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Kyrgyz Food Culture

by Martha A. Weeks

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 13, 14, and 18

The people known as the Kyrgyz (also spelled Kirghiz, Kirgiz, Khaikhas, or Kyrghyz) live primarily in Kyrgyzstan (the Kyrgyz Republic) and in other nearby countries including in the People's Republic of China. In China, most of the ethnic Kyrgyz live in the Kizil Suu or Red River Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture. This is in the Xinjiang Province in the western part of China. They also live in the Fu Yu County of Heilongjiang Province, which is in the northeastern part of China. The total number of Chinese Kyrgyz are estimated to be about a hundred and sixty thousand people.

The Chinese say that about two thousand years ago, ancestors of the Kyrgyz were written about in books such as the Historical Records and The Book about the Han Dynasty. In them, they appeared under the names of ‘Likun’ and ‘Jiankun’ and were said to wander in the upper reaches of the Yenisei River. One of these books says that “In the 9th century they developed a powerful nationality and established the Kirgiz Han Nationality during the Tang Dynasty.”

The language of the Kyrgyz people belongs to the Turkic subgroup, Northwestern Kipchak branch, of the Altaic language family. In China, they write their language using a modified Arabic script. Most of them practice Sunni Islam as their religion, with elements of animism and shamanism thrown in. A few of the Chinese Kyrgyz are said to be Buddhists.

Meat and dairy products are central to the Kyrgyz cuisine. This is probably due to their traditional nomadic lifestyle. They prefer mutton, lamb, horsemeat, beef, goat meat, and yak meat more than any other meats and they eat wild game such as ular (a type of mountain turkey). Fish is consumed by those who live near rivers and lakes. Domesticated poultry, primarily chicken, is also eaten.

The Kyrgyz have several ways of preparing and serving meat products. They call this et azïktari. Meats are boiled, fried, smoked, baked, grilled or dried. Külazïk (which literally translates to dried foodstuff) is dried meat ground into a fine powder with kurut (dried curds) and walnuts or talkan (browned then ground grain) added. It is a type of traditional 'convenience food' for travelers, soldiers, and shepherds. They eat it as is or they reconstituted it in water.

They also eat tash kordo, a meat baked or fried with wild onions, wild garlic, and spices, and they enjoy naarin, which is a boiled meat served in a sauce. Kebeks (better known as shashliks) are also popular. These skewered pieces of meat are usually of mutton, but sometimes of chicken, beef, or liver; they are cooked over a fire on a grill.

Other foods enjoyed include the many ways the Kyrgyz people prepare organ meats, intestines, and other animal by-products. Some of these include karin may oromo (old style oromo), made with the stomach of a sheep stuffed with meat, rice, vegetables, fat, oromo items, and grains), ülbürchök (a meat stuffed 'pouch' of sheep's heart), boor kuurdak (fried liver), and olovo (sheep lungs cooked in milk and butter).

Sausages are popular, too. Bïjï is made with meat, liver, intestines, blood, rice, talkan or flour, onion, garlic, ground mild red and ground black pepper, herbs and spices. Kazï, chuchuk, jal and jaya are all sausage delicacies made with horsemeat and/or fat. These high calorie foodstuffs are necessary for the nomadic shepherds to survive at high altitudes.

In addition to meat, dairy products called süt azïktari are important in the Kyrgyz cuisine. They use the milk of mares, ewes, cows, goats, camels, and yaks. They make them into kaymak (cream), may (butter), ayran (yogurt), süzmö (thick sour milk), kurut (dried curds), bïshtak (cottage cheese) and kïmïz (fermented milk--usually from mares). To make kïmïz, mares need to be milked two or three times a day. Traditionally, men milked the mares; now it is the women who milk them.

Before a mare is milked, the foal is allowed to suckle enough to stimulate the flow of milk. Then it is tied or held near the mare during milking. The person milking the mare holds the bucket in one hand and milks the mare with the other one. Mare's milk is stored in a smoked leather container giving it a smoky taste. A portion of the previous day's milk is added to the fresh milk and allowed to ferment. Then it is churned and finally beaten with a bishkek, or a kïmïz whisk.

Traditionally, vegetables were not cultivated; the Kyrgyz were nomadic people. But wild greens were gathered in the jayloos or summer pastures and used in cooking. These include japayi sarïmsak or wild garlic, japayi piyaz or wild onions, chemirchek, baltïrkan, chükürü and kïmïzdik. Today, cultivated vegetables are eaten including piyaz (onions), kapusta (cabbages), kartöshkö (potatoes), sabiz (carrots), pomidor (tomatoes), kök piyaz (scallions), badïrang (cucumbers) and türp (radishes).

The Kyrgyz eat grains, specifically wheat, corn, oats, barley, and millet. In their language, they are called buuday, jügörü, sulu, arpa, and taruu, respectively. These grains can be prepared by browning in a large pot and then grinding them in a mortar and pestle or a jargïlchak or grain mill. They are then called talkan from the verb stem talka-, meaning 'to grind.' It is very similar to the Tibetan food tsampa. It is eaten as is or mixed with many other foods or beverages. Grains are also used in various soups and porridges. They make some beverages using them, such as maksïm, which is made with wheat talkan and fermented, and bozo which is a mildly alcoholic millet beverage.

Wheat and to a lesser extent corn are used to make the different kinds of breads (nan) the Kyrgyz eat. Kazan breads are baked in a large cauldron or pot. Kömöch breads are baked in a kind of cooker known by that very name. Tandïr breads are baked on the hot walls of a tandïr, better known in the West as a tandoori oven. This is a type of clay oven is popular and found in many countries of Central Asia. Jupkas are flat, pancake-like breads fried on a griddle. Other breads include boorsoks (deep-fat fried bread chunks), kattamas (round, flaky buttery flat breads), kuymaks (fritters) and samsas (baked pies with a meat and/or vegetable filling made in a tandïr).

In Kyrgyz cooking, wheat flour is used when making dough for noodles and dumplings. The dish most commonly associated with noodles and the Kyrgyz people is besh barmak, a name that means five fingers. Their version consists of spaghetti-like noodles mixed with finely chopped pieces of boiled meat (usually mutton, but sometimes beef or lamb). It is topped with rings of sliced onion and chopped fresh greens such as dill, parsley, or scallions. A small bowl of shorpo or meat broth is served to each person as an accompaniment to the besh barmak. Traditionally served at feasts, this dish was eaten with the fingers and without utensils. These days, most people eat besh barmak with utensils nspoons, forks, or chopsticks.

The Kyrgyz are fond of many noodle and dumpling dishes. In addition to besh barmak, they like külchötay (meat and noodles with broth), mantu (large steamed dumplings with a meat and/or vegetable filling), oromo (a steamed noodle roll with a meat and/or vegetable filling), chüchpara (small boiled meat and/or vegetable dumplings, known to the Russians as pel'meni) and lagman which are thick wheat flour noodles served with a meat and vegetable sauce.

Meymandostuk, or hospitality, is a Kyrgyz tradition. They love feasts and at them, guests are seated at the tör, or the 'place of honor,' a location that is opposite the door in a room or a yurt. On the dastorkon (tablecloth set on the ground or table), numerous foods and beverages are served. The feast may begin with a variety of breads, salads, snacks and appetizers. Chay or tea can be black or green. It is consumed throughout the meal and served in a handleless tea cup called a chini. Tea can be plain or include cream, sugar, milk, butter, salt, or even fried flour. Other beverages served can include kïmïz, maksim, bozo, mineral water, juices, and soft drinks. The three named only in their language are all fermented, their main ingredient mare’s milk, wheat, and millet, respectively.

The first course in a typical feast could include shorpo, a soup made with mutton, carrots, onions, potatoes and greens, or kesme, a meat and vegetable noodle soup. After the soup, diners would continue to drink tea, nibble on sweets, fruit or bread, or just talk, while waiting for the main course. It would include a dish like besh barmak, paloo (an adopted Uzbek dish consisting of rice pilaf made with meat, carrots, onions, vegetable oil, and other ingredients), or jarköp (fried meat with potatoes). If an animal such as a sheep was slaughtered in the guest's honor, ustukans would be presented. An ustukan is a bone with meat presented to guests as a sign of respect. Guests of different ages, genders and levels of authority are given different ustukans.

The bash or head is presented to the eldest and/or youngest male, who in turn, cuts pieces off (eyeballs, tongue, jowls, ears, etc.); and these are distributed. The hip bone or pelvis (jambash) is given to the oldest and most respected men and women. The tail section (kuymulchak) is given to the oldest and most respected women. The spine (omurtka) is given to the children. Other ustukans include the joto jïlïk or tibia or shin bone, the kashka jïlïk or thigh or femur bone, the bone from rib to thigh called the karchiga, a rib without fat called the kara kabirga, the kar jïlïk or radius bone, dalii or shoulder blade, the toshi or breast or brisket, and the kung jïlïk or bone from the leg to the shoulder blade.

After more eating, drinking and socializing, the feast continues. For dessert, it is common to serve more tea, cream, sweets, breads, fresh fruits such as apples, grapes, pears, apricots, melon, and watermelon, dried fruits including dried apricots, raisins, and more, various nuts that can include walnuts, pistachios, almonds, and peanuts, and alcoholic beverages. The latter are served and consumed even though most Kyrgyz are Muslims. When they are, toasts are made by all, including the honored guests.

Should you attend a Kyrgyz feast, be aware that it can last anywhere from three to seven hours. When it is over and everyone is ready to leave, everyone holds their hands together in front of them, palms facing upward. Then, the hands are brought downward over the face while saying Omin the Muslim word for 'Amen.'
Martha E. Weeks is a lexicographer, writer and self-publisher from Northampton, Massachusetts. Her primary interest is in the culinary culture of Central Asia, specifically among the Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Dungans (Chinese Muslims). She lived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for several years while she taught at the Kyrgyz National University named For Jusup Balasagin.
Simple Kyrgyz Salad (Jönököy Salat)
4 cups fresh cabbage, grated
1 medium carrot, peeled and grated
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
8 ounces sour cream
3 Tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground mild red pepper
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
1. Put grated cabbage and carrot into a large bowl.
2. Add the garlic to the cabbage mixture.
3. Next, add sour cream, salt, red pepper, and black pepper, and mix well. Serve garnished with dill.
Soup (Shorpo)
2 pounds meat (beef, lamb, or mutton), cut into two-inch cubes
1 onion, peeled and sliced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 or 3 potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 or 3 bay leaves
3 or 4 Tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground mild red pepper
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1. Put meat and three quarts of water into a large pot. Bring to the boil, then simmer for two hours or until the meat is soft.
2. Add the onion, carrots, potatoes, and bay leaves and simmer for twenty minutes or until the vegetables are soft.
3. Add the fresh dill and boil for five minutes. Season with salt, red pepper and black pepper, and serve hot.
Fried Meat and Potatoes ((Jarköp)
1 and 1/2 pounds meat (beef, lamb, or mutton), cut into two-inch cubes
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 teaspoon ground mild red pepper
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1. Heat the vegetable oil in a pan and fry the meat and onions until softened and browned, about fifteen to twenty minutes.
2. Add four cups or more water, enough water to cover the meat and onions, and simmer until the meat is soft.
3. Add the potatoes to the meat and onions and enough water to cover all the ingredients, then cook uncovered until most of the liquid evaporates and the potatoes are soft.
4. Season with salt, red pepper, and black pepper, and garnish with the fresh scallions. Serve hot.
Rice Pilaf (Paloo)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs
2 cups white long grain rice
4 medium carrots, peeled and julienned
2 or 3 medium onions, peeled and sliced
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground mild red pepper
1. Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or large fry pan and fry the chicken, carrots and onions until the chicken is browned and the carrots and onions are softened, about ten or fifteen minutes.
2. Add the salt, black pepper, red pepper, cumin, and four or more cups of water, enough to cover all the ingredients completely, and cook on low heat until the water has evaporated, about thirty minutes.
3. Put the raw rice on top of the chicken, carrot and onion mixture. Pour in four or more cups of water to cover the rice with half-inch of water. Then cook over a low heat in a partially covered pot until the water evaporates and the rice expands, about twenty minutes. The Paloo is done when the rice and other ingredients are soft. Serve hot.
Bread Crumbs in Sour Cream and Sugar (Mïkchïma)
3 cups fine bread crumbs
2 cups sour cream
1 cup granulated sugar
1. Pour bread crumbs into a bowl.
2. Add the granulated sugar and sour cream and mix thoroughly. Serve chilled.

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