Kyrgyzstan’s cuisine is nothing short of different. I’m not saying this as an insult, in fact, quite the opposite. Part of what I was expecting when studying abroad was to experience a completely different culture. On my first day in Kyrgyzstan, I went to a little café which was popular among American ex-pats, where I had a sandwich and pumpkin soup. Nothing too extraordinary. However, my next meal was a little more of what I was expecting when I wanted to experience different food. I tried two traditional Kyrgyz foods called plov and borsook. Plov is a rice dish with potatoes, carrots, onions, and special seasoning fried in oil while borsook are little balls of fried dough traditionally served with sour cream. Plov and borsook are made to serve large amounts of people. While plov is commonly eaten as a normal meal, borsook is usually saved for special occasions like New Year celebrations and weddings. What makes plov so special to me is that each family makes it differently, depending on what spices they prefer and even what kind of carrot they prefer. It quickly became my favorite food in Kyrgyzstan. Though in the United States, plov isn’t a popular food, it wasn’t an extraordinary concept to me, so I was quite happy to try it. On the other hand, dishes with horse meat are foods I never expected to eat. Several times, my host family served me beshbarmak with horse meat. Beshbarmak is Kyrgyzstan’s national dish, which means “five fingers” in nearly every Turkic language, like Kyrgyz because traditionally it is meant to be eaten with your hands. Consisting of noodles, boiled meat, and root vegetables, beshbarmak is also easy, fast, and serves plenty. The horse meat variety has a different flavor, which isn’t revolting, but for me, it was an acquired taste.
In the States, for many, meals are not special. You just eat and get on with your day. In contrast, whatever a Kyrgyz family is eating, whether it is plov, beshbarmak, or soup, meals are incredibly important to them. It is a time when you can relax, spend time with family, laugh, and enjoy delicious food. For most families, meals are enjoyed with a cup of tea and a round loaf of bread called lepyoshka. With the presence of tea and lepyoshka at most meals, they become almost ritualistic. For Kyrgyz people, food is meant to be ENJOYED, not just something that merely provides you with necessary nutrition. When I was in Bishkek, I learned to use mealtimes as periods of reflection and peace away from school and the online world. I hope when I return to the United States, I can show people the magic of enjoying meals from a Kyrgyz family’s perspective, whether through their unique dishes or from their perspective on food in general.