In commercial gastronomy, I am not a stranger. Historical reconstruction in the form of walking in epaulettes and galoshes across a dry summer field, shooting from toy pistols, looks great as a trance for people who want to choose militarism as a formal life orientation. But how can a historian truly feel the era? Documents and works of art that we know it from were created by prepared people in advance. What is more interesting is not their “textual trance”, but what active representatives of their time really felt, who were ready to face life difficulties “face to face”. So I realized at the time that gastronomic reconstruction is much more valuable than cosplay or “dress-up”. Having tasted a correctly reconstructed dish, you understand exactly what was missing for people of their time, what caused a surge of activity in them, how they began to see the world around them during moments of pleasure from life.
Going along this route, I reconstructed sturgeon ear soup that was popular among Volga region merchants. Choosing the right niche allowed me to literally earn millions, and the results of my cooking method were praised several times even by specialized connoisseurs of sophisticated cuisine from completely different parts of the world – because time after time, cooking “for the sake of history and money at the same time” allowed me to refine the ingredient composition and methods of this unique “first course.”
It is not surprising that when I find myself in new places, one of the important and most valuable experiences for me is to find and try the cuisine that was valued by people with ambition who considered this land their own.
But let’s cut to the chase and move on to the instructions for a Kyrgyz lunch that we could call ideal.
Under this name at the head of our table, we have an exquisite soup that introduces us to how much experience of generations is contained in the classic nomads’ relationship with meat. Let’s start with the broth – it is expressive and deep, but at the same time, light thanks to a very correct selection, concentration, and timing of adding greens to the dish. It’s amazing how a bone broth, which is perceived in our kitchen as “heavy,” can be brought to such a state that it feels like a light “starter” dish.
In the bowl, there is an impressive amount of meat on the bone, so if you’re trying to save, consuming just the shorpo in terms of nutritional value looks like a full restaurant lunch in the northernmost megacities on the planet.
If you are used to having bread with your soup, do not miss the local tradition of ordering Boorsook with sour cream for lunch. In restaurants, it is served with a village-style sour cream that is very thick in consistency, not runny at all, but with a slight oily texture and of the highest quality. Boorsook are light, oily wheat snacks that are dipped in a bowl of thick sour cream for added flavor.
If you think that meat and hot soup are not the best option for the hot half of the year, then head straight to the city of Karakol to try the gastronomic specialty – Ashlyan-fu. This cold starchy and spicy noodle soup is popular throughout the country and is refreshing, nourishing, and disinfecting all at the same time. Thanks to the last factor, you don’t have to be squeamish about trying Ashlyan-fu in the market or in a cheap snack bar. The cold soup is influenced by the Chinese gastronomic culture, brought by the Dungans – Chinese who adopted Islam during the interactions with Silk Road merchants and emigrated to the Issyk-Kul plateau due to tensions with the government in Beijing. If you’re looking to lower your calorie intake, the Lyafu version of the soup without wheat noodles is perfect. And if you’re looking for a salad before any soup, borrowing from Chinese cuisine would be very handy.
Now let’s move on to the main courses.
Besh barmak is a traditional Kyrgyz dish made of boiled meat served with handmade noodles. The meat can be beef or lamb, but sometimes horse meat is also included as separate radial portions. Besh barmak is the dish that inspired me to undertake this culinary journey.
With the experience of two decades of one of the most conceptual practices of river nomadism on the continent, I know on a physiological level what it is to wake up for weeks amidst the valley fog, wondering how people can breathe in the air of a big store after a month of wandering around Ladoga, Svir and Onega. Beshbarmak is delightful for those who are active in the real environment, with all its changes and rhythms. But even living according to the principles of Henry Ford – with a strict schedule and all heated residential premises, an organized workplace – one can appreciate to what extent the excellent broth of beshbarmak is superior.
You pour it into a separate bowl, dip the handmade noodles into it, and then bite into pieces of tender meat. Both the soup and the main course are of high quality here. Immersed in besh barmak, for the first fifteen minutes, you literally don’t notice anything else. A “mental yurt” arises around you, pushing life’s problems and other restaurant patrons to the outer edges of consciousness. Space is freed up for your thoughts, which flow steadily, harmonize, and help you find a world in which none of life’s challenges evoke the desire to defeat them but to harness the most powerful forces of movement in nature. Besh barmak is a dish to cap off an active day, unlike my fish soup, which first supplies food intoxication, and then, with the taste of spices and excellent herbs, provides what Californians would call a “merchant’s kickstart”.
With besh barmak, I personally run the risk of a physiological transformation into a character like the Baron from “Dune”. “Nearly wonderful kitchen cuisine.” “Became a perfect baron,” as they would say in old Tsarist times.
Lagman is a dish with its origins in the lands of the Uyghurs, an indigenous people of Western China. It consists of vegetables, handmade noodles, meat, and a delicious sauce.
Lagman presents a phenomenon of perfect gastronomic balance. The ingredients of different nature, action and taste in lagman play a harmonious choir, which ultimately guarantees pleasant sensations, satiety and activity throughout the rest of the day.
“Lagman is the perfect business lunch by itself. It can be prepared in a variety of ways, allowing each lunch to be made unique.”
Fried Trout with Vegetables
In my family, a lot is connected to fish. My great-grandfather was a commercial fisherman from Tatintsy, a place similar to the Dnieper’s Khortytsia. My second great-grandfather embarked on an incredible adventure with railway deliveries of sturgeon (and failed due to the thaw and the lack of refrigeration technology). My grandfather supplied dozens of relatives in Sormovo with his catch for years.
My first earnings were from a two-week catch of chekhoni fish on a fishing rod at the cape of the big Tatinsky island, for 40 Soviet rubles per day. Even on the blade of my tourist knife, there is a double-sided engraving of, forgive me, sturgeon. My great-great-grandfather did not quite succeed in turning this fish into money, but I did. I closed the cycle, answered the call of nature.
When I was heading to Issyk-Kul and its surrounding mountain rivers, I anticipated getting acquainted with the rich local fish cuisine. The dictionary was also misleading: “balyk” – fish, “baylyk” – wealth.
I open the menu in the restaurant and see criminally little fish. Locally, only trout is available. During the season, they can also serve fresh endemic fish, but in general, there are plenty of valuable fish in the nature here. If you want to shake things up from meat dishes, taste what locals value in fish cuisine – fried trout with vegetables on a skillet, cooked in a thick, Chinese-style oil. But in general, the fish section of the local menu is constantly expanding, both in composition and cooking methods.
Living for decades in an area where it’s extremely cold and our rivers are also damp, making the season last for endless 7-8 months out of 12, you can’t avoid the fact that alcoholic beverages are part of people’s way of life, helping them to warm their blood on a regular basis, in real life.
The city of Bishkek has been producing a very decent brandy since the Soviet seventies. Its top price range will delight connoisseurs with its flavor tones, but even the cheapest variety, which is important, does not cause any after-effects in dealing with the world around us the next day.
There is a decent locally produced beer, better if it’s in glass bottles, paying attention to the expiration dates.
And wine is also produced, pay attention to the labeling of local enterprises, what is called imported wine in stores and can have a variety of labels – is chemically questionable in composition. Local wine is average in taste characteristics, but very stable in quality.
If you want to buy groceries at stores, pay attention to the dairy products. Cottage cheese, kefir – are much better than what you can see here for the highest price. Locally produced sausages are very, very good. But what we call cheese here is expensive and unclear. Only one enterprise produces it, judging by the price, they are heavily in debt. In the local tradition, cheese is also called cheese-like snacks, such as solidified kefir and similar types of snacks.
The bread in my hometown of Nizhny Novgorod is very good, and Kyrgyz round tandoor flatbreads, which are sold in stores instead of wheat bread, are on a comparable level. In many regions of Russia, bread is something vague and unappetizing.