You’ve been to Korea, you loved the flavours, the spices, the unique cooking style. Now you want to get more, but you also want to travel to Central Asia. Luckily travelling to Central Asia and eating some amazing Korean food can go hand in hand. Here’s the skinny on Korean food in Central Asia.
Why is Korean food so common in the former USSR?
Some of you will be scratching your heads thinking this writer is a little nuts, but it’s true and it’s probably best to explain how. We firstly have to go back to the 1930s. The far eastern part of the USSR borders with Korea and the Korean area of China. Paranoid of where their allegiances lay and the possibility of Japanese infiltration of these far eastern regions, either by pretending to be Koreans of recruiting unreliable local Koreans, our old mate Josef Stalin had 170,000 of them deported to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan alone, not to mention the countless others deported to the other Central Asian republics and other parts of Russia. Read more about Koreans in Central Asia in our dedicated blog to it.
The Koreans’ introduction to Central Asia
Were the Kazakhs and Uzbeks, who had already been overwhelmed by large influxes of Russian migration to their countries, resenting of these new comers? Not at all. In fact, they embraced and welcomed the ethnic Koreans and most importantly their culinary influences. There is an often told story about Koreans being held in concentration camps in places such as Karaganda, where not surprisingly they were starving to death from the lack of food in these camps. The local people would come and throw ‘stones’ at the inmates, yelling abuses. The newly arrived Koreans were confused and down-trodden and naturally took this as a sign that they were definitely unwelcome in this strange land. Then they realised that the locals weren’t throwing stones at them, but rather kurt, a small processed dairy product that come as small hard round balls. They were giving them food to survive. (Though any of you that have tried kurt may claim that you’d prefer to have stones thrown at you!)
So what is Korean/Kazakh food?
It’s said that there are roughly half a million Koreans now in the former Soviet republics, and it’s easy to see this as it’s impossible to avoid Korean food. There are Korean restaurants everywhere, but even when you go to a Kazakh’s home, you’ll be given the most famous ‘Korean’ dish in Central Asia – which is known as Korean Salad, and is thinly cut strips of carrot marinated in Korean herbs and spices. It’s not exactly something you’d find in Korea, but it’s a fun Korean/Kazakh fusion, and goes hand in hand with all the other pickled vegetables that come with every meal.
Sushi rolls are also a popular snack available at any market, but they’re about 2cm in diameter and 20cm long, so really long and thin, and generally have only rice as the filling, or sometimes just one long thing stick of carrot or cucumber. One of the most popular fillings when you order sushi in a restaurant though is philadelphia cheese – just a thick layer of philadelphia cheese and nothing else.
In major cities like Almaty, you can buy a Bulgogi as good as you can get in Seoul or Pyongyang, though generally on the less spicy end of things. Ramen is also a common menu item, but sadly it’s very difficult to find it made with noodles other than instant noodles. And yes, you can even get dog meat. It doesn’t appear on any menus, but if you ask for dog meat soup, the chef will quietly prepare you some. Now even Kazakhs believe that dog meat soup is, as the Koreans themselves believe, good for curing colds, flus, respiratory issues, coughs, sore throats etc.