Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Finger Food Kyrgyz Style

By Kelly Raftery
The Kyrgyz people’s traditional foods and hospitality reflect a long history of nomadic living. Or, as I put it, Kyrgyz food consists of “Leave yurt, catch animal, kill animal, cut up animal and throw in pot to cook, serve animal, eat animal.”  When everything you own has to be packed up on a couple of animals and moved to another place periodically, cuisine remains simple and unadorned. Pastries, spices and sown vegetables are simply not part of the nomadic diet. While today the Kyrgyz diet has expanded far beyond its nomadic roots, there are dishes that are part of the fabric of society and reflect the culture. The dish I would like to present to you is beshbarmak.

Shorpo, the broth base for beshbarmak.

Beshbarmak means “five fingers” and there are two versions of why the dish has been given this name. The generally accepted explanation of the name states that beshbarmak is a dish eaten in the old-fashioned way, with the hands, not utensils, thus the name. Another version of the origin story of the name says that beshbarmak is best made with meat with a fat layer five fingers wide.

And, as long as we are on the topic, let’s talk about fat in the Kyrgyz diet because it’s important and is one of those cultural things that turns off Americans. Picture yourself living in a tent on the Steppe, tending a herd of sheep and horses (not what one would consider a sedentary occupation) through long, cold winters. You layer your clothes, you keep the yurt warm, but the key to survival is the calories you can take in over the course of the day. Thus, the fatty bits of the animal are still valued today as a food source.  Large, fatty meals are not the daily norm in Kyrgyzstan, but for special occasion feast meals, fat is considered an essential part of many dishes, including beshbarmak and manty.

Beshbarmak is a feast dish, prepared and served for important events such as births, deaths, or the arrival of prestigious visitors. Kyrgyz hospitality towards guests is notorious. The first Kyrgyz phrase I learned during my wedding trip visit to my husband’s family was “Ich, al, je” which loosely translated means, “Drink, take more, eat.” 

To prepare beshbarmak, an animal (usually a sheep, though sometimes a horse) is slaughtered, cut up into pieces left on the bone and put into a pot to boil. While the meat is boiling down to well-cooked chunks and a tasty broth, pasta is made from scratch, rolled very thin and then cut into large pieces called “leaves” in Kyrgyz, though there is some variation in noodle shape regionally. The noodles are boiled quickly, placed on the bottom of the plate, and then topped with some finely diced or thinly sliced pieces of meat. The broth is either poured over the entire dish, or served alongside the noodles and meat in small bowls.  A complete recipe can be found here. Since leaving behind their nomadic way of life, some variations of beshbarmak developed to add a stir fry of onions, peppers and tomatoes, but the dish in its purest form is noodles, meat and broth.   

Beshbarmak, meat served over noodles, with a side of head.
On the Steppe while herding your animals, if a guest wanders by, you open your home to him and use the occasion for a feast. Guests bring news of family, friends and the greater world and are hosted with the best the family has to offer and given a place for the night. During the meal, the guest is given the place of honor, most often the place across from the yurt opening (or today, the doorway between the dining area and kitchen area.)  When serving beshbarmak, the guest of honor is given the boiled head of the sheep, which he cuts up into smaller pieces and gives to others, the eyes to the eldest or most honored guest, the ears to his son or a young boy, so that he should listen carefully and the upper palate to his daughter or a young girl so that she should be a productive homemaker. The senior male host then divides the remainder of the meat is among the other guests. The aksakals or “white beards” or village elders get the more easily chewed piece either a shank or in some areas, the head; senior women get the fat tail of the sheep. Legs and shoulders are distributed among the younger adults at the table and smaller bones such as the neck and lower back pieces are given to daughter-in-laws. There is a cultural order and importance given to each part of the sheep, so much so that a chart has been published which shows the parts and their names in Kyrgyz.

Chart in Kyrgyz that shows the name for each section of sheep.

The meal is finished only when the guest could not possibly eat another bite and is concluded with a prayer, begun by cupping both hands in front of the heart and held there while someone says a short prayer.  When the speaker says, “omin” everyone’s hands are drawn over the face and downward, as if rinsing the face.  Everyone gives thanks for a good meal around a congenial table and the evening is finished, always with leftovers being sent home with guests, to ensure no waste.  With bulging bags, full stomachs and satisfied souls, the feast breaks up until the next special occasion on which to enjoy beshbarmak. 


  1. Really fascinating, Kelly. I love the image of "fat five fingers wide." I'm especially interested in seeing how noodles, or pasta, are central parts of non-Italian cuisine. Thanks.

  2. Oh my, this is absolutely fascinating, Kelly! But a request. If you ever cook for me, the meat and noodles sound good, but please, hold the head. ;)

    1. Supriya,

      We will go to Kyrgyzstan together...really, the head is nothing to be frightened of...honest!

  3. Love the cultural story behind this dish, Kelly! I wonder, though, are the noodles a later addition to the tradition? Or did the nomads have wild wheat or some other grain they could make it out of without lugging around sacks of flour?

    1. Heidi,

      Don't forget that Kyrgyzstan was on the Silk Road...flat bread and noodles are part of the traditional cuisine...my guess is that they traded animals for flour, but that is kind of an off the top of my head guess.

  4. I bet this dish is wonderful after a cold, lonely day riding your horse over the plains...:) Very romantic image!