the food situation

The realization first hit me when we invited two friends over for dinner a couple weeks ago, a pair of sassy Turkmen girls we met at school. Farrell realized that he had most of the ingredients to make Moroccan-style chicken: chickpeas, allspice, assorted nuts and raisins, and long-grain rice. Since the meal was anticipated to be a giant step up from our usual instant ramen feasts (a packet is only 8 som, how can we resist?), we felt it was only appropriate to share (and show off Farrell’s cooking skills).

Ahem, not to toot my own horn, but the meal was a big hit. Then one of the girls asked me, “So, when did you go to Morocco?”

Oh. Well, I’ve never been to Morocco. I think Farrell went there before we met, but it was only for a few days.

“Is that where he learned to make this?”

Heck no! This was the result of an internet recipe and some improvisation. It’s just the way that we’re used to cooking in the states: if we add curry powder, it’s Indian-style, soy sauce makes a dish “Asian”, basil and oregano makes it Italian.

That moved the conversation to the commonality of global cuisines in American kitchens and restaurants. Take a second to reflect on what sort of food you ate in the past week. Peek at your take-out menus. Think about your favorite restaurants. Look at your spice cabinet. How much of it can be classified as some sort of ethnic cuisine?

For me, eating “American” food meant constantly sampling whatever exotic spices or new cuisine I could. Living in DC made it impossible to avoid days that included Greek for lunch and Thai for dinner. Taking family and friends out for Ethiopian was a strict ritual. Homemade naan and biryani was a regular weekday dinner. Eating American cuisine was simply eating anything (and everything!) available to me in America (or, you know, in walking distance).

Ahh. It’s a bit different in Kyrgyzstan. There’s Kyrgyz cuisine, which consists of fatty meats (either fantastically grilled or sadly boiled), starchy veggies, bland noodles, broths, and fermented dairy products. There’s Uzbek cuisine…which consists of fatty meats, starchy veggies, bland noodles… And there’s Russian cuisine, which forced me to learn how to ask for food “без майонез, without mayonnaise”. American food is the stereotypical hamburger. There are a few scattered Turkish restaurants for the entrepreneurial Turkish minority (all of the grocery stores are Turkish). Chinese restaurants make use of the abundance of bell peppers (my least favorite food ever) and oil available here, and they’re always a bit sketchy anyway.

Anything else available is too expensive for the average Kyrgyz, something that Farrell and I will try to save for semi-special occasions, lest we remove ourselves too far out of typical Bishkek life. For example, there are a few Italian restaurants in Bishkek. In America, Italian is a broad concept for cuisine and encompasses everything from your local Penndel Pizzaria, the Olive Gardens that dot every town across the country (a pox on American cuisine, in my opinion), or the upscale Bella Italiano (oh come on, they always have “Bella” in the name) in the big city with the white linens and the good olive oil. Italian restaurants in Bishkek aim for snootiness and authenticity, and while they’re very good, it all just seems a bit out of place.

Then there are the ethnic restaurants that are even out of my price range. In all the guidebooks we’ve read there is a sushi restaurant that claims the honor of the most expensive restaurant in Kyrgyzstan; the only one rated $$$$, expect to pay at least $50 per person, more for drinks and all the fabulous extras. Considering that Kyrgyzstan is landlocked, I can understand the price for raw fish is high (and I shudder to think about all the hole-in-the-wall places that charge less for sushi), but I won’t be dining there anytime soon.

On top of that, the mythical sushi place may have been recently trumped by an Indian restaurant that opened earlier this year. Our favorite Belgian couple celebrated there recently, causing us to gasp in horror as they recounted the prices. Maybe the owner has to hire someone to hand-carry all those precious spices over the Hindu Kush?

Probably won’t be dining there anytime soon either.

Just like back in the states, we try to do most of our eating at home, and I find that I have to get a bit creative to keep up with my cooking and baking habits. So if I can’t find coconut milk, I can’t make Thai curry once a week. I guess I’ll have to expand my horizons with these limitations, not necessarily learning to live without all those fabulous conveniences (like living two minutes from a Whole Foods), but adapting to a different way of eating. Isn’t that what being an expat is all about?

Uhh, don’t ask me to eat a boiled piece of sheep fat though. That’s just not happening.