Food in Turkmenistan: A Traveler’s Guide
By: Vandana Hettiaratchi
From a country often called the 'Hermit Kingdom of Central Asia,' Turkmen cuisine is a relatively unexplored cuisine. Yet, it is lively and delicious and a great part of visiting the secretive state.
Turkmen cuisine, the cuisine of Turkmenistan, is similar to the rest of Central Asia, geographically comprising the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It also shares similarities with some other ex-Soviet states, primarily from the Caucasus region.
Due to its close proximity with the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, Turkmen cuisine is also influenced by cooking styles in Afghanistan, Iran and India (whatsforeats, 2019).
The culinary traditions of Turkmenistan have been shaped by the Turkmen nomadic lifestyle and the severe conditions of living in dry, arid deserts.
Hence, the typical diet comprises of lots of meat, bread, dumplings and dairy and small amounts of vegetables. Soups and stews (shorpa) are very common (ibid). Turkmen cuisine is simple and low cost in both terms of ingredients and cooking methods (ibid).
Mutton fat is used to also cook sweet dishes. Although radish, tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins and onions are commonly used as a seasoning or eaten raw.
These vegetables are used as they are easier to preserve during the winter (whatsforeats, 2019). In general, Turkmen cuisine does not use spices or seasoning, but is cooked with large amounts of cottonseed oil (oil extracted from the seeds of cotton plant) for flavor.
Red and black pepper, mint, wild parsley, azhgon, buzhgun (galls of a pistachio tree) and garlic are the commonly used spices in Turkmenistan (ibid).
Meals are mostly served in the traditional way, with dishes spread out on a beautifully colored cloth (sachak) on the floor. Food is eaten either with the hand or with cutlery, and the right hand is only used (ibid).
Turkmenistan is most famous for its melons. They are a great source of national pride and have dedicated a special holiday, simply known as Melon Day, to celebrate the fruit’s delights.
Turkmenistan is home to 400 varieties of melon and are given as a gift and a gesture of welcome and farewell (World Travel Guide, 2019).
Sheep meat is greatly consumed and all parts of the sheep including the eyeballs, brains, head and tail are also eaten, leaving little waste (Facts and Details, 2019).
When in Turkmenistan, in addition to Turkmen food, Western restaurants in the capital, Ashgabat, serve food with a strong Russian influence.
This includes pilmeni (boiled dumplings famous in ex-Soviet states), 'strogan' (the local equivalent of Beef Stroganoff) and 'borcht' (cabbage soup) (World Travel Guide, 2019).
Dumplings (Manti), 'somsa' (a savory pastry), 'gutap' and 'ishlykly' (traditional pizza made with dough and lamb) are the common Turkmen street food, and available in bazaars (markets) and roadside stands.
One should note however, the daily Turkmen diet is quite unaffected by current trends or foreign influences (Goldstein, 2006). As such, it is a great destination for foodies seeking authentic and traditional foods.
Drinks in Turkmenistan
Vodka is the most popular alcoholic beverage, due to its low cost, followed by beer and wine.
The drink that Turkmenistan is best known for is its fermented camel’s milk or 'chal.' It is said that a morning glass of chal can wake you up faster than a double espresso!
Melons are eaten more often as deserts instead of sweets (Facts and Details, 2019).
What to Eat in Turkmenistan
1) Dogroma Chorba
This is a type of meat soup, which is made of boiled mutton or lamb meat (usually the kidneys, heart and lungs) and a few tomatoes. It is served with pieces of flat bread and chopped onion.
This is a distinctly Turkmen dish, with seemingly no equivalents. The word means “to cut into pieces” and has a long history dating back to sacrificial rituals and rites. The dish is usually prepared for special religious holidays.
'Chorek' is the representation of this belief. Chorek, a flat bread made in a clay oven (which is considered the most sacred place in a home). Bread is a very important part of Turkmen culture.
According to tradition, one never steps on a piece of bread and chorek should not be cut carelessly or broken with one hand.
Throwing away a piece of chorek is forbidden. So, remember to eat all your bread!
A simple dish originating from the Turkmen nomadic culture. This dish was a cooked as a way of preserving meat. 'Kovurma' is meat chopped into small pieces and fried in its animal fat. It can be eaten hot or cold and is usually served with a side of potatoes or bread.
'Pilaf or Plov,' is a regional delicacy also enjoyed in Turkmen cuisine. The two main ingredients are rice and meat.
Usually lamb meat is used, and is mixed with rice, spices, pepper, onions and thinly sliced vegetables. Sometimes, dried fruit
are added. The rice is boiled with onions and carrots, until it turns yellow.
Similar to the Azeri, 'qutab' and 'zhingyalov hats' in Artsakh, the Turkmen word literally translates to “half-moon” are flatbreads stuffed with beef or lamb and onions. They are cooked in a pan over a stove and are eaten using one’s hands. There are several variants of stuffing including meat, potatoes or pumpkin.
Similar to the kebab, 'Turkmen shashlyk' is skewered pieces of meat, usually lamb, grilled over an open fire made from 'haloxylon' - a tree like shrub unique to the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan.
It is a dish similar to that enjoyed in countries all across the former Soviet Union until today.
The smell from the fire is absorbed into the meat, which is cooked over it, letting the meat absorb its flavor.
A truly special dish in Turkmen cuisine and considered an ancient dish, 'Kanzanlama' is traditionally prepared by shepherds in the desert using 'Saxaul', a desert bush.
Lamb meat is marinated in salt, paprika and garlic and placed directly onto hot coals and covered in a big cauldron, which is buried in slightly wet sand. The fragrant smoke from the saxaul coals gives the meat a delightful, unique taste.
'Manti' are dumplings. More specifically they are dumpling enjoyed in a number of Central Asian states.
Manti is cooked in a steamer or pan-fried, and the dumpling is stuffed with meat and onions and salt and pepper are added to give the flavor. It is served with a yogurt sauce.
This is one of the most popular Turkmen soups made from mutton broth with potatoes and tomatoes. It is quite easy to make as it involves boiling the vegetables, together with fried onions, salt and pepper. It is served with boiled mutton and a dollop of sour cream.
Other Turkmen Dishes
Another traditional food is 'Chegdermeh or Chekdermeh'. It is a native dish cooked simultaneously with rice, meat (usually mutton or lamb), tomato paste or tomatoes, onions and oil, and seasoned with salt and pepper.
The dish is prepared in an iron pot called a 'Ghazan' and all the ingredients are cooked together. Traditional Turkmen sausages are made by drying meat (usually mutton bowels) under the scorching heat and dry winds in the desert.
Turkmen cuisine is also renowned for the uniqueness of its many soups. The 'umpach-zashchi' for example, is a soup made from wheat flour, onion and paprika boiled in water. The 'Kyufta-shurpa' is a soup that starts with cooking peas in broth.
Meat is then cooked and minced with semi-cooked rice and shaped into sausages which are mixed with the broth along with onions, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes. It is served with rice or flatbread (Facts and Details, 2019).
Turkmen Snacks and Sweets
Turkmen sweets are similar to the traditional sweets found throughout Central Asia, Turkey and the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and Russia). Halva, baklava (both originating from and commonly consumed in Turkey) and 'bekmesam' are popular.
Traditional Turkmen deserts are 'pishme' cookies and 'chapada' crumpets. Pishme are diamond shaped pieces of dough that a fried in oil. Chapada is a traditional cake made of dough and fried in oil.
'Nabat' is another traditional desert consumed by Turkmen nomads, which is made from different sized sugar crystals grown on threads.
It is produced through the recrystallisation of sucrose from syrups saturated with sugar. Turkmen believe it has healing properties (Facts and Details, 2019).
All in all, Turkmen cuisine is unique. If you are a hearty meat eater, I would say there is probably no better cuisine. It is tasty, delicious and quite simple to make and is a underrated cuisine, waiting to be explored.
Abbasova, V., 2017. Turkmenistan's Top 10 Dishes. Caspian News, 6 October.
Facts and Details, 2019. Food in Turkmenistan: Facts and details. [Online] Available at: http://factsanddetails.com/central-asia/Turkmenistan/sub8_7b/entry-4820.html [Accessed 13 November 2019].
Goldstein, D., 2006. Turkmenistan on a plate. Aramco World: Arab and islamic cultures and connections, 57(1).
Whatsforeats, 2019. Turkmenistan: recipes and cuisine, s.l.: s.n.
World Travel Guide, 2019. Turkmenistan Food and Drink: World Travel Guide. [Online] Available at: http://www.worldtravelguide.net/guides/asia/turkmenistan/food-and-drink/ [Accessed 13 November 2019].