Kyrgyzstan: More on Osh's Ethnically-Divided Restaurant Scene
In a post from the other day, I linked to a recent RFE/RL item and Justin Vela's more detailed Eurasianet article about how last year's ethnic clashes in the Kyrgyz city of Osh have profoundly impacted the town's once famous culinary scene. I sent Justin a few followup questions about his fascinating story, and here is what he had to say:
1. How did you come across this story and what drew you to it?
Over a pizza lunch in Bishkek, at a place called Dolce Vita (delicious), a friend and I were discussing southern Kyrgyzstan. We were mostly talking about Batken oblast and the Tajiks living there, which ended up as another EurasiaNet.org story. http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63640 but I mentioned that I was also going to Osh. Later he emailed me with a tip related to this story. Then David Trilling, EurasiaNet.org's Central Asia editor, helped develop the idea further, giving the story its current framework.
It is really difficult to report on ethnic tensions. In some ways reporting on actual clashes is easier. There are body counts and burning houses. Covering the clashes is more dangerous and equally important of course. However, I was drawn to this story because it expressed the transition that southern Kyrgyzstan is going through.
2. Did people complain to you about the quality of the food now that things have changed?
No one complained exactly. What was bothersome to farmers outside of Osh was that the Uzbek border had been closed. In the past they had bought fertilizer from Uzbekistan. Now they had to buy from Russia and it is more expensive. I believe there was also a lot of trade that was cut off, though some smugglers still went back and forth and you can find vegetables and fruits grown in Uzbekistan in some of the marketplaces outside of Osh. People complained more about the border being closed than the actual quality of food.
3. One of the people you quoted said locals wanted "European food." What does that mean in the Kyrgyz context?
In Osh, European food is pretty much everything that is not shashlik, tiny savory pieces of fat, or a pile of seasoned rice (plov). Ok, that's not fair. Of course they more or less differentiate Uighur food and Chinese and Russian food. European food is pasta, sandwiches, steak filet. Salad with dressing. If you have coffee after eating it, if it not horse meat or solyanka. That's European food.
4. Did you notice any other interesting developments on the culinary front?
There was this huge food surprise in Bishkek. You don't go to Central Asia expecting great food. At least I don't. But you go to Bishkek and in this relatively small capital you have a massive variety of food from all of the world. And it is all really good. I am based in Istanbul, which is far more of an international city than Bishkek. But there is not anywhere near the same variety of food in Bishkek. One night, I was eating hummus and olives at a Lebanese restaurant. The next evening, rich rabbit stew at a Ukrainian place with a garden, drinking German beer with lemon. That was Easter dinner. You have to speak Russian or go with someone that speaks Russian to these restaurants. The menus are generally in cyrillic. But the food scene there is really impressive there. Chinese, Korean, Tex-Mex, Turkish, several Italian places. You can go to Bishkek just to eat.
I also sent a note to Eurasianet's David Trilling, who had been to Osh several times in the past few years, to get a sense of how things had changed. Here is what he had to say:
I was in Osh for a few days until yesterday and I've been going regularly for three years. There's still good food, but it's a bit harder to find since a lot of restaurants have closed and many are still just charred wreckage. For the best plov, (a.k.a. pilau, a typical Uzbek dish), some friends took me to an Uzbek house deep in a mahallah (Uzbek neighborhood) with no sign. Inside most of the clients, to my surprise, were ethnic Kyrgyz. The place served some of the best plov I've had in Kyrgyzstan. Made from local Uzgen rice, it was the kind of plov where the lamb fat drips down your forearms but you're too consumed to wipe it off. As an appetizer, we ate crispy pieces of fried dumba (tail fat) and a tomato-onion salad washed down with green tea.
The day before, for lunch, I had some really tough shashlik at a place run by Kyrgyz.
Overall, it's hard to say for sure the food has changed; but, just as before the violence, you still are better off eating at a place with an Uzbek cook. Even my Kyrgyz friends say so. I suspect many of the restaurants, even the seized ones, still have Uzbeks in the kitchen.
Most noticeably, the atmosphere has changed dramatically, especially after working hours. Where before many of the chaikhanas (tea houses) were evening meeting places -- noisy and full of conversation, some with and some without booze -- now most close by sunset. Even the Russian beer garden I always enjoyed in the evenings was empty when I showed up for dinner at 7pm (and the rock-hard stale bread they served underscored how few customers they get nowadays). In a sign of ongoing tensions, my Uzbek driver arranged for me to get a ride home from an ethnic Kyrgyz as he was too afraid to drive around at night. The whole seen is depressing. All of this has all been true since last June, but I had hoped the evenings would get a little more lively by now.