‘How do I get across?’: Food in Central Asia

by Malgorzata Biczyk

Malgorzata-BiczykA man named Nasreddin had been sitting on a river bank when someone shouted to him from the opposite side, “Hey! How do I get across?” Nasreddin responded with “You are across”.

In the context of Central Asian cuisine, ‘crossing the river’ might have also the meaning of crossing over some basic truths. Food has by nature the capacity to keep a memory vivid. However, the longer I eat and smell Central Asian food, the more I get the feeling of a kind of food-related romantic paradox. Everyone wants to cross the river to taste the food of others, whilst forgetting about the value of their own local specialties. Take osh (a form of Central Asian rice) for instance. Whose osh is better is probably a question that is, if not as old as the world, then at least as old as the city of Osh itself.

The word osh, associated with an old and pretty city, refers to a specific dish called pilau, or plov. As well as being a part of cuisine in Central Asia, osh has another meaning. For the diaspora osh also means home. For foreigners, osh brings the memories of Central Asian charms; sitting in the shadow under mulberry trees; admiring the laziness of hot afternoons as well as eating and chatting. But osh also symbolizes an important dimension of Central Asian food identity. It has a unifying function as the Central Asian dish. The dish can also lead to criticism and gossiping; whether there should be more or less garlic, when to use lemon, or why the rice is so overcooked.

Historically, foreigners who had spent a fair amount of time in the Pamirs, thought that what was considered ‘traditional cuisine’ in the region would be identical to what was served in other parts of post-soviet Central Asia (the latter cuisine largely consisted of osh; manty – steamed dumplings and pelmeni – dumplings with a thinner dough). Though eaten widely, this food is not what people eat at home and consider ‘local’. Osh has on the whole, kept the status of a kind of public, celebratory food in the region. Wherever there is a birthday or a gathering associated with the state or a Soviet public holiday, there is osh. At the same time, however, on the occasion of cultural or religious festivities, many people keep on preparing fascinating local food, very different to osh. However, these local dishes are slowly disappearing.

Today, many ‘traditional herders’ produce cream for sale and use the income gained from the sale of cream for buying Iranian trans-fats; although it can be argued that these herders are capable of producing much tastier butter; whose consumption is arguably a far healthier option than the consumption of trans-fats! Of course, my point of view does not lack a certain dose of romanticism. There must be good reasons for buying Iranian fat: it is cheaper, easier to melt, and comes in handy cans. Indeed scholars who study food in Central Asia have come up with a varied polemic. For instance, Jamila Heider and Frederik van Oudenhoven have looked at the interplay between international development and the diversity of food in Central Asia. Whereas, Russell Zanca, inspired by the western fashion to eat fat-less, has tried to analyze what stands behind the ‘Uzbek approach’, where “the fatter, the better” rules on the tables.

If I was to examine the importance of cuisine in Central Asia, I would be tempted to do so through the lens of local identities and aspirations. Foreign researchers are running through the region, trying to ’go native’ and to appreciate the imponderables of local diversities. Meanwhile, Central Asians themselves often long for products that are anything but the traditional cuisine. Conclusively, whether one is a foreign researcher or a Central Asian, all that anyone is trying to do is just to ‘get across’.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Malgorzata Biczyk is a social anthropologist working on the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Currently, she is a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle and a member of CASCA (Centre for the Anthropological Study of Central Asia, Halle-Zurich).