Kyrgyzstan Eats: A Dungan Feast in Naryn
Don’t judge Maria Muvazova’s cooking by the temperature in her unheated dining room. Because as soon as you try her spicy noodle laghman stew, you are spoiled; the glacial air merely a memory.
I’ve eaten a lot of laghman in Central Asia: some good, some boring. But during a recent laghman odyssey through highland Kyrgyzstan, none of this prepared me for Maria’s Dungan Kitchen in Naryn.
Bedecked with photoshopped posters of deserted and effervescent Chinese temples in a verdant spring, Muvazova’s restaurant offers two standard dishes to wash down with tea: cold ashlyam-fu and piping-hot laghman.
Laghman originated over the border in China, most Kyrgyz will admit, but has become a staple of the local diet. The vitamin-enhanced broth of onions, garlic, pickled red bell peppers, turnips, tomato paste and spices, fortified with beef or lamb (though elsewhere I have suspected other meats can be substituted), is poured over thick, yellow wheat noodles, much like the lo mein found in American Chinese restaurants.
Considering the outside temperature of minus 22 Celsius at lunchtime, and the threat of freezer burn inside, my party and I all opted for the laghman. The extra doses of spicy red pepper “laza” paste produced a healthy sniffle, unfastening the icicles on my moustache.
Bring a bib.
‘Dungan,’ a Russian word, describes Muslim people of ethnic Chinese descent, as opposed to groups such as the Uyghur, who speak a language related to Turkish.
Naryn has 25 Dungan families says Muvazova, herself an ethnic Dungan born and raised in Naryn. The Dungan language “is as close to Chinese as Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Kazakh are to each other,” she says, alternating her speech between Kyrgyz and Russian.
Dungans make up approximately 50,000 of Kyrgyzstan’s five million-odd inhabitants.
A single mother to two teenagers, evidenced by the bleating Kyrgyz rap undulating from the living quarters, Muvazova opened her home eatery in 2000. “When the USSR collapsed, we had nothing to do and neighbors suggested I should open a café. ‘Even if it only makes 50 som [now about a dollar] per day, it will help raise a family,’ they said.” But business has slowed in the last few years. “Before, lots of people were coming. But now, they’re not, probably because they don’t have the money. We would get 20-30 customers per day, but in the last year we get a maximum of five.”
Naryn is situated on the main road from China to Bishkek and small groups of Chinese businessmen visit Muvazova’s kitchen en route. “They come and rent my kitchen and I help them prepare the food they like,” she adds.
“I can cook 42 types of laghman,” boasts Muvazova, describing her dream of opening a restaurant featuring all those varieties, “but it would be expensive and I’m afraid there won’t be demand.”
With enough notice, perhaps you can convince Muvazova to break out the other 41 varieties.
Address: Ulitza Andabekova 17, Naryn. (On Prospekt Lenina, go west from the drama theater one block and take a right. Maria’s Dungan Kitchen is in the third house on the left. Look for the blue sign.)
Price: Laghman, bread and tea: about $1.50.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.