Kyrgyzstan is one of the few countries on earth that doesn’t have McDonald’s restaurants.
In the capital, Bishkek, you can find varieties of fast food, including a little stand called “Burger King” (copyright law is also not a thing here). Where I live, though, your options for a quick meal are pretty much limited to “samsa,” meat-and-potato filled dough pockets, from the bazaar.
Life here is slow. Food is slow, too.
It’s summer now, which means the trees are hanging heavy with apricots and the vegetable section of the bazaar is overflowing with fat tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, green onions, melons and more.
Most homes have a garden, but people stock up on extra fruit and vegetables from the bazaar for canning. Nearly everyone makes jams, juices, pickles and salads to eat in winter.
In late February and March, as the stockpile of canned goods wanes, people eat carrots and potatoes and wait eagerly for summer. It reminds me of the stories my grandparents have told about their childhoods in Michigan, the food their mothers and grandmothers grew and “put by” for the colder months.
While I share many meals with Kyrgyz people, I cook the bulk of my food on my own. I roast vegetables, soak and boil beans for soup, make pie crusts, experiment with new uses for lentils, eat dried fruits in the winter and fresh ones in the summer.
There are no corners to be cut, no ready-made meals, no “semi-homemade.” As someone who always thought a lot about food, I reall think about about food here. I have to.
This way of eating is challenging, but it is rewarding. I spent the winter dreaming of tomatoes, and now that they’re here, I’m not sure that I’ve ever tasted anything so good.
Though I always enjoyed cooking, in Kyrgyzstan there is something especially satisfying in the process of transforming raw ingredients into finished product.
Preparing and sharing a meal with others — be it my host family, Kyrgyz friends, or the exceptionally hungry Peace Corps Volunteer who also lives in my town — takes on a whole new meaning.
Living here for a full year, through all four seasons, has taught me to value food more than I ever did.
For Kyrgyz people, this is not a new idea. Food is the ultimate expression of generosity, of family, of friendship.
If you stop by someone’s house for only a moment, they will insist that at the very least you “oz ti,” eat a small piece of bread, before you leave. Probably, though, they will insist that you sit and drink tea and share a meal of whatever they have on hand.
For special occasions, like weddings and funerals and homecomings, Kyrgyz people will slaughter an animal. Usually it’s a sheep. For very special occasions, it might be a cow or a horse.
I have seen several such slaughters. It is not pleasant to watch an animal meet its end, but I’ve come to really admire the tradition. It happens quickly and respectfully; the knife severs the throat in less than a second.
Afterward, everyone springs into action — the men butcher, the women clean and separate the organs, the children run between as little helpers.
Nearly every part of the animal is eaten, saved, used in some way. I can’t help but think that these animals have much more humane lives and deaths than the majority of animals we eat in the United States.
Like most Peace Corps volunteers here, I have my fair share of conversations about American foods that I miss (hamburgers! blue cheese! bagels!), and the recent establishment of a burrito stand in Bishkek has only changed my life for the better (they even have guacamole sometimes).
Still, I know that when I go back to the United States, I will miss the way I eat here. I will miss visiting my favorite vendors at the bazaar, sitting in the kitchen reading while soup simmers, experiencing the rush of excitement the first time strawberries appear in the spring.
I’m sure I will eat differently when I return to the United States — the different pace of life will dictate a different pace of eating. But I hope my daily life will still contain some remnant of this deliberateness, this slowness, surrounding food.
And, at the very least, I hope that I’ll be able to find some of those first June berries and sweet late-summer tomatoes, and savor them for the gift that they are.
Written by Britta Seifert, For the Enquirer
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