July 03, 2017

More than just kebabs and vodka. A guide to the cuisine of Turkmenistan

Enough for two rugby teams. The Plov man at work
Well, of course, you can survive quite happily on a diet of kebabs (also known as shashlik) and vodka (also known as a spirit that can burn the back of your throat off) while travelling around the country, as these are ubiquitous, and rather tasty, but there is a lot more for the adventurous traveller to eat and taste in this Central Asian country.

Kebabs, mainly lamb or beef, can be found cooked on outdoor stands to perfection, and with hundreds of different vodkas available in shops you are unlikely to go wrong, unless you go for the cheapest one. If you only spend US$2 on a 500 ml bottle of vodka you will get a liquid more suitable for paint stripping, double that and you will get a tasty drink, often flavoured with local fruits such as melon.

Meat and bread dominate the offerings, and vegetarians will have a somewhat difficult task to seek out animal free meals. The locals do not fully understand the concept of vegetarianism that well, and will even add slivers of meat to a salad or a vegetable stew for flavouring, and will look at you with astonished faces if you ask for it to be removed. But vegetarians need not fear, the colourful bazaars that are in the centre of all Turkmen cities provide a wonderful array of seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables for meals (although make sure you wash them to avoid the risk of Central Asian belly problems).

Somosas are also widely available, and can easily be meals in themselves. If you are ever in Mary, head to the Tandoor Kitchen by the River Margush, and load up on huge somosas (including a rare vegetarian option of spicy potato and cabbage without any sign of meat) for around US$1 each. While you wait for the open-air kitchen to finish your order a queue will form, often including be suited businessmen, imams and local police. They taste that good that everyone goes there. No English is spoken, but as there are only three dishes cooked it is fairly easy to obtain the one you want.

A work of art, or a piece of bread?
Plov, also the national dish of neighbouring Uzbekistan, is a very filling meal usually only available at lunchtimes. Each region cooks it in their own way, but the staples are chunks of meat, usually lamb but occasionally beef, and more rarely camel, always with great lumps of fat attached, being cooked over several hours from early morning, alongside carrots, onions and lots of rice in a massive cauldron. Slow cooking at its best. The fat permeates the rice giving it a distinctive taste, which makes Plov very tasty and filling, albeit not the healthiest choice for a meal.

Fish, and caviar, are also available, particularly in Turkmenbashy, a port on the Caspian Sea. Although you will not see many places serving fish and chips, you are likely to get a plov with mullet or sturgeon in it. Tasty and not quite as fatty as the meat versions.

Meals are almost always accompanied with Naan bread, known locally as Non bread, similar to the Indian variety although with a different texture and more stodgy. They are baked in tandoor ovens starting at 4 AM, and there are no additional additives in the dough, so buy it early and eat it while it is still warm. Substantial effort is given to personalise the bread, with ornate stamps and patterns etched into the dough as it is made. Some are almost works of art, with even vinyl records used by some bakers to make concentric patterns on the little seen back of the bread!

By night time the bread can be quite stale and hard, although it is still considered edible, and will be served like this in restaurants. Non bread has played a vital role in staving off hunger throughout history, and is regarded with some reverence, often given as a gift when visiting friends houses on arrival, and then by the hosts to their guests on departure. You are unlikely to be involved in any food fights in Turkmenistan, but just in case, remember not to use the Non. It would be considered incredibly rude to throw, or even step on, the bread.

Vinyl making a comeback. An artist at work
Desserts are dominated by fruit. Melons are prized in the country, which even has a holiday dedicated to the ubiquitous fruit. Five hundred varieties of melon have been identified in Turkmenistan, and the flavours vary dramatically from sweet honey to sour and tangy. Baklava and other middle eastern pastry delicacies are a tasty alternative for those who want to keep their sugar levels up.

Tea is a common accompaniment for meals, with Green Tea particularly popular, along with the more exotic Camels’s milk.. A fizzy, very sour drink that, although locally a delicacy, may not appeal to moat western tastes. Sadly Turkmenistan is far from a coffee lovers paradise, as it is mainly provided in the premixed powdered variety.

Alongside the local vodka and cognac, you can buy local wines, which are incredibly sweet, and, of course, beer. Zip, Di-Zi, Berk and Barlos are the main brands. Wonderfully named, maybe for the effects, stick to Zip and Di-Zi for a more German style brew, both Barlos and Berk suffer from the predilection towards sweetness, which as with the wine, can make them undrinkable. Pulsar, imported from Samarkand in Uzbekistan can be found in some cities, and still beats the local brews, grab a bottle if you see it.

Turkmenistan is a place that you will never go hungry, and with most meals costing between US$5 and US$10, it is place for a great choice of cheap Central Asian cuisine.

Or you can stick to kebabs and vodka.

Read more about Turkmenistan in this newly released guide book by Far Flung Places. The second edition of the Amazon best selling guide, more than doubling in size with increased coverage of all major cities, and updated listings on attractions, restaurants and hotels. Detailed information of the cities and attractions with maps and invaluable contact information. 

Learn how to travel around and find the best places to visit, stay and eat. Available in paperback from all good booksellers. Buy it now from Amazon.com and from Amazon.co.uk

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