Hause. Zur zentralasiatischen Küche gibt es eine gute Übersicht auf dem Blog von Will (auf [...]

  8. 3:02 pmpermalink
    15 Jul 2013

    Kyrgyzstan – from asceticism into the oasis | discovering world's diversity

    [...] After two nights in the hostel we are allowed to move to the Umar’s parents. Umar himself cannot host us, but like our request so that he asked his parents. They agreed immediately and for two days they spoil us with Kyrgyz deliciousnesses. Again we experience the big difference between street food (=always the sama) and the versatile cooking at private homes. A good overview about the Central Asian cuisine can be found on Will’s blog. [...]