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.Sunday, 19 January 2020

By Karolina Wiercigroch
Photographs 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

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. 

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. 

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.

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Published in the January 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food

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