Photo story: dining with nomads in Kyrgyzstan

Once a nation of nomads, today’s Kyrgyzstan is dotted with yurts only in summer. For most of the year, Kyrgyz shepherds live settled lives in the valleys, but from June to September, when the lowlands are arid, they move to summer mountain pastures.

By Karolina Wiercigroch
photographs by Karolina Wiercigroch
Published 19 Jan 2020, 08:18 GMT, Updated 14 Jan 2022, 17:08 GMT
Itinerant vendor selling fresh produce from the nearest market at Kochor to the shepherds at jailoo.
An itinerant vendor selling fresh produce from the nearest market at Kochor to the shepherds at jailoo.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

Homemade dairy products are a nomadic speciality, and shepherds often sell them from roadside stalls. It’s hard to miss the plastic bottles of kumis, Kyrgyzstan’s slightly alcoholic national drink, made from fermented mare’s milk. Cow’s milk is used to make both butter and a thick cream called kaymak, best eaten as a dip with a hunk of warm bread. Another popular diary-based dish is kurut — little balls of dried, salted yoghurt. Non-perishable, they were the favourite on-the-go treat of the shepherds and are still a popular beer snack among locals. Meanwhile, in Kyrgyz households, tea is served with every meal. Umutkor’s older son, Nurbek, pours a cup.

Kumis is best sampled fresh in a yurt. Even modern Bishkekers come to kumis-drinking retreats in Song Köl Lake or Suusamyr Valley. Coincidently, the name of the Kyrgyz capital city probably derives from the word bishkek — the wooden barrel in which kumis is made. Health benefits of kumis were praised by ancient folk tales and 19th-century Russian scientists alike, while kumis-drinking treatments in Russian sanatoria were enjoyed by Tolstoy, Gorky and Chekhov.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch
Green mountain pastures are flecked with herds of cows, horses and sheep. Cow’s milk is used to beat fresh, yellow butter and to make kaymak — deliciously thick, scrumptiously fat cream, similar to clotted cream. Dipping a chunk of warm bread into fresh, creamy kaymak can be one of the culinary highlights of a trip to Kyrgyzstan.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch
In Kyrgyz households, tea is nearly as popular a drink as kumis. It is served with every meal — and between meals.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch
It is usually the woman’s role to milk the animals and make dairy products: kumis, kaymak, yoghurt, butter and kurut. Umutkor milks her cows at sunset. She doesn’t have horses, so she trades cow’s milk for kumis with a friend from a neighbouring yurt.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

If you’re invited to afternoon tea with the shepherds, the feast you’ll be treated to is likely to include homemade round bread, kaymak, fresh yoghurt, a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, and homemade jams. Meanwhile, Umutkor makes plov — a rice dish popular across Central Asia and the Caucasus — by frying onions, carrots and lamb with spices in a heavy pot, called a kazan, over a wood-fired stove. She adds red devzira rice and lets the dish simmer for about an hour, the yurt quickly filling with the aroma of cumin, coriander and caraway. 

Dogs are popular companions. They may help with the herds or stay alert at night to raise the alarm in case of intrusion. With miles of a green steppe to run around, dogs seem to be happy with the arrangement.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch
Umutkor is making plov — an aromatic rice dish, popular in Central Asia and the Caucasus. She first fries onions, carrots and lamb with a blend of aromatic spices in a heavy pot called kazan, placed over a wood-fired stove. She adds red devzira rice and lets the dish simmer for about an hour.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch
As the plov gently bubbles, the yurt quickly fills with fragrant notes of cumin, coriander and caraway.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

Where once shepherds and their families would reach jailoo on horseback, these days they’re much more likely to move about in a Russian car. Centuries ago, nomadic cuisine relied almost entirely on meat, dairy and dried staples like rice or noodles. Today, fresh vegetables can be transported from the village and are even sold in jailoo by itinerant vendors. Like plov, kurdak is a one-pot traditional speciality. It consists of lamb, fried with onions, potatoes, red chillies and a blend of spices. 

Kurdak is, like plov, a one-pot specialty made in kazan. It consists of lamb fried with onions, potatoes, red chilli pepper and a blend of spices.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

Another example of dishes from a typical Kyrgyz afternoon tea. This time, ornate crystal bowls contain shiny jams — made with raspberries from the garden in the village and apricots from Issyk-Kul lake — plus dried fruit from Fergana Valley and Russian sweets. While meals are traditionally eaten on a rug, or a tablecloth spread on the floor, nowadays some yurts are fitted with tables. Breakfast, meanwhile, is usually a pile of warm, crispy Russian blinis, served with a tart homemade jam made from wild blueberries; Umutkor and her family forage for them in the mountain forest.

Another example of a typical Kyrgyz afternoon tea spread. Encrusted crystal cups contain shiny jams — made with raspberries from the garden in the village and apricots from Issyk-Kul Lake — with dried fruit from Fergana Valley and Russian candy.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch
Whenever the weather permits, nomadic families spend as much time as possible outside, performing daily chores like preparing food or washing dishes in front of the yurt. The traditional division of labour is still intact — men leave the camp early in the morning to herd the animals, women stay around the yurt to cook, wash up and clean.
Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

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Published in the January 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food

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