We all know by now that Central Asia is an area where vegetarian missionaries still have a lot of work to do. Nonetheless, people do eat vegetables and fresh fruits, and you will have no trouble finding tasty ingredients at the market, especially in summertime. An abundance of nuts year-round also aid the hungry vegetarian.
If you eat milk products, you’re in luck! There’s simply no better place for horse, cow and camel milk, and their many derivatives (although cheese is often plain).
Of course, if you are invited or are heading to a restaurant, things become more difficult. Almost all dishes have some meat in them. If you don’t want to eat meat, salads are your best bet in a restaurant setting. But there is more…
For those vegetarians who want to lay off the salad once in a while, here’s an overview of specialty vegetarian dishes for each country in the region. Often these will not be on the menu, but the entrepreneurial vegetarian will ask his host or chef if they know how to make any of these.
Vegetarian dishes in Uzbekistan
Eating out: Turf chakka is a yogurt dish with sliced summer radish. Grilled aubergines is another tasty favourite. Domlama is a simple veggie stew of carrot, beetroot, potato, turnip, pepper and onion. Chalop is recommended: a cold soup mixing yogurt with herbs or cucumbers.
In Samarkand, and in Samarkand only, you can try anzur, pickled wild onion. There’s lots of pickled vegetables in Uzbekistan, but this one has a super-special, babushka-knows-best, 35-ingredient recipe.
At the bazaar: After you’re done drooling over the watermelons, check out the nuts section. Apricots are another local specialty.
Need more? Check out these recommendations for more Uzbek vegetarian dishes.
Vegetarian dishes in Turkmenistan
Eating out: spinach dumplings are a possibility. So is yoghurt soup with rice. Strained yoghurt is called süzme, homemade yogurt is gatyk.
At the bazaar: Any country that has a holiday dedicated to melons must have really tasty ones. Turkmenistan does not disappoint. Pistachios are homegrown, figs and dates come from nearby Iran. And don’t miss out on camel milk!
Vegetarian food in Tajikistan
Eating out: Kurtob is a Pamir favourite of onions, tomatoes and fresh herbs with kefir and strips of fatir, the local version of flat naan. It all goes together in a big boil with a splash of flax seed or vegetable oil. Shakarob is the same, minus the oil. Mushkichiri is a delicious sticky bean stew of different legumes. Tajikistan’s version of Uzbekistan’s plov often exchanges apricots for meat.
At the bazaar: Pomegranates are the pride and joy of southern Tajikistan. Yak milk is another delicacy.
Vegetarian food in Afghanistan
Eating out: Afghanistan’s proximity to India makes it more accepting of vegetable-only food, leaving more space for liberal use of spices. Qorma-i-Sabzi is a very popular Afghan vegetarian dish comprised of spinach (sabzi), parsley, coriander and spring onions served with Basmati rice.
Qorma-i-Tarkari is another vegetarian dish made with cauliflower, baby carrots and potatoes, cooked with a blend of dill, turmeric and cumin, also served with Basmati rice.
Ashak is made from fresh pasta, filled with spring onions, leeks and coriander. This dish is served with yogurt-garlic sauce and topped with a mildly spiced tomato and onion sauce and sprinkled with mint flakes. This vegetarian dish is absolutely lip-licking.
Kabuli Palaw is a famous dish in Afghanistan. There is a generous portion of Basmati rice. It is cooked in the oven in a special blend of saffron, black pepper, cardamom, coriander and cumin, topped with raisins, nuts and julienne carrots. This Afghan vegetarian dish is definitely one of the most tasty vegetarian dishes in Afghanistan and very popular indeed, but sometimes served with lamb buried inside. So watch out!
Some more tips from the comments: Bolani is bread stuffed with potato and onion, and a common, yet supah-tasty street food. Afghan ice cream is another pride and joy – especially in Herat.
At the bazaar: the grapes of Ghazni province are legendary. Plenty of other fruits and vegetables are available when the season is right. Don’t forget about pine nuts and pomegranates!
Vegetarian food in Kyrgyzstan
Eating out: Kyrgyz food is heavily influenced by Dungan and Uyghur cooking. One of these Chinese-sounding dishes present on most menus is ashlianfu, a Dungan classic. It’s a cold pasta salad with peppers, tomato and garlic. Watch out: variations with meat do exist!
Breakfast is veggie-friendly as well: bread with jam, oatmeal or buckwheat porridge are Kyrgyz staple food.
Vegetarian food in Kazakhstan
Eating out: Manty, the traditional meaty noodles found all over the region, get stuffed with pumpkin in autumn in Kazakhstan. Tasty! Samsa is another traditional meat pie that gets filled with potato or cheese occasionally.