Citizens, the national dish of the Silk Road country of Kyrgyzstan is Besh Barmak (also spelled Beshbarmak or Beşbarmaq). Since today is August 31, when Kyrgyzstanis celebrate their independence day, it is an especially auspicious day to detail a mighty Kyrgyz recipe!
Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic, formerly known as Kirghizia, is a landlocked country located in Central Asia. Landlocked and mountainous, Kyrgyzstan is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the south west and China to the east. Its capital and largest city is Bishkek.
Kyrgyzstan’s recorded history spans over 2,000 years, encompassing a variety of cultures and empires. Although geographically isolated by its highly mountainous terrain – which has helped preserve its ancient culture – Kyrgyzstan has historically been at the crossroads of several great civilizations, namely as part of the Silk Road and other commercial and cultural routes.
Though long inhabited by a succession of independent tribes and clans, Kyrgyzstan has periodically come under foreign domination and attained sovereignty as a nation-state only after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Ethnic Kyrgyz make up the majority of the country’s 5.7 million people, followed by significant minorities of Uzbeks and Russians. The official language, Kyrgyz, is closely related to the other Turkic languages, although Russian remains widely spoken, a legacy of a century-long policy of Multiculturalism. The majority of the population (64 percent) are non-denominational Muslims. In addition to its Turkic origins, Kyrgyz culture bears elements of Persian, Mongolian and Russian influence.
“Kyrgyz” is believed to have been derived from the Turkic word for “forty”, in reference to the forty clans of Manas, a legendary hero who united forty regional clans against the Uyghurs. Literally, Kyrgyz means “We are forty”. At the time, in the early 9th century AD, the Uyghurs dominated much of Central Asia (including Kyrgyzstan), Mongolia, and parts of Russia and China.
The 40-ray sun on the flag of Kyrgyzstan is a reference to those same forty tribes and the graphical element in the sun’s center depicts the wooden crown, called tunduk, of a yurt – a portable dwelling traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.
Horsemanship is a huge part of Kyrgyz culture – one popular game is kok-boru– “blue wolf” in the Kyrgyz language – a popular horse game in which two teams of riders face off in a field and attempt to carry a goat or calf carcass into the opposing team’s end zone. The game may have evolved from informal competitions among shepherds who hunted wolves that threatened their flocks.
Other popular games on horseback include:
• At Chabysh – a long-distance horse race, sometimes over a distance of more than 50 km
• Jumby Atmai – a large bar of precious metal (the “jumby”) is tied to a pole by a thread and contestants attempt to break the thread by shooting at it, while at a gallop
• Kyz Kuumai – a man chases a girl in order to win a kiss from her, while she gallops away; if he is not successful she may in turn chase him and attempt to beat him with her “kamchi” (horsewhip)
• Oodarysh – two contestants wrestle on horseback, each attempting to be the first to throw the other from his horse
• Tyin Emmei – picking up a coin from the ground at full gallop
Traditional Kyrgyz food revolves around mutton and horse meat, as well as various dairy products. The cooking techniques and major ingredients have been strongly influenced by the nomadic way of life. Fish, especially from the rivers and Lake Issyk Kul, is also highly-favored food.
The national Kyrgyz dish of besh barmak is eaten with the hands, and this was probably the origin of its name, (besh barmak means “five fingers”). The classic variant of the dish, (which is now prepared basically in the Talas region of northern Kyrgyzstan), requires a good knife – as all the prepared for the dish cutting up the ingredients before it is put on the table.
Fresh dough is cut into squares (about 10 cm х 10 cm) and boiled in a meat broth. The boiled patties, or dumplings, are placed on a porcelain dish in order to cool to room temperature.
Then each of the squares is rolled out and cut with a sharp knife. The meat is prepared in a similar manner, boiled meat and cut into small pieces on the same surface as the dough. Onions (also finely chopped) are soaked in a hot broth in a separate bowl with ground black pepper added, (this mixture is called “chyk”). The meat is usually from a freshly slaughtered ram, but sometimes beef and even horsemeat can be used as the basic ingredient in besh barmak.
The latter is used basically when entertaining especially honored guests. Besh barmak with chunks cut from the horsemeat sausage, chuchuk is especially prized. When serving Besh barmak the head of the sheep will be given to the most honored guest.
Citizens, I hope you enjoy this unusual and delicious recipe from the furthest reaches of the Silk Road! My version makes one tiny change from the canonical recipe – I find that a good hit of cumin in the noodle dough adds a great flavor and is a spice used in Central Asian cuisine already.
Battle on – The Generalissimo
1.5 kg lamb or mutton
4 l water
2 onions, peeled and cut in half
200 ml water
½ tbsp. ground cumin (TFD addition, not in original recipe)
1 tsp salt
500 g flour
freshly ground black pepper
500 ml broth
1 tbsp fresh dill weed
2 bay leaves
3.5 l broth
Broth: Wash the meat in running water. Put it in a saucepan with cold water and bring to a boil. When the water starts boiling, remove the foam on the surface and boil for about 1.5 hours.
When the meat is cooked let it cool before cutting it into small slices or strips 0.5-6 cm. Put the cut meat in a separate dish and keep it covered in a warm place.
Dough: While the meat is boiling, prepare the dough. Pour the water into a bowl, add egg, cumin and salt while stirring. Add the flour and knead the dough. The ready dough should be divided into two equal parts and placed for 10-15 minutes under a dish. This procedure makes it soft and pliable for rolling.
Make those 2 parts into a bun which is then flattened by pressing down on it. Keep covered with a linen cloth and left for 15 minutes.
Roll each bun to a thickness of about 2-3 mm. Fold the dough into a roll and cut across into the form of noodles about 3-4 mm wide.
Lower the noodles into the boiling mutton broth (after having taken off the meat).
When the noodles float to the surface, stir the pot and simmer for another minute.
Remove the noodles from the pot, let them drain and place them onto a dish.
Cut two of the onions into rings and put in the boiling lamb broth for 1 minute.
Remove from the broth and put an even layer of onions on the noodles.
Place the strips of meat in the form of a small hill in the middle of the rings of onions.
Chyk: Then prepare the Chyk sauce. Finely chop the third onion. Pour 0.5 l of broth in an pot and bring to boil. Add the chopped onions, black pepper and salt to taste.
The Chyk should be hot when served with the meat and the noodles, so it is necessary to cover it and store it in a warm place in order to avoid it cooling.
In the remaining broth, add the bay leaf and salt, boil 5 minutes. Fill the four serving bowls, and sprinkle with dill.
When serving, pour the Chyk sauce over the large platter with the meat and the noodles. The dish with noodles and meat is placed on the middle of the table and each person is served a bowl of broth.