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Asia, Central


ASIA, CENTRAL. The mention of Central Asian foodways usually conjures up competing images of nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. In one, the roving sheep-herder astride a brawny steed, between base camp and mountain pasture, clutches a leather pouch of fermented milk. The other vision includes the long-beard in his colorful robe and headdress, enjoying perfumed pilaf in a tranquil teahouse. While scholars quibble over cultural and physical boundaries of Central Asia, culinary cultures of the region represent an intriguing mix of steppe and settlement, highlands and lowlands, Turkic and Iranian.

Culinary Culture and Geographic Setting

Generally speaking, hospitality is the defining feature of this underpublicized cuisine. For all the ethnic and geographic variations in Central Asia, the food of the region exhibits more homogeneity than disparity. Basic methods of preparation, main ingredients, common dishes, and predominant cultural traditions of Islam all reflect the enriching exchange along the heart of the storied Silk Road. The regional larder consists of mutton, rice, cumin, coriander, cilantro, dill, nuts, tea, dried fruits, and yogurt, distinguishing it from Chinese and European fare. Meal preparation is often conducted outside over fire, with cast-iron cauldrons (kazan) for frying, simmering, and steaming; open-flame braziers for grilling; and tandir ovens for roasting meats and baking breads. Customary dishes throughout the region include soups and stews, pilafs, noodles, steamed dumplings, grilled meats on skewers, flatbread, savory pastries, and halvah.

The geographical limits of Central Asia, once called Turkistan, include the Soviet successor states (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan), and Xinjiang in northwest China. Others do not hesitate to add other Turkic-language areas, like the Caucasus, Turkey, and parts of Siberia, while some embrace Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, northern India, Pakistan, and even Tibet in the Central Asian cultural orbit.

The thriving culture of Iran was the primary influence on Central Asian society, with later Arabic and Mongol contributions. One hundred and fifty years of Russian power and fifty years of intensive Chinese subjugation of the region have considerably altered the foodways. Well-documented Soviet problems of collectivization and distribution homogenized local diets. The turbulent history of Xinjiang continues, with Chinese migrants and laborers, particularly from Sichuan, flooding the region after the 1960s, dropping the Turkic Uighur population from roughly 75 percent to less than 50 percent. In China proper, Uighur cuisine is segregated and disparagingly referred to as Muslim food.

Diet and Foodstuffs

Greek humoral theory, as propagated by ibn Sina of the eleventh century, still affects the diet of millions in the region. Combined with traditional Chinese thought, Central Asians consider food to have either "hot" or "cold" (Farsi, sardi or garmi ) qualities, serving both medicinal and nutritive functions. Three meals a day are standard, each including tea and flatbread (nan or naan ). The largest meal is usually taken in the evening.

The spirited bazaars of Central Asiapart marketplace, part carnival, and part town squarecapture the Silk Road mystique. Aromatic spices take center stage, though only cumin, red and black pepper, and coriander seeds are used in abundance. Herbs of distinction include cilantro, dill, parsley, and celeriac leaves. Seasoning is generally mild, but sauces, relishes, and even whole peppers are added for punch. Other flavor enhancers are white grape vinegar and fermented milk products. Rendered sheep fat is the general cooking oil, though vegetable oil and cottonseed oil are widely used. Olive oil and butter are not traditional cooking fats.

The Asian sun sweetens market produce. Delicious tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers, and eggplants comprise the basic vegetables. The area also offers unique varieties of pungent green radishes (turup), yellow carrots (actually turnips), and a prodigious selection of pumpkin and squash. Dolma, meaning "stuffed" in Turkish, may be created from any vegetablecabbage, grape leaves, peppers, tomatoes, and so forthby hollowing it out or wrapping it around a filling. Spring fruits traditionally include grapes, apricots, strawberries, cherries, figs, and peaches. The tree harvest in autumn brings apples, quinces, persimmons, and pears. Winter delivers lemons, mandarins, pomegranates, and smooth-skinned melons. Melon slices are also sun-dried and braided into long ropes to take their place alongside dried apricots, figs, dates, and raisins.

Core Cuisine

Meat and rice. Lamb and mutton, mainly fatty-tailed sheep, are the favorite protein of Central Asians. The fat, which imparts a sweet and rich quality to a dish, is valued more than the meat itself. Beef and chicken are consumed in substantial quantities, and horse, camel, and goat are not uncommon. Fish, though not eschewed, is rarely available, and Islamic dietary law forbids pork. Shashlyk (shish kebab), the standard street food, is prepared with beef, mutton, or minced meat and served with flatbread and lightly pickled onions. A kebab of fresh sheep liver and tail fat is a true luxury. While Westerners forget their charcuterie traditions, no part of an animal in Central Asia is ever wasted. There are still dishes made of lungs, intestines, and sheep's head and trotters.

Pilaf (palov) epitomizes Central Asian cuisine. A ceremonial dish for guests and family days, pilaf is so ubiquitous that there is sometimes a mistaken impression that it is their only dish. Meat, onions, and carrots are sautéed, then simmered to a broth, and covered with rice. Raisins, barberries, chickpeas, or dried fruit may be added for variety. Cumin is often the sole spice, while turmeric is added on special occasions for its golden color. Similar to an American barbecue, pilaf preparation is considered a manly challenge. Working with only a woklike kazan and spatula (kapkir), an oshpaz, master pilaf chef, can serve up to a thousand people from a single cauldron, making him much in demand for festivals and weddings.

Bread and noodles. Flatbread is baked daily at home or in communal ovens. Bread is considered holy and accompanies each meal. Most baked goods are made with wheat flour, though mung bean and corn flour are used also. Some flatbreads are topped with onions, pieces of sheep's fat, or even meat. Others are glazed with kalonji, anise, poppy, or sesame seeds. In Xinjiang the round plump breads astoundingly resemble New York City bagels. Katlama, related to the Indian paratha, is flaky unleavened bread cooked on a skillet.

The steppe nomads have added flour and dough to their soups for centuries. A dish of square flat noodles topped with boiled meat is called beshbarmak in Kazak-Kyrgyz areas. From farther east come steamed dumplings, manty (Korean mandoo ), vying with pilaf for the national dish in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Chinese Turkistan. Uighurs have mastered hand-pulled noodles, common in Korea and China proper. Made with only soft wheat, water, and salt, the transformation of a ball of dough into noodle threads in a matter of minutes is both compelling performance art and a dying culinary method.

A casing of dough with a typical filling of fatty mutton and onions becomes a number of other dishes simply by varying the cooking technique. If the dough is fried, the dish is called belyashi (Kazan Tartar) or chebureki (Crimean Tartar). The Turkish borek, also a fried savory pastry, may be related to the Slavic pirog, piroshki, and pierogi. Baked in a tandir, the dish is called samsa (Uzbek) or sambusa (Tajik), like Indian samosa. Steamed manty or hoshan (Kazak) are usually topped with a sauce of tomatoes, potatoes, and diced mutton. Smaller boiled versions of manty are chuchvara, pelmeni (Siberian), tushbera (Tajik), and joshpara (Farsi).

Hospitality and Traditions

Meals and customs. Central Asian cookery often requires great sacrifices on the part of the host. The Uzbek adage "Mehmon otanda ulugh" (the guest is greater than the father) remains accurate for most of the Muslim East. Generally, guests remove their shoes before entering the house and are seated at a low table (takhta) or on the floor with a kurpacha, or cushion. Diners gather around a dastarkhan (literally, tablecloth), which is an enormous assortment of food offered to the honored guest. On some occasions, men and women are separated. Special meals are eaten commensally by hand and can last for several hours with multiple courses and endless cups (piala) of tea. Though most of the region embraces Islam, alcohol is widely accepted in the successor states.

In addition to the ever-present pilaf, some distinct dishes are served during Islamic holidays. Navrus, the Muslim New Year, corresponds to the spring equinox. Halim, wheat porridge, is prepared from boiled meat and wheat grains, seasoned with black pepper and cinnamon. A children's favorite, nishalda, popular during Ramadan, is made with whipped egg whites, sugar, and licorice flavoring. Sumalak, symbolic of friendship and tolerance, is among the most traditional dishes. Prepared only by women, overnight, wheat sprouts are blended with oil, flour, and sugar and cooked on low heat. Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan with three days of feasting.

Tea and dessert. Freshly made green tea, the drink of hospitality, complements every meal. Teatime, which may occur at the slightest cause, often includes flatbread, sweets, fruits, and pastries. Dried fruit with nutswalnuts, pistachios, and almondsis also a perfect accompaniment. Black tea is common in the Russian regions. Both teas are served with sugar, milk, salt, butter, or even fruit preserves. Uzbeks have a custom called shapirish, whereby the hostess returns the first two cups back into the teapot to stir the infusion. Thus the tea is described as going from mud (loy) to tea (choy) to wine (moy).

As sugar cane originated in India, sweets are a gift from the south, via Iran. This tradition produces tea sweets such chakchak, fried dough with honey; urama, fried spiraled strips of dough with powdered sugar; sugar-coated almonds; and novvot, crystallized sugar. More familiar halvah and paklava are also common desserts. Sharbat is fruit juice that migrated to Europe as frozen sherbet.

Food available outside the home includes street food and that from cafés, modern restaurants, and the traditional chai-khana (tearoom). Ideally near a poplar-lined stream or in a cool courtyard orchard, it is a gathering place for fraternity and socializing. The chai-khana in many ways functions like a community center and helps preserve certain aspects of Central Asian identity obscured by colonial powers.

Regional Variations and Specialties

The cuisines of Central Asia may be divided into three overlapping groups: Tajiks, Turks, and nomadic Turko-Mongol tribes. However simplistic, this categorization provides a more coherent approach to understanding the culinary cultures of Central Asia than organization along the arbitrary national boundaries. Numerous subcuisines from other ethnic minorities, such as Koreans, Tartars, Dungans (Chinese Muslims), Slavs, and Germans add to the culinary diversity of the area.

Sedentary cuisine. The Iranian-Tajik influence extends from Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan to Iran and Afghanistan and beyond to northern Pakistan and Jammu-Kashmir in India. These cuisines employ more vegetables and legumes, resort to complex seasonings, and boast elaborate sweets. Years of civil strife in Tajikistan and Afghanistan have devastated food supplies and interrupted traditional foodways. Generally, the farther away from the nomadic steppe, the more complex the spice blends and seasoning of the dishes. In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, an unusual dish is tuhum barak, an egg-filled ravioli flavored with sesame-seed oil. Tamerlane and his entourage of craftspeople from Samarkand, cooks included, brought the meat-eating tradition to India along with many fruits, particularly the melon and grape. The descendants of these cooksthe Wazasare the master chefs of Kashmir.

The Turkic group of languages claims roughly 125 million speakers and stretches from Siberia to the Balkans. Uzbeks and Uighurs, as settled Turks, favor pilafs, noodles, and stews. Since the oasis civilization is a middle ground, literally and figuratively, between the Iranian courtly cuisine and the pastoral nomads, their food has become most representative of Central Asian cuisine. In Uzbekistan, moshkichiri and moshhurda are common meat and mung bean gruels. Dimlama is braised meat and vegetables cooked in a pot sealed with dough. Its origins may be tied to dumpukht in Farsi, signifying food cooked in its own steam, shortened also in India to dum, as in dum-aloo. Apricot seeds are specially treated and roasted in ash to produce an exceptional snack. Because of linguistic ties, Azerbaijan and Turkey are often included in Central Asian culinary culture, as these countries share roots, not to mention cooking methods and many dishes, with the Eurasian nomads.

Nomadic cuisine. Of all the Central Asian peoples, none has experienced such dramatic cultural upheaval due to colonization, industrialization, and urbanization as have the nomads. The traditional meal of steppe and highlands was meat on occasion, milk products, and the stray onion. As Turkmenistan is mostly desert, vegetable and grain cultivation is challenging. Chorek (flatbread), gruel, and tea remain typical for most meals.

In Soviet times the Turkmen, Kazaks, and Kyrgyz were forcefully settled into dreary apartment blocks. Separated from the land and their herds, the nomads adopted many Russian or Uzbek foods and customs. Kazaks and Kyrgyz claim as national dishes beshbarmak and kumys, fermented mare's milk. Horsemeat sausage (kazy), when served with cold noodles, is called naryn. Barley, wheat, and millet are quite common; from them comes dzarma, fermented barley flour. Boso, or fermented millet, and boorsak, a ritual dish made from small pieces of deep-fat-fried dough, are also found in Tibet by the same name. When the Uighurs and Dungans fled China in the late nineteenth century, they brought laghman, other noodle dishes, and spicy peppers that were quickly embraced by the Kazaks and Kyrgyz.

The diminished state of traditional foodways in Central Asia is often decried, particularly when judging the cuisine through the distorting prism of Western restaurant culture. These Eurasian civilizations were completely transformed during the colonial experience. However, the trend of globalization triggers entrenchment of cultural heritage and local foodways. As borders open, outside interest is countered with a pronounced revival and demonstration of ethnic identity. If domestic traditions and hospitality persevere, the Central Asian culinary arts and its foodways are bound to flourish.

See also China; Iran; Islam; Middle East; Noodles of Asia; Rice; Russia; Tea.


Arsel, Semahat, ed. Timeless Tastes: Turkish Culinary Culture. Istanbul: Vehbi Kooc Vakfi: DiVan, 1996.

Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

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Pokhlebkin, V. V. Sobranie Izbrannykh Proizvedenii: Natsional'nye Kukhni Nashikh Narodov: Povarennaia Kniga (Collected works: National cuisines of our people: Recipes). Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 1996.

Zubaida, Sami, and Richard Trapper, eds. Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. London: Tauris, 1994.

Glenn R. Mack

Proverbial Land of Milk and Honey

Although God did not mention Central Asia when promising Moses a "good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey," the region certainly fits the description. The Eurasian herders, having domesticated sheep and goats roughly ten thousand years ago, realized that milk, in addition to the meat and wool of their flocks, was essential to their survival. The pastoralists took advantage of microbiology to improve the flavor of fresh milk, make it more digestible and nutritious, and increase its shelf life. The resulting dairy product is determined by controlling the action of bacteria, enzyme, or yeast. Milk, either fresh or skimmed of cream, may be of several sourcesewe, goat, cow, camel, mare, and dri (yak). The first step is simply separating fresh cream from the milk to make a soured clotted cream, or kaimak, enjoyed with flatbread and honey. The honey is imbued with a marvelous flavor due to the nectar gathered from cotton and grape blossoms and the varied mountain valley flowers, grasses, and trees.

Fresh milk quickly sours through fermentation in warm conditions, essentially the same bacterial process employed for pickles, olives, or sourdough bread. Yogurt (katyk) is used in soups, beverages, and even doughs to add a pleasant sourness, with the lactic acid produced by bacteria breaking down the milk sugar. With reduced lactose, the cultured products become more digestible for most Central Asians, who, along with 70 percent of the world, have a dairy intolerance. Fermented camel milk is shubat, and agaran is its cream. Mixing katyk and water creates a refreshing salty drink, ayran or chalop (Kyr), similar to the Indian lassi. Drained yogurt results in suzma, a fresh curd cheese eaten plain, in salads, or with soups and main courses as a garnish. Adding a rennet enzyme to milk makes panir or soft cheese, unaged, white, and rindless.

Kumys, fermented camel's or mare's milk, made famous by numerous Western travelers, including Marco Polo, has been subjected to both bacterial and yeast fermentation. Caucasian kefir is made with a similar process. Kumys or ayrag (Mongolian), primarily made with mare's milk, is the mildly alcoholic drink (up to 4 or 5 percent) of the nomads and may also be slightly fizzy with carbonic acid. Saba is a Kazak leather sack for making kumys that imparts a smoky, earthy quality. Refusing an offer of kumys may cause offense. Mare's milk has four times more vitamin C than cow's milk, aiding a pastoral diet scarce in fruits and vegetables. The remaining milk or whey from kumys or suzma is salted and sun-dried, formed into balls or bricks, and called qurut or qurt. This form, which is eaten often as a snack, lasts the winter months and may be added to soups or reconstituted as a drink.

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Central Asia


The notion of "Central Asia" for Russia was the result of a gradual, often haphazard advance southward during the country's history. The region has been called different terms in the past and it was not until the twentieth century that one saw the term "Central Asia and Kazakhstan" noted. Politically, it still is often restricted to the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. However, from a cultural perspective, "Central Asia" often encompasses a broader territorial range, that includes Afghanistan, Xinjiang (China), and the Northwest Territories of Pakistan.

Historically, Central Asia has often been called the last colonial holding of the Russian Empire, a possession acquired during the famed "Great Game" struggle with the British Empire. The region of what is today Kazakhstan was incorporated into the Russian empire as early as the eighteenth century, when the Tsarist government signed treaties with the various nomadic hordes that controlled the vast swaths of steppe territory. The purpose of these agreements was to allow Russian agricultural settlements to develop and, more important, to permit a secure trade route to the Russian holdings in eastern Siberia and the Far East. Indeed, the cities that currently exist in southern Russia and northern KazakhstanOrenburg, Omsk, Tomsk, Semi-palatinsk, Pavlodarwere initially developed as "fortress towns" to protect the fur trade to and from the Far East.

Farther south, the conquest took more time. Early Russian forays into Central Asia took place in the sixteenth century, when Muscovy traders established contacts with the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva. However, relations were minimal for the next two centuries. It was not until the 1800s that tensions along the southern border prompted Russian military units to step up their activities. On one hand, the regional khanates were accused of kidnapping Russian settlers farther north and selling them into slavery. More significantly, Russia found itself in competition with the British Empire over control of the larger region between their empires south of Russia and north of India.

Consequently, Russian military units methodically captured one city after another in the 1850s and 1860s, with the fall of Tashkent and Bukhara in 1865 and 1868, respectively, being key events. By the 1870s, the region was either under direct Russian rule or controlled by two Russian protectoratesBukhara and Khiva. While there were periodic anti-Russian revolts, none were significant enough to threaten stability in the region.

Central Asia was important to Russia for several reasons. First, it became a core supplier of raw materials. Not only were food and livestock important commodities in the region, but so were exportable industrial products. Minerals, coal, and timber from the northern parts of the region and cotton from the central and southern parts were integrated into the Russian economy. In particular, the shortage of cotton on the international market caused by the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) prompted Russian officials to expand cotton production in Central Asia for domestic use and for international trade purposes.

Second, Central Asia was strategically important. As noted, Russia found it was competing with Great Britain over South Asian possessions in what was often dubbed "the Great Game." As Russia expanded its control over the steppes of Kazakhstan and into the settled regions of Turkestan, attention was directed southward. It was not until the negotiated border agreement of 1895 that Russia and Great Britain came to terms with their respective holdings in Asia-Russian territory being what is today "Central Asia," and British territory being the regions of Pakistan and India. Afghanistan was seen as a "neutral buffer state," albeit under British influence.

Within the Russian-controlled region of Central Asia, major settlements in the north included the strategic Orenburg, Pavlodar, and Semi-palatinsk. Further south, the cities of Vernyy, Pishpek, and Tashkent were critical. Some of these cities, such as Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva, were ancient cities with large indigenous populations. Others were Russiandominated settlements. Railway lines connected all of these cities by the early twentieth century, making it easier for Russians to travel through the region.

The Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War were periods of great turmoil in Central Asia. It was not until 1922 that the Red Army forces under General Frunze were able to quell all significant opposition to the regime-both "White Army" forces and nationalist movements representing indigenous groups. The last "Basmachi" incursion into Central Asia took place in 1936, by which time the region was firmly in Soviet hands.

Throughout the Soviet period, Central Asia remained a source of raw materials. A more sinister usage of Central Asia for the Soviet state was the creation of detention camps within the Gulag system. Located in the western regions of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistanaround the Aral Seathese camps held thousands of political prisoners through the 1980s. In addition, Central Asia remained a "destination of exile" for other political dissidents who were forced to move from Russia proper. Indeed, this "tradition" predated the Soviet era. Under Josef Stalin, entire ethnic groups were deported to Central Asia, especially in the 1940s. Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Volga German, and others were sent to Central Asia as they were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers during World War II. Koreans that traditionally lived in the Soviet Union near the Korean peninsula were also deported to Central Asia in the 1950s. It was not until the 1980s that many of these peoples were able to return to their native lands.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the independent states of Central Asia have remained important to Russia. For much of the 1990s, indeed, Russian leaders considered it part of their "Near Abroad." Even in the early twentyfirst century, there is a sense that Central Asia is part of the Russian national security interest region. Trade relations, although decreasing since the Soviet era, remain significant. Energy transfer routes often pass through Russia and many communication links are still northward. There is also a cultural link that is somewhat important to Russia. Several million Russians continue to live in Central Asia, particularly in Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic. While this was often deemed a source of potential conflict, it is more the case that Russians living in Central Asia will become less attached to Russia proper as time passes.

One interesting trend that has taken place since the early 1990s is the change in nomenclature in the region. In Turkmenistan, for example, the city of Krasnovodsk has been renamed Turkmenbashi (after the current Turkmen president). In Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic, there have been some changes of names for mountains (Pik Somoni instead of Pik Kommunizm in Tajikistan) and regions ("wiloyat" instead of "oblast"). One finds the most significant name changes in Kazakhstan. Semipalatinsk has been renamed Semei, AlmaAta has been renamed Almaty, and Akmola has been renamed Astana, to name a few. This sort of "cosmetic change" is important in the development of regional identities and is expected to continue. In addition, the use of Russian language and the Cyrillic alphabet are decreasing, further noting a cultural distancing from Russia.

Ultimately, Central Asia remains important to Russia, but in a limited way. Central Asian countries have increased their ties to other countries, such as China, Turkey, and the United States. In addition, as energy exports from Central Asia increase, Russia will find itself sharing influence in the region.

See also: basmachis; colonial expansion; gulag; kazakhstan and kazakhs; islam; kyrgyzstan and kyrgyz; near abroad; tajikistan and tajiks; turkenistan and turkmen; uzbekistan and uzbeks


Allison, Roy and Johnson, Lena, eds. (2001). Central Asian Security: The New International Context. London: RIIA.

Allworth, Edward, ed. (1994). Central Asia: 130 Years of Russia Dominance, A Historical Overview. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and Wimbush, S. Enders. (1985). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide. London: C. Hurst and Company.

Grousset, Rene. (1970). The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, tr. Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Hopkirk, Peter. (1994). The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. New York: Kodansha International.

Khalid, Adeeb. (1998). The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: The University of California Press.

Olcott, Martha Brill. (1996). Central Asia's New States: Independence, Foreign Policy, and Regional Security. Washington, DC: USIP Press.

Oliker, Olga, and Szayana, Thomas S., eds. (2003). Fault-lines of Conflict in Central Asia and the South Caucasus: Implications for the U.S. Army. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Roi, Yaacov, ed. (1995). Muslim Eurasia: Conflicting Legacies. London: Frank Cass.

Roy, Olivier. (2000). The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations. New York: NYU Press.

Roger Kangas

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