Food and drinks
Kyrgyzstan is a not a sophisticated country when it comes to food and the food may therefore be experienced as relatively simple. There are however some dishes which should be mentioned and which visitors find both exciting and very pleasant to the taste. The most famous of these is plov. Rice and meat are found all over the world so plov does not differ in any significant respect from rice and meat as served in Indonesia (nasi goreng) or in Turkey (pilaf). Otherwise we have a much used and tasty dish that is called manty. This dish consists of dumplings filled with meat and rice. Manty may remind one a little of ravioli (Italian) or pelmenie (Russian), but the dumplings are somewhat larger than these. Dumlema, which is actually a Uighur dish, is made from boiled greens, potatoes and lamb. Soups with different content are also much used in the everyday cuisine. A breakfast consisting of bread, jam, porridge, cheese, sausages and good butter is not to be despised. In fact the Kyrgyz eat bread at practically all meals.
Kyrgyzstan has many domestic animals and the milk from these is used. There is a wide selection of milk products that are both good and tasty. Airan (kefir) is used in the countryside as a daily drink, sut (sweet milk) is seldom used because it does not keep in the hot climate and because refrigerators are not yet to be found in all homes. If it is completely fresh sut can be used in tea or coffee, kaimak (a kind of sour cream) is often used on bread. Kumyz (mare’s milk), which has a sharp and for most of the uninitiated a slightly strange taste, is the main drink for all the herdsmen’s families in the high mountains. The dried and salty korot (cheese made of sheep’s milk) keeps practically for ever and is used as a titbit by herdsmen’s families.
At feasts, weddings or funerals beshbarmak (a whole boiled sheep) is often served. Beshbarmak means five fingers and the meal has acquired this name because one is expected to eat it with one’s hands. The dish has a ritual framework around it and it is therefore linked to special acts that one is expected to perform before and during the meal. Those gathered for the meal say a short prayer before and after the meal, and both prior to and subsequent to the meal they are expected to wash their hands with water from a can that is brought round to all those present. At such a meal there are fixed rules for who shall be offered the individual parts of the sheep. The head is served to an honoured guest, a hipbone to a female guest, a rib to each of those present and the sheep’s tail to a pregnant woman. When it comes to the portions there are different rules according to where you are in the country, but the emphasis on correct division is just as important everywhere.
Serving and drinking of tea
Among the Kyrgyz it is practically a matter of course that a meal, large or small, is followed by the drinking of tea. It is normally the household’s kelin who pours the tea. Should there be no such person or a daughter of the right age, the mother in the house or one of the young women present takes on the task.
There are also situations in which it is considered to be the husband’s job to serve tea, even if there are women present. This is normal practice when a man is visiting his parents-in-law. In such cases he is expected to do some waiting and help out when necessary. In such circumstances the son-in-law is reckoned as a kind of male kelin and must act accordingly. That the son-in-law behaves as a good kuujo bala is particularly important in the period immediately after the marriage. During this time, by showing his respect for his parents-in-law, he must prove that he is worthy of being their son-in-law.
In accordance with good Kyrgyz etiquette the teacups must never be filled more than roughly half-full. Little tea in the cup shows that the giver wants the guest to stay for a long time. To get sufficient liquid the guest must have his cup refilled many times. To give a guest a full cup is directly impolite, because this indicates that he or she must drink up and leave. Another explanation is that by filling the cup one suggests that the guest is miserly and demanding. There is also a practical explanation: One avoids the tea’s getting cold when new, hot tea is constantly poured.
And all the splendid toasts that were drunk, and when the glasses went up, it was as if birds with magnificent colours went up towards the ceiling with its chandelier trophies. Indeed, these speeches were in truth splendid, they were like literature in its elevated style, and they had a contagious effect on those present with their ever more grandiloquent pathos
– Ajmatov 1993: 17. Translated from the Norwegian version
Vodka must not be drunk unless there is an occasion where people can gather and drink together. Here the individual is inventive and sometimes anything can be a good enough reason. Days off, public festivals, birthdays, meetings between people who have not seen one another for a while, Police Day, Teachers’ Day, Doctors’ Day and so on are examples of situations in which Kyrgyz people find it appropriate to share a bottle or two. Usually it is drunk in connection with a meal. The contents of the glass must be drunk completely and each glass must follow a toast.
In the autumn of 2001 a litre of vodka cost between 12 and 15 Norwegian kroner or roughly the equivalent of a British pound. At kiosks and in grocery stores they have a good selection of half-litre and litre bottles of vodka. One can also buy cans of vodka and single doses of 100 grams (vodka quantities are always reckoned in grams) in plastic beakers.
Vodka is first and foremost a drink for men, while women on the whole stick to sparkling wine and Kyrgyz brandy. For both sexes it is now also becoming more and more common to drink beer and wine.