Local food is an important aspect of my travels, so whenever I find a food tour, I am in! Apple Hostel in Bishkek had just put together a food tour for their guests, and I was the first to sign up.
The main part of the tour took place at Osh Bazaar. The market is one of the largest in Bishkek, and you can find everything you need, from food to clothing, or maybe an extra key to your house.
Lepeshka is the traditional round bread, and a natural first stop on our tour, as bread is a very important part of a Kyrgyz meal. It is actually seen as sacred, and it is considered impolite to leave bread behind after a meal. Either you finish it, or you take it with you. Two other good things to know regarding the bread, is that it should not be left upside down, and if a local see a piece of bread on the ground outside, they pick it up and put it somewhere higher, so that birds or other animals easier can spot it.
Another very important part of the Kyrgyz culture, is the Kumis – fermented mare’s milk. It is widely found, especially in the yurts in the mountains, and of course also at the Osh Bazaar. It is actually so important, that the capital is named after the wooden stick used to mix the milk – the bishkek.
Our guide Aigul took us determined past the stalls selling cheese and honey, and ended up in front of a woman selling different kinds of homemade fermented drinks out of buckets. We started easy, with one made of corn, continuing with the wheat-based, and last, the fermented mare’s milk was presented. The first sip was interesting. The second went better, but I do not think it will ever be my favorite drink…
Moving on to the large hall with food, we had lots of interesting things to try.
Small balls were lined up in large bags, with slightly different colours. The base for all of them were the same; yogurt and salt. Some were added spices for different taste, while others were smoked. Mutual for all of them was that they were left outside to dry in the sun. The longer they dried, the harder they got. Most of them were quite salty, and are often enjoyed as a beer snack. The fried and salted beans felt more like a suitable beer snack to me than the dried yogurt balls though.
Another stall had a pile of what looked like rocks. And it turned out it was just that. Dried clay is an important source for minerals, so it is quite common to suck on them, especially for pregnant women.
Next up was trying the local tobacco. It was not for smoking, but tiny black balls to put under the lower lip. Kind of like the Scandinavian “snus” for those familiar to that concept. I have never been a smoker, but as I try to taste the local things when travelling, I decided to give it a go.
The locals usually have it in for two minutes, but we were advised to take it out after one. I believe it took me about 10 seconds to feel the effect. 5 seconds later, I felt really drunk! I kept it in for a little longer, but it did not last the full minute. Luckily, the sensation did not last very long.
The taste was not the best either, but small strawberries soon filled my mouth with its sweet taste, bringing back childhood memories from picking tiny wild strawberries in the woods.
Continuing on the sweet note, the colourful and super sweet “hvorost” was our last dessert at the market. I think it is safe to say that you can find something for every taste at the Osh Bazaar.
The restaurant for our sit-down lunch was about 10 min walk away from the market. Aigul ordered three different dishes to share. With the food, we also got tea. According to Aigul, there are dissimilar traditions in the different regions how to pour the tea. She is from the north-west, where they pour just enough for a few mouthfuls. It is considered lazy if you pour more, meaning you think it is too much a hassle to pour several times. Especially the elderly can get offended. However, they are aware that there are different traditions all over the country, so I guess you will be off the hook as a visitor not knowing better.
The food tour in Bishkek left me with a little more knowledge about the food traditions in Kyrgyzstan, and many new tastes, and I am very glad I did this as an introduction at the beginning of my visit.
The food tour is mainly accessible for the guests staying at Apple Hostel, but if you stay somewhere else, it is possible to contact them for an offer; firstname.lastname@example.org.