Local food, Kyrgyz style

Jety-Oguz National Park

I just spent two nights camping in Jety-Oguz National Park, a gorgeous expanse of meadow and mountain and canyon centering on a rapidly running river. The road to the canyon crosses the river several times on very basic wooden bridges that, especially when seen from our big orange truck, didn’t inspire confidence. Whether or not because of people’s prayers and crossed fingers, the truck stayed on the narrow, guard-rail-less bridges, and none of the rough-looking structures collapsed.

While in the park, someone decided that we should get a lamb from a shepherd and roast it for dinner. So, one morning, a few bloodthirsty carnivores set off with our Kyrgyz guide to knock on the doors of a few yurts. Most people said that their sheep had already gone up into the hills for the day. (Sheep here graze at incredible altitudes, way up the steep green slopes. Horses, too. Cows seem to stay closer to the bottom of the hills, even wandering through our campsite a few times.) The last family, though they said the same thing, offered to send someone up the mountain to retrieve a sheep. Three o’clock, they said, they would deliver it.

A little after four, when the fire was burning beautifully and the cooks were starting to feel anxious, we saw a man coming down the road on horseback carrying a plastic package. Our delivery horseman had kindly stopped along the way to procure the pink plastic bag for the freshly butchered sheep. We didn’t want to think about how he’d been carrying it beforehand, but it’s easy enough to guess. At the big market in the town of Karakol, I saw a young guy cheerfully walking along with a small carcass in each hand, unwrapped. I mean, this is a country where they play games with headless goat carcasses.

Anyway. I was on cook duty, but I’d taken over the vegetable dishes and refused to have anything to do with the lamb. Apparently, though, the meat cooks had expected to roast the lamb in one piece, and had rigged up a system with our sand mats and wire and metal poles and a grill-like piece of metal. But the creature had been butchered, so they figured something else out. People enjoyed the roasted meat, and I was happy enough to help make tzatziki (there are so, so many cucumbers here, and so much yogurt), pasta salad, and a stew of slow-cooked eggplant, onions, peppers, and white beans. People finished off the lamb yesterday for lunch when we stopped by the side of the road, overlooking the blue, blue waters of Issyk-Kol Lake.

People seem to have developed a taste for local food, though. For tonight – our last night camping on this trip, in Ala-Archa Canyon – I’ve heard that there will be local trout.

A roadside stand in a yurtThe thing is, most of the food here is local. There are grocery stores, but most items are best bought at the open-air markets, where people sit behind mountains of tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, apricots, and plums; bins of walnuts, pistachios, apricot kernels (which look and taste a bit like small, slim almonds), dried fruit, and cashews; colorful heaps of spices with small scoops at the ready; and piles of round bread, flattened in the middle, sometimes still warm. The big markets wind on and on, with sections for hardware and auto parts (all spread out on the pavement or on blankets), clothes (hanging in front of tarps), baby chicks and ducklings (the peeping noise from dozens and dozens of tiny, fuzzy birds!), and sweets and biscuits (laid out in bins; take what you want and pay by the kilo).

By the side of the road, you often see mobile beekeepers with colorful boxes of hives on the backs of trucks, selling honey in d old jars, soda bottles, and any container they can find. I’m still hoping to find someone selling the amazing homemade jams we’ve had, sour cherry or apricot or plum. Our guide suggested that we ask at a yurt. That seems to be the way around here.

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