Cuisine of Turkestan

Turkestanis, particularly Turkestani nomads, are some of the most conservative eaters in the world.  If their grandparents did not know this food, they will regard it with suspicion at best, and probably refuse to eat it.

Unfortunately for the Turkestani tourist industry, Central Asian culinary conservatism does not preclude some dishes which are fairly unappealing to most Westerners.  They have for the most part learned which dishes foreigners are likely to find difficult to eat, but even today, very few foreigners go to Turkestan for the food.


Turkestani cuisine of course varies between the different ethnic groups, and especially between the sart and nomadic peoples, but there are definite common themes running through their entire spectrum of cuisine.  Turkestani cooking tends to be heavy on the meat and starch, with most of the vitamins coming from fresh or stored fruit served with the meal.
The four major meats used in Turkestani cooking are the ''tört türlik mal'', the four types of traditional livestock animal.  In order of frequency and decreasing order of value, they are: (1) sheep and goats, (2) cattle (including yaks), (3) horses and (4) camels.  To these are added poultry, wild game, and occasionally fish.  Pork is not common.  Forbidden to Muslims and Jews, it is not generally eaten by native Christians or Zoroastrians either.  The Russian and Chinese immigrant communities eat pork; Turkestanis generally do not.
Older Turkestanis show a marked preference for the fat of the meat.  The tail fat of the Central Asian fat-tailed sheep is considered a lucky or blessed portion by many, though there is something of a generation gap here.  Younger Turkestanis, coming from a more generally affluent social matrix, are more ambivalent about fat and oil.  It still carries connotations of prosperity and honour, but younger Turkestanis are more alert to the health risks associated with eating such a fat-heavy diet.  All Turkestanis, however, particularly those of nomadic background, will eat just about any part of the animal.
"Poultry" mostly means chicken, though turkey ("the chicken that makes a gobbling sound") is available and some people with access to appropriate water keep ducks or geese.

"Wild game" includes birds such as wild ducks, quail and partridge, and meats such as venison, wild sheep and goat, bear meat and wild boar.  This last is even eaten by a lot of Turkestani Muslims, who deny vehemently that it is a pig.  In former times, saiga antelope or jeiran might have been served, but these are now protected species and the selling of their meat is illegal.
Fish tends to be a very regional speciality.  Aside from Qaraqalpaqs and those living very close to a large river or lake, most Turkestanis steer clear of fish.
Bread is the main staple starch.  To Turkestanis, a meal is not complete unless there is bread, and there should if at all possible be meat as well.  Turkestani bread is a yeast bread bearing some similarities to pizza dough.  Its flat, dense consistency is the result of the Turkestani habit of not giving the bread as much time to rise before cooking.
Üzbeks and Tajiks are considered to be the best bakers.  They make bread in domed clay tandır ovens, sticking the bread to the inside face of the dome to bake.
Flour is also made into pastries, typically with savoury fillings, though there are some sweet pastries made with local honey. Rice is also used in cooking, being essential to a number of Üzbek, Qaraqalpaq and Tajik dishes.  Noodles are generally home-made, either the flat variety favoured by Qazaqs and Kırğız or the hand-spun thick spaghetti type made by Uygurs.  Potatoes were introduced by the Russians during the Tsarist period, and are used in cooking, especially in the north of the country, but to an extent they are still associated with the Russians.  Colloquially, a foreigner who is clueless about the local culture and makes no attempt to learn (i.e. acts like a Russian) is known as a "potato".
Dairy Products:
Milk is considered another essential, especially by nomads.  Cow, horse ("Qımız") and camel ("Şubat") milk is consumed, and cow milk is also made into cream, ice cream and qurt.  Qurt are balls of pressed milk curds, and is the closest thing to Western-type cheese, which is practically unknown.  Typically quite salty and dry, the texture of qurt ranges from a Greek feta-like consistency to a much harder and drier kind of qurt.  The harder kinds of qurt are sometimes softened before eating by placing them in atqan çaı (see Tea below).  A yoghurt of drinkable consistency ("ayran") is also consumed.
Fruits and Vegetables:
Turkestani nomads are known both for the prodigious amounts of meat that they can consume, and for their scepticism about the whole notion of vegetables.  Older Qazaqs in particular have been known to pick out bits of vegetable matter with comments like "This is grass.  Sheep eat grass; people eat sheep.  That is the natural order of things!"  Vegetables include onions, carrots, eggplant/aubergine, pumpkin and other squashes, sweet peppers, peas and beans.  Cabbages and beets were introduced by the Russians in the Tsarist era, and some other vegetables are eaten in small quantities.
Fruits are mostly eaten raw as a dessert item, and locally-grown fruits include melons, apricots and plums (these are considered varieties of a single fruit type), peaches, apples, pears, various berries (particularly raspberries and strawberries), grapes, blackcurrants and redcurrants.
Salt is by far the most prevalent seasoning.  Turkestani foods are mostly not heavily seasoned, as most herbs and spices are connected more with traditional medicine than culinary experimentation.  Chillis are known; the Uygurs make a crushed chilli paste which they use as a condiment, but garlic, paprika and black pepper are more common.


Many Turkestani foods are typically eaten either with a spoon or with the right hand.  This custom was so prevalent until the advent of the tourist industry that most Turkestani languages had to make a new coinage for words like "dinner fork".  (The word is çanışqı and in the original Turkestani dialects meant a spear with multiple points, like a trident.)

  • Beşbarmaq:  Beşbarmaq ("Five fingers") is a typically nomad dish, consisting of boiled meat on a bed of flat noodles, onions, and sometimes potatoes.  The name was originally bestowed by the Russians; the nomads themselves often just call it et or göş ("meat").
  • Dubaze:  A typical Tajik dish, this is a Turkestani version of the Persian dopiaza-style curry.  It is much less seasoned than the Persian version, but is nonetheless one of the more flavourful Turkestani dishes.
  • Göş Tandırı:  This is a regional speciality of southern Turkestan.  It is meat cooked in a tandır (bread oven) with rice and vegetables.
  • Lağman:  The speciality of the Uygur minority, and found all along the eastern border of Turkestan, lağman is home-made spaghetti-style noodles in a meat and vegetable soup.
  • Mantı:  Steamed noodle packets of meat, onions and pumpkin, resembling dumplings or Korean Mando.
  • Navruzköjö:  Special soup associated with the Navruz festival.  It contains seven ingredients: meat, milk, water, flour, rice, butter and grain.
  • Pilaff:  Pilaff (Palau, Pılov, ) is associated with the Üzbeks in particular.  It is a rice dish with meat, carrots, onions, raisins and whole garlic bulbs.  Qaraqalpaqs make a fish pilaff.
  • Qurdaq:  Fried internal organs with onions, including intestines, stomach, kidneys, liver, heart and lungs.
  • Samsa:  Samsa is a pastry stuffed with meat, onions and other optional vegetables.  It is mostly considered a sart dish.  Üzbek Samsa is a kind of samsa containing at least one large chunk of fat.  Occasionally, in more cosmopolitan places, one can find cheese samsas.
  • Sheep's Head:  A particular speciality of nomads.  The guest of honour traditionally carves and serves the head, passing important parts to other people of importance with an appropriate blessing.  The youngest traditionally receives the tongue: to "take the tongue" of someone is a Turkestani idiom meaning to heed and obey.
  • Şaşlıq:  Şaşlıq is a kind of meat kebab, and together with samsa and mantı forms the trio of typical Turkestani street food.
  • Törtgöşli Samsa:  Four-meat pastries traditionally fried and given to friends and family at Christmas.


Tea is very common in Turkestan, and normally refers to hot black tea consumed with milk, or more occasionally hot green tea without milk.

Turkestani tea is made by boiling a larger kettle of water and a smaller pot of very strong black tea.  Leaf tea is typically used, and the teapot comes equipped with a strainer that attaches to the spout.  Before any tea is poured for guests, a cup is poured and then emptied back into the pot three times.  Birinçi laı, ekinçi maı, üçinçi çaı ("The first is mud, the second is oil, the third is tea") is a rhyme often recited as this is done.

The tea having thus been pronounced ready to drink, the server (traditionally the youngest woman of the household) will pour tea for everyone, spooning milk from a large bowl into the drinking bowl, then adding the strong tea, then topping up with the boiling water.  Green tea omits the milk, but has the same procedure otherwise.

Atqan çaı is a particular kind of tea generally favoured by sarts, though also consumed by nomads.  It is very much like normal Turkestani tea, with the addition of butter and salt.

Alcoholic Beverages

Domestically-produced alcoholic beverages of Turkestan typically fall into one of two categories.  The first are the imports: beverages introduced by immigrant communities.  These are typically beers and hard spirits.  The second category are the native drinks: those that have been produced and consumed in Central Asia since time immemorial.  These are typically wines and other drinks.
Beers ("Pıva"):
Beer was introduced by Russian and Eastern European immigrants during the Tsarist period.  It is difficult to produce in quantity in much of Turkestan, due to the unsuitability of the climate for growing hops.

Most of the local beers are produced in a band stretching from southwestern Qazaqstan through Kırğızstan to western  Tajikistan.  Some of the more popular beers include:

  • Erjürek: a strong, dark reddish beer with a high alcohol content.  Brewed in Qazaqstan.
  • Qoņır Şan: a golden-brown beer brewed in eastern Kırğızstan.
  • Qoçqar: a pale golden wheat beer from western Kırğızstan.
  • Arğaı: a dark wheat beer from the Samarqand-Şahrısabz area of Tajikistan.
Wines ("Şarab"):
Wines from Turkestan are often very heavy, almost syrupy affairs rejected by most foreign wine connoisseurs as "not worth the effort of bottling".  Within Turkestan, however, these heavier, stronger wines are preferred, and most foreign wines are considered watery and astringent.  Popular wines include the following:

  • Altun Farğana:  Perhaps the most popular wine in Turkestan.  It is notable for its golden-orange colour, and is very heavy and quite strong.  Altun Farğana is an incredibly sweet wine, rivalling some of the vins engelé of New Francy.
  • Qızıl Farğana:  Not quite as sweet as Altun Farğana, but just as strong and heavy.  It is a red wine with a vivid colour that makes it the preferred choice for many Turkestani Assyrian Christians as eucharistic wine.  Both the Altun and Qızıl Farğana wines are produced in the upper Farğana valley of Üzbekistan.
  • Jeleke:  A wine produced mainly by Ugyurs in the Qaşgar area.  It is a reddish wine, lighter in colour and sweeter and heavier than Mıhran, though not as heavy as Qızıl Farğana.
  • Mıhran:  A dark red wine comparable to a heavy ''Shiraz'', produced in the border region around Tärmäz.
  • Zoraı:  Zoraı is a white wine, not quite as heavy as many of the typical Turkestani wines, and generally preferred as an accompaniment to the lighter courses of a full meal.
Spirits ("Araq"):
Turkestani hard spirits generally fall into the vodka group, distilled from grain such as rye or wheat.  Brandy-related distilled wines, known as Qızıl Araq ("Red Spirits"), are also known, but not nearly as common.  Vodka (Su Araq, lit. "Water Spirits") was introduced by the Russians in the Tsarist period, and is drunk neat.  Those who drink araq tend to do so in quantity, but by and large, Turkestanis prefer other types of alcoholic drink, especially qımız (see below).
Qımız and Şubat:
The most common and popular forms of alcohol in Turkestan, particularly among nomads, have nothing to do with the growing of grapes or grain or any other vegetable crop.  Qımız and şubat are actually fermented milk, coming from horses and camels respectively, and are consumed in large quantities in Turkestan, Mongolia and the Russian Republic of Qazaqstan.

Qımız (sometimes Kumiss) is mare's milk that has naturally fermented.  It has a thin, skimmed milk consistency and a smoky, sourish flavour, and is often very slightly sparkling.  Most foreigners and immigrants to Turkestan find qımız to be unappealing at best, but it is loved by its devotees with a passion the French reserve for cheese and wine.

Qımız traditionally comes in leather bottles, though glass is actually more common in modern Turkestan, and varies considerably in flavour and alcohol content depending on its age (older qımız is stronger), the season (the first "New Qımız" of early May is considered the best), what the horses have been eating, how much the horses have been exercised, and to an extent, the soil type and weather where and when it was produced.

In the first week of May (further south in Turkestan, the last week of April), the "New Qımız" arrives, and every able devotee of qımız is likely to want to return to their ancestral village and get a supply of their home qımız.  Qımız is readily available in the cities, and traders from the local villages will come and set up temporary qımızhanas ("qımız houses") on the streets, and sell their wares.  Everyone prefers their home village's qımız, though, and it is a known "fact" that the qımız in these places is of lesser quality.  After all, who would sell their best and willingly drink inferior qımız?  Permanent qımızhanas are also found in all cities and towns of Turkestan, and serve as places to meet and drink.

Şubat is similar to qımız, but comes from a camel, not a horse.  It has a creamier texture and richer flavour than qımız, and is preferred by most Turcomans.  It is sold in qımızhanas alongside the qımız; there are no separate şubathanas.

The şubat season is a little later than the qımız season, beginning in mid-May with the "New Şubat".  Like qımız, it is traditionally kept in leather bottles, but is more commonly found in glass ones.

Both qımız and şubat are served in bowls.
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