Kyrgyzstan refers to itseif as the country of tea and meat. That explains the look of disbelief and borderline shock I received from Kuma, a local Kyrgiz lady who I told I was only eating plants. “Well, what will you eat then?” She asked me. That’s a valid question in a country that so massively relies on animal products.
Now I will say yes, it wasn’t as easy to be vegan for two weeks in Kyrgyzstan as it is in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia or Europe. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I don’t speak Russian nor Kyrgyz which makes communication a bit challenging. Luckily a lot of times I was surrounded by some Kyrgyz guide or driver who was able to translate for me.
I will also say that I was absolutely blown away by the quality, freshness and taste of all the produce and fruit I consumed in Kyrgyzstan. During summer months, produce yields are at its peak: different types of cabbage, beets, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, gooseberries, watermelon, and white melon are abundant and among the best I have ever consumed. So are apples, pears, grape, cherries, apricots, prunes and peaches. Kyrgyz people also love potatoes, as well as buckwheat that is often used as a side dish or as a basis for a breakfast porridge.
The challenges for vegans lie mostly in the fact that meat is added to a lot of dishes. As opposed to the US where meat is usually at the center of the plate and served in large quantities, in Kyrgyzstan meat can be found as a small addition to soups, stews, noodle dishes, and dumplings. More than meat, dairy is a hidden ingredient in baked goods, bread, and other dishes. But being vegan can be done and Bishkek, the capital city, offers some wonderful vegan options.
Navat is a higher-end chain, and well-known among locals and tourists. While serving traditional dishes, it had a large salad menu that is super vegan-friendly and composed of beets, cabbage, eggplant, and cauliflower salads. You can also order laghman, one of the national specialties and a Chinese-influenced noodle dish without meat.
Baan Baan Thai
After two weeks in the Kyrgyz mountains and countryside, I wad craving a culinary change and Baan Baan Thai turned out to be an incredibly delicious spot. Right next to a women-owned brewery, Baan Baan offers a large number of vegan options such as different pad Thai dishes, red and green curries as well as tofu skewers. It’s no easy job to open a Thai restaurant in Central Asia where the owners have to fly in ingredients every 3 months from Thailand. But it’s definitely a success as the dishes are vibrant, flavorful and extremely yummy. Psst, Baan Baan is updating its menu and adding vegan Thai dumplings to the menu shortly!
Furusato is another Asian option if you are looking to change it up. With an entire page of veg sushi and a list of different rice, soba and other noodle bowls, it’s easy to content a vegan heart here. There is also a list of tofu dishes that can be made vegan by omitting Bonito flakes. The staff is lovely and so welcoming.
Named after the second biggest city in Kyrgyzstan next to the Uzbeki border, Osh Bazaar tends to be avoided by locals because it’s too busy and crowded for them. It’s a paradise for visitors though as you can shop for fresh fruit, veggies as well as dried fruit and nuts in abundance—all at a super cheap price. Note that most produce is local and a lot of the dried fruits and nuts are imported from Iran and other neighboring countries in the Middle East. My favorite are the thick, chewy dried apricots and the almonds in the husk. In addition, Osh Bazaar offers an entire row with Chinese-inspired ready-to-eat salads that are packed with tofu skin and soy protein. As for the bread, make sure to ask for the ones with no butter and no eggs.
Corn on the cob is a common street snack that fulfills on-the-go cravings. Look out for oromo, mostly found in more traditional Kyrgyz restaurants. This layered dumpling can be made with veggies and cabbage instead of meat. Finally, pierotschke, a large potato fritter, is an indulgent option that will leave you full and satisfied.
Also by Isabelle: From Michelin-Starred Pasta To Fresh Figs—The Best Vegan Eats In Venice
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Photo: Noah Ennis (landscapes); Isabelle Steichen (food)