"Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." When I think of Michael Pollan's advice for healthy eating, I can't help but think that Kyrgyzstan is doing much better than America in terms of eating "real food."
Both times we have been in Kyrgyzstan, Josh and I have noticed that we've felt healthier (and skinnier). This is due in part to the lifestyle in which we do more walking, and in a large part to the diet here based on freshly-butchered meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and meals made from scratch -- without chemicals, preservatives, substitutes, and artificial colors so prevalent on American food labels.
Have you heard the recommendation that when you shop in your grocery store, the best thing to do is shop along the edges without venturing into the aisles? Visualize your grocery store for a minute. What's on the outside edges? Usually, it's fruits, vegetables, breads, meats, fish, milk, and cheese - the most natural, least processed foods. What's in the inside aisles? Weight-Watchers frozen dinners, fudge-dipped granola bars, chips of every variety, bright yellow cheese dips, cereals, canned soups, pancake mix, marshmallow creme - essentially everything infused with preservatives, dyes, and things that mark food as no longer real, but processed.
For the most part, grocery shopping in Kyrgyzstan is like having access to ONLY the outside edges of an American grocery store. A large part of our healthier habits in Kyrgyzstan we owe to the fact that so many pre-made, frozen, and canned meals are simply not available here. I have never seen a frozen lasagna here or 'cream of chicken' soup or any other canned soup for that matter. I have yet to come across a TV dinner of any sort, frozen tater tots, or even frozen peas-and-carrots in a microwavable package. That's not to say you can't find some processed foods if you know where to look; I can find Ramen-noodle equivalents, paper packs of dry soup mix, sealed plastic packs of sliced ham, potato chips, Snickers, cake mixes, Corn Flakes, and Cocoa Puffs.
Most of the time when we go food shopping, we come home with a few bags of veggies and fruit, some bread (brown when we can find it), several liter-bags of milk, yogurts, eggs, butter, cream, and - when we need it - rice, flour, sugar, noodles, and canned tuna. And that's about it. In the States, I always bought snacks to have around the house for between meals, things like applesauce cups, granola bars, Grasshopper cookies, brownie mixes, and corn chips with cheese dip. I can't find these things in Kyrgyzstan, so for snacking we eat simply yogurt, bananas, or the cakes and cookies I make myself. Oh yes, and we do indulge in Pringles and dark-chocolate candy bars as well!
Basically, we eat more home-made meals here. Since the only canned tomato product is tomato paste, I use it to make my own spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, and tomato soup. We chop a LOT of veggies, a couple times a week, to make a big soup or dish. This time before the bell peppers go out of season, we will remember to load up our freezer. This past winter we were the stupid ones buying occasional imported red peppers for $2 each.
Summer is the hey-day for fruit, like in the U.S. For a few sweet months, everyone gorges themselves on strawberries, raspberries, small and juicy peaches and nectarines, apricots, berries, cherries, and melons. For the rest of the year, fruit pickings are pretty slim - limited to mostly apples and bananas. The lack of variety for much of the year is definitely the downside to shopping in Kyrgyzstan.
The strawberries are amazing. Even though they are so tiny it makes you question why you even bother to wash them off and remove the stems for a fruit salad, when you taste them, you know all your work has paid off. You can see how small they are for yourself in this banana-strawberry salad. American strawberries are enormous in comparison! But the difference in taste is everything. Eating a bite of Kyrgyz strawberries, Misha asked me, "Did you put sugar on these?" When I said no, he was surprised.
Raspberries have also just hit the scene. Our kind next-door neighbor Natalia has a dacha out of the city where she tends a large garden. She sells us freshly-picked fruit at a good price (a quart of raspberries for 80 som, about $2).
With so many raspberries, I decided to make some raspberry crisp, which turned out great - especially with a dollop of smetana (sour cream) on top.
That same neighbor brought me red and black currants yesterday, and even yellow ones. I bought some of each out of politeness, but found them much too sour to enjoy. Luckily, I found some suggestions online.
First we stripped the shining beads from their stems by running a fork straight down each twig. (A trick from the internet that worked like magic.)
Then Sebby helped me mix up the dough for red-currant scones. I had never made scones before, but they turned out to be easy - and good!
This is me looking down at my cookie sheet just before putting it into the oven.
The finished scone - tart and sweet at the same time.
The fruit extravaganza has also inspired us for breakfast. Check out this French toast topped with sour cream, bananas, peaches, and strawberries. Mmm!
Misha loved the fruit salad.
Sebby usually eats his French toast with peanut butter.
Vegetables available now include my beloved zucchini, plus tomatoes, onions, carrots, eggplants, delicate-skinned potatoes, fresh garlic, green onions, lettuce, cucumbers, bell peppers, and others. This veg and fruit stand below is right on the side of our apartment building (you can see the grey wall of our building in the background), and there are about five other produce stands within a three-minute walk. You can also find milk, eggs, bread, juice, butter, crackers, candy, rice, sugar, and flour at other shops in the little bazaar outside our apartment. The sheer convenience of walking literally outside your front door for something you need makes food shopping so easy here. Now that Misha is familiar with the area and so good at Russian, we send him out to buy milk and eggs in the morning for breakfast.
|Misha and Sebby pass our closest produce stand on the way to the park.
I have started making chocolate-zucchini cake quite often, since it always turns out so moist and good. This was Sebby's birthday cake last week. I also make carrot cake and banana bread. My Russian and Kyrgyz friends have never tried any of these foods before, and they tell me perplexedly, "What strange foods you eat in America!" (My friend Marina teases me, asking when I will make a garlic cake or an onion one!)
This dish, which we learned from our friends Marina and Pasha, is made of a fried eggplant slice on the bottom, a mayonaise-garlic sauce in the middle, and a fresh tomato slice on top.
There are some veggies which are very difficult to find here - brocoli, for example, which I have only found in a few specific markets. Also, I have never been able to find celery in this country, which is a shame because I love it (especially the way my hands smell after chopping it).
Kyrgyzstan is famous for its dairy products: milk, kefir (unsweetened liquid yogurt), airan (the Kyrgzy version of kefir), 8-percent flavored yogurts, butter, cream, smetana (like sour cream), kaimak (the Kyrgyz version of smetana, but less sour), and tvorog (a crumbly dairy product that can be used in salty or sweet foods).
Kyrgyzstan is also home to kimiz, the national drink of fermented mare's milk. My friend Anara brought us some kimiz directly from the mountains, and I was determined to like it this time around. But after one sip, I honestly couldn't see myself ever liking this sour substance! Who knows.
In addition to simply buying all these dairy products at the store, you can listen in the mornings for the shrill calls of "Moloko, airan, tvorog!" and slip outside to catch the babushkas who have brought farm-fresh, homemade versions from their villages.
Fresh milk from the village.
And homemade smetana. I never really learned to like sour cream in the States, but now I love domashni smetana. Especially on French toast with fruit. Or with cookies.
On a drive into the mountains, we saw a sign for kimiz and saamal. We decided to buy some saamal, which is fresh mare's milk (but not fermented!) since it also is said to have beneficial properties. (The last line on the sign, beenin sutu, means 'mare's milk' in Kyrgyz).
We entered the gates, saw the horses grazing, and purchased a small bottle of saamal.
It tasted watery and sweet - and really quite pleasant.
We have also found, to Josh's delight, a way to make our own ground hamburger meat. (The ground beef in stores is very high in fat, cartilage and splintered bone, so we just can't bring ourselves to eat it.) We borrowed an old-style myasa-rubka (meat-grinder) from our friends. We simply put clean slices of beef in and churn out lovely hamburger meat. After our first batch of hamburgers, we realized that some fat is indeed necessary or our burgers end up dry and bland. We now grind lamb fat into the beef, which gives it great flavor as well.
I must confess that every time we use this grinder, I can't help but think of that song: "Mister Mister Johnny Robeck, how could you be so mean? I told you you'd be sorry for inventing that machine. Now all the neighbor's cats and dogs will never more be seen ... They've all been ground to sausages in Johnny Robeck's machine!"
A note on lamb fat: The fatty butt of the sheep is considered the best part of the animal, and this fat is often presented to the oldest, most respected person in a Kyrgyz family. They add this fat to almost all meals - small pieces of fat are tossed into samsa and uchpuchmaki (breads stuffed with meat), manti (dumplings), and soups, and large pieces of fat are grilled along with meat on skewers to make shashlik. This fat is so beloved here that people (Kyrgyz and Russians alike) simply salt it and keep it in the fridge, slicing off chunks to eat with a piece of bread and some raw onion. When they hear that in America, this delicious sheep fat is simply discarded, they are absolutely shocked.
Our hamburgers turned out great! A lot of work - but delicious. Now we grind a lot of meat at once and freeze it.
We have also found some very tasty bacon here. Since it wasn't sliced, dyed bright red, and packaged in plastic, it took us a long time to recognize it. (It's a bit sad how many Americans like us know so little about the meat we eat.) We've been eating this up this week in omelets and the kids love it.
Once every so often, a fisherman will park his car down in the bazaar outside our apartment and sell his freshly-caught fish from his trunk. While we never thought to purchase this fish before, our friend Pasha convinced us to buy some - and in no time, he had fried us up some delicious fish.
In true Russian fashion, he then proceeded to use the head and tail to make a soup with potatoes. Don't tell him, but we couldn't bring ourselves to eat it. And they think carrot cake is strange?
Pasha poses with the fish head.
We have also found salted and smoked fish at the bazaar, and Pasha even showed us how to make our own salted fish from a frozen piece of salmon. At first we were skeptical, but then after reading online, we realized that it's fairly easy and common to salt your own fish. How silly that we didn't ever do it before!
Our every-day meals are a combination of American and Kyrgyz dishes, with some Russian dishes thrown in. Favorites, no matter what country we're in, are grilled cheese, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, pancakes, French toast, and soups. As I've said before, we love making Kyrgyz dishes like gan fan or lag man - basically meat and veggies over rice or noodles, respectively. You can make it as soupy as you like. We like it best with beef, frying the finely-chopped pieces in oil and lamb fat, then adding the veggies, salt, and some water.
Gan fan: your choice of veggies. I like onion, carrot, potato, bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant, green onion, and garlic. Basically whatever I can find. Excellent with spicy peppers too.
Several weeks ago, I made a successful batch of chillie, with cheese and crackers sprinkled in too!
Okroshka is a popular Russian soup, served cold. It's made of kefir, carbonated water, cucumber, green onion, dill, parsley, and sausage. If it sounds a little different, ... well, it is. But if you think of it as eating a salad, it's not so bad.
Vareniki is a Russian dish that we enjoy quite a bit, especially when we're too tired to make something time-consuming. They're like dumplings, stuffed with sausage or beef, or sometimes mashed potatoes (and sometimes even fruit). You can buy them from most stores, simply scooping out how many frozen dumplings you want. We boil them in water with onion and garlic, add some smetana, and eat them up.
We make pizzas quite often, too. My helpers grate cheese, spread sauce, etc.
It's a hit!
I have discovered that I can buy bread dough from the little bread place down the street. A kilo of still-warm dough for 40 som - under a dollar. Works for me! It makes pizza prep easy, and I also use it to make cinnamon rolls. :)
Preparing food has become a million times easier now that we know how and where to find the things we need. Still, cooking is a time-consuming process. I miss the days of buying a perfect pound of 93% ground beef from Hy-Vee, adding a can of tomato soup, and serving it on buns as barbecues - with a side of defrosted frozen veggies! However, sometimes I'm glad for the chance to really be in charge of my own food, even down to the spaghetti sauce which can't be helped along with a jar of Ragu.
The people of Kyrgyzstan tend to prefer tea over Coca Cola and other sodas, another reason why they are healthier. Fast food here is limited to pizza, hot samsas sold on the street (triangles of dough stuffed with meat and onions), gamburgers (sliced lamb meat served on bread with pickles, tomatoes, cole slaw, kechup, mayo, and fries inside) and Begemot - a relatively new hamburger chain (that, amusingly, means "hippo"). Begemot is the closest thing to a McDonalds burger that you'll find here. It's quite popular with young people.
Of course, there are still those times when we get a craving for some Taco Bell (there is no Mexican food out here) or Pizza Hut or Subway. But most of the time I'm relieved to live in a country free from the grip of American fast food.