Call Central Asia a walhalla for foodies and we’d have to brand you a liar. On top of the limited choices and bland flavours, Central Asia’s food philosophy also goes against every possible dietary rule: dishes are drenched in fat or deep-fried, too sugary and too salty, heavy on red meat, dairy and empty carbs and generally devoid of vegetables.
Uzbekistan counts the most diet-related deaths in the world. All you need is plov, right?
Things are evolving fast, though. A decade ago, there were no coffee bars, craft beers, gourmet burgers, Indian or Chinese restaurants, health shops or halal food. You can now find all of these in big cities.
Most of the food questions we get asked come from vegans, vegetarians and people with food allergies, but there are also, of course, dietary delights in Central Asia, even for vegans. We added a small selection of the best food writing on Central Asia to reflect that.
Vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free
Most questions we get regarding food on the Silk Road are about vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. Nomadic food cultures are built around dairy and meat, with pasta and bread as the fillers. If you are a gluten-free vegan, it’s not easy: you can eat nothing in most Central Asian restaurants outside of the cucumber-tomato salad.
What are your options?
- Gluten-free Q&A
- Kazakhstan for vegetarians/vegans
- Uzbekistan for vegetarians/vegans
- Kyrgyzstan for vegetarians/vegans
- Tajikistan for vegetarians/vegans
- Turkmenistan for vegetarians/vegans
- Iran for vegetarians/vegans
Trekking food, oats and muesli
All info at Silk Road Halal travel.
Delicacies, recipes and food culture
Caroline Eden, who co-wrote Samarkand, wrote a very interesting article on winter melons (it’s behind a paywall, though). She followed up Samarkand with the excellent Red Sands, blending recipes with travel reportage, in the process proving me wrong when I say Central Asia’s food culture is uninteresting.
The story of an apple hunt to the wild apple forests of Kazakhstan in 2003, is told in East to Eden by Roger Deakin and Robert McFarlane.
A historical excursion
What a torture this to me, to have daily to accept six, seven, or eight invitations, and to comply with the usage by taking something in every house. My hair stands on end at the recollection how often I was forced to seat myself, between three and four o’clock in the morning, before sunrise, opposite a colossal dish of rice swimming in the fat of the sheep tail, which I was to assail as if my stomach was empty.
How, upon such occasions, I again longed for the dry unleavened bread of the desert, and how willingly I would have exchanged this deadly luxury for wholesome poverty!
‘To be able to eat no more,’ is an expression regarded by the Central Asiatic as incredible, or, at least, as indicating low breeding. My pilgrim brethren always gave brilliant proofs of their bon ton. My only wonder is that they could support the heavy pilow, for upon one occasion I reckoned that each of them had devoured one pound of fat from the tail of the sheep, two pounds of rice, without taking any account of bread, carrots, turnips, and radishes; and all this washed down, without any exaggeration, by from fifteen to twenty large soup plates full of green tea.
In such heroic feats I was naturally a coward; and it was the astonishment of every one that I, so well versed in books, should have acquired only a half acquaintance with the requisites of polite breeding!