It’s lunchtime in the village. I sit, elbows resting on the plastic tablecloth, hunched over my ceramic bowl-like cup of steaming tea at the L-shape benched table. My 4-year-old host sister, Bermet, stands on the bench to reach across the table for a piece of bread. I watch as she uses a spoon to scoop butter from a small plate by the spoonful and spreads over the petite piece of bread. It would have been reasonable for her to stop after the first spoonful of butter, however, when it comes to grease, sugar, and butter- the Kyrgyz cuisine is anything but reasonable. She continued until the plate, once full with butter, was emptied onto her single bread piece and then she promptly devoured the gooey light yellow substance in heaping mouthfuls. I couldn’t help but laugh at her. “Emne?” What? She looked at me confused.
Kyrgyz people argue that our bodies need three “food groups” to stay healthy and function well: tea (known here as chai), sugar, and meat. People think it’s odd that I do not add sugar to my tea and especially odd that I do not enjoy eating a lot of meat. “But a doctor told me that our bodies need meat in order to be healthy” one English teacher told me over an afternoon “chai eech” at our school. A discussion with the older Kyrgyz woman about the countless food products aside from meat that contain the same (and in some cases more) amount of protein found in meat would have been pointless. In this case, culture trumps science for the vast majority of Kyrgyz people.
In the novel, “This is Not Civilization”, based off one Kyrgyzstan Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience in the country, the Kyrgyz cuisine is not so surprisingly mentioned. “She appeared carrying a new mutton dish each night: mutton dumplings called manti, a mutton and turnip stew called lagman, the mutton kebabs called shashlyk- and what Anarbek claimed was a special delicacy, known as “refrigerator jelly”: a wobbling glob of congealed fat from the previous day’s mutton.” Although this account was of a volunteer who served nearly 20 years ago, not much has changed in the realm of food for this gradually modernizing country.
My favorite Kyrgyz dish is actually derived from a traditional Russian dish- Plov. Maybe because it reminds me of Chinese fried rice or possibly because it strokes my life-long obsession with any dish involving rice. Whatever the reason, I’m always relieved to see the rice dish adorning the chai eech table. With only a few simple ingredients, Plov is considered a rather easy meal to prepare among Kyrgyz women. Rice is cooked in an overwhelming amount of oil and sliced carrots and onions are added. Most Plov dishes are made with the Kyrgyz favorite- mutton, though I prefer the dish with chicken.
How to make Plov:
3 Tbsp oil (though most KG recipes use more)
½ kg beef or mutton, cubed (or chicken)
1 large onion, sliced
½ kg carrots, julienne-sliced
4 cups water
3 garlic cloves, whole (optional)
½ kg rice, cleaned and soaked for 30 minutes
Heat oil in kazan or deep skillet over medium high heat. Add meat and sauté until browned, about 10 minutes. Add onion and sauté until soft, about 8 minutes. Add carrots to mixture and sauté 15 more minutes. Add water and rice; bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer partially covered for about 30 minutes. Add garlic (optional). Simmer until rice is just tender, about 15 more minutes.
Tamaginez tatuu bolsen! (Bon appétit!)