As you already know, Central Asia is a pretty surprising region. After my trip in August 2019 to visit Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I came home full of memories for all the new experiences I had – and that includes the Central Asia food and drink I tried.
Like those reasons I shared that Central Asia should be on your bucket list, I also love to create lists of foods and drinks that I think you should try on your trip alongside all those other adventures. This list of Central Asia food and drink might surprise you with some of its more ‘exotic’ ingredients – but it also includes some foods that seem wonderfully familiar.
Set out to try these Central Asia food and drinks on your trip and you’ll come home with colorful and flavorful memories too!
Small Dishes & Snacks to Try in Central Asia
Baursak was one of the first Central Asian foods I had on my trip to Kazakhstan, and I pretty much ate a whole meal’s worth during that very first lunch. It’s is a fried dough that was usually buttery, light, and served hot. Baursak can vary in size and shape and you’ll find it in restaurants and in local home dinners. Just don’t be surprised if you get addicted to it too!
Non is Central Asia’s answer to flatbread; that’s why the name seems similar to what you’ll find further south in India (Naan). It’s a leavened flatbread and in Central Asia you’ll find it in a variety of shapes.
At the Osh Bazaar in Kyrgyzstan, I saw Non circles, squares, and even triangles! You might find beautiful braided patterns or pressed shapes in the dough and it’s a common staple at most meals.
Not to be confused with Cobain or Russell, Central Asian kurt is a popular snack food you can find at all of the local markets and bazaars – and often served in small dishes at meals even in local guesthouses.
Kurt is pressed and dried sour cream, so it’s not ideal for you dairy-free travelers. It’s usually salty but I tried a few different kinds that included sweet and spiced options.
4. Fresh Fruit
One of the most surprising foods I found in Central Asia was all the fresh fruit. While Kazakhstan is arid and high in elevation, Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan are lower and more fertile. There are tons of growing areas throughout these countries and as such you can find some amazing fresh fruits to snack on in between adventures.
When I was visiting during August 2019, it was melon season. We passed melon vendors along the roads with pickup beds overflowing with watermelon and other sweet melons. By chance I just happened to bring my watermelon swimsuit so I was able to be totally consistent while enjoying the sweet fruit on a hot day.
5. Dried Fruit & Nuts
Unsurprisingly after that last one, you’ll also find plenty of dried fruits and nuts in Central Asia. In the bazaars, you’ll find delicious dried pit fruit and every kind of nut you can imagine. I recommend a mix of dried apricots and cashews* for trail mix if you’re tackling Kolsai Lakes or a similar hike.
*Yes, I know cashews are terrible for the environment. I try to temper this by consuming in moderation.
While I’ve never written a foodie post that included dumplings, I should confess now: dumplings are one of my top five favorite foods of all time. I am also completely dumpling-neutral. It doesn’t matter where, what’s in ’em, or what shape it takes – I love all dumplings equally, without prejudice.
So imagine my delight in learning that Central Asia has their own type of dumpling! They’re called manty and they almost always have the same basic ingredients: beef, beef fat, and onion, wrapped in a fresh dough and tucked all tight with a skillful pinching pattern.
I was excited to take am manty-making class in the town of Karakol. Our instructor made us cube beef, chop fat and onion, and attempt to pack our own manty. Mine were hideous, but they still tasted delicious.
On a foodie tour in Karakol*, I had a chance to try oromo, a popular food among Kyrgyz and Kazakh people. It’s technically a steamed pie which is sliced into disks – but as you can see above it is sometimes wrapped into flat disks. The traditional oromo ingredients are cabbage and carrots.
*Karakol was a surprisingly great foodie spot, as a mixing place for a variety of different cultures. If you love food and city-hopping Karakol should be high on your list if you’re planning a Central Asia itinerary.
Entrees to Try in Central Asia
Let’s be real: you can’t visit Central Asia and not notice the influence of the Soviet Union. This extends to the food culture, especially in the big cities like Almaty and Bishkek.
During my first few days in Almaty, I had a delicious Russian meal, including borscht. It’s possible to find borscht elsewhere in the world, but in case you’re not familiar with it: borscht is a sour beetroot soup, which is what gives the dish its distinctive color. It’s perfect for the cooler months f you’re visiting in the shoulder season.
9. Ashlan Fu
I’ve buried it in the middle of my list, but Ashlan Fu is my absolute favorite food that I discovered in Central Asia. I had it three times in three days!
Ashlan Fu is a traditional hot or cold soup brought to the region by the Dungan people from China. As the Dungan people primarily settled in the region around Karakol, that’s the place to find it. You can find tons of small shops selling it in the market, unsurprisingly called Ashlan-fu Alley! In other cities in Kyrgyzstan, you’ll even find Ashlan Fu restaurants that claim to do it in Karakol style.
I also had a chance to make Ashlan Fu myself. It’s a vinegar-based soup with different types of noodles, spices, and egg or meat. It’s sometimes served with a potato dough bread. And yes, it’s utterly delicious.
Looking for noodles, because, ya know, you’re in Asia? Lagman is the dish you should seek out. These are thick, long noodles with a variety of toppings and ingredients. In Almaty, I had a meat version; in Karakol, I tried a vegetarian one with fresh peppers.
This is a pretty common dish, and the great part is that it’s very neutral – if you’re looking for a comfort food with familiar flavors, Lagman is a good choice because it feels familiar despite being on the other side of the world.
Poutine, is that you? Okay, not quite… but it’s probably about as close as you’ll find in Central Asa! Azu is a Tartar dish, spread through the Soviet Union by the Turkic speaking people on the Russian territory, the Tartars. Azu is a meat stew atop fried potatoes, topped with pickles and onions, and I had the chance to try it as part of my Karakol food crawl tour. (Yes, I highly recommend that tour if you love to try new dishes.)
Like Lagman, it’s zero surprise to find a rice dish in Asia – but I was actually surprised how little rice I found in most of the Central Asian dishes I tried. The main one was plov, which you might know by its more common name: pilaf.
Plov is a popular dish in Uzbekistan, but you can find it throughout the region after being disseminated by the Soviet Union during that era. As you can see, it’s a heavy rice dish with meat and veggies; the Uzbek version is made with lamb, though it’s also made with beef and horse.
After crossing from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, I began hearing about Beshbarmak – our guide said it was basically the equivalent of a national dish. It’s usually meat (mutton) served over noodles with a few slices of Qazi (horsemeat and fat sausage).
I found it a little bit rich for my stomach but I can see why it’s a favorite: it’s hearty and flavorful and a very distinctive food to try in Central Asia.
I’m not gonna lie: I’m still a little bit confused what shashlik is, because every time we saw sheep or horses – and especially when said sheep or horses were clogging up the roadway (a common experience) – we all yelled shashlik!
Actually, shashlik is Central Asia’s take on kabob: skewered or grilled meat from any number of animals (including sheep or horse). When I tried it, it was a variety of different grilled meats including chicken and beef too, served with grilled onions on flat bread.
Drinks to Try in Central Asia
It’s funny: I drank tea at almost every single meal in Central Asia – and I didn’t take a single picture of any tea during the whole 14 days trip! Tea is such a ubiquitous part of daily life in countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that it almost passes unnoticed.
Offered as ‘chai’ by every guest, at every restaurant, say yes to tea when it’s offered. It’s just part of immersing yourself in the culture!
16. Camel’s Milk
After my trip to Jordan in 2016, I became a huge fan of camels. So I was wildly excited to see Bactrian Camels one day while we were driving through Kazakhstan. Most Bactrian Camels in Kazakhstan are domesticated, and camel’s milk is a common drink available – but you’re warned now that it’s an acquired taste!
I tried camel’s milk at the Green Bazaar in Almaty, where vendors also sell kurt and other dairy products. It tasted to me like kefir, a fermented yogurt drink you can find here in the States.
17. Kymyz (Fermented Horse’s Milk)
I saved the most ‘out there’ Central Asia food and drink for last – not because I don’t encourage you to try it. Kymyz is fermented horse’s milk… which I’ll be honest is a pretty wild idea if you think about it. We don’t really drink fermented milk here in North America – nor do we drink horse’s milk. But that’s purely culture; in a place like Kyrgyzstan or other Central Asian countries, horses are a critical part of life. Every part of the horse is put to use.
Shortly after crossing from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, my group stopped to meet a local horse farmer and try her kymyz. To me, it tasted like bacon and ranch-flavored milk. Yep, that’s odd – but it wasn’t as off-putting as I would have expected. If you’ve come all the way to Central Asia, you have to give it a try!
There you have it: my bucket list of Central Asian food and drinks to try when you make your trip to this compelling region. Do you have questions about these Central Asia foods or drinks? Let me know in the comments!
This post was made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.