Cuisine of Turkestan

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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 and camel 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 Making 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, and black- 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 dumpling-like noodle packets of meat, onions and pumpkin.

  • 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.

Making Tea

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.

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