Turkmenistan has many fabulous, unique, exciting, and interesting aspects, and there are numerous reasons for you to want to visit. Cuisine though, is not, unfortunately, one of them.
In general, it’s very meat-heavy, quite fatty and heavy, and there isn’t a huge variety in the options of dishes available. You could maybe characterise it as Middle Eastern food combined with Soviet utilitarianism and nomadic technique and ingredients.
We generally don’t include meals on our tours, as one very good thing about food in Turkmenistan is the price, so it’s possible to eat for well under $5 a meal for most meals, and can be a good way for you to experience “real life” by ordering and eating at normal restaurants, or stopping at cafes en-route.
Breakfast for most of you will be the most disappointing meal. They don’t really do breakfast food in the same way as we do, so a lot of the time there are things that would also be available for other meals, and often things that have been left over from the evening before. There’s always bread and jams or honey, and usually eggs, though always hard-boiled, and don’t even wonder about asking for them to be cooked a different way. There will likely be a selection of sweet biscuits and often some other pastries as well. Bliniy, which are basically crepe-style pancakes, are a common breakfast food too, but they’re usually served cold and often rolled up with meat or vegetables inside.
What exactly is available for lunch will obviously depend hugely on where you are and how long you’ve got to stop. Some days on tours we’ll be stopping briefly to buy pastries or shawarma, which will cost well under $1 each, other days you’ll get the chance to stop and enjoy a sit-down meal. Pastries and bread are common to be eaten for lunch, but if you are eating in a sit-down restaurant all the same things will be available to you that are eaten for dinner.
You’ll end up eating the same three or four dishes for most meals, so on tours we do try and eat at as big a variety of restaurants and cafes as possible. Dinner, more-so than the other meals, does tend to be quite heavy and vegetarian options can be hard to fine.
Vegetarian and Vegan Food
Central Asia is not a region that’s particularly vegetarian-friendly, and other than the handful of people that work closely with western tourists, most locals won’t even properly understand vegetarianism, let alone veganism. Of course, over several years taking tours to Turkmenistan we’ve come to know exactly what to ask for and places that do understand it properly, so it’s definitely possible, however any vegetarians or vegans visiting Turkmenistan should be prepared to have limited options for some of their meals.
Common Dishes in Turkmenistan
Shashlik – Common throughout Central Asia, this is one of the most common dishes you’ll come across. A shashlik is a stick of marinated meat, whether it be chicken, lamb, beef, duck or pork. It will come with a spiced vinegar, a pile of raw onions, and some bread. Shashlik can be really delicious, but like anything you can definitely get over it if you have it too often!
Plov – Also common in the whole region, plov is cooked over the course of several hours, made with rice, meat and vegetables, all cooked in meat fat in a huge pan. Plov can vary region to region, even town to town, so if it’s something you enjoy you can try all the different varieties – some cook the meat with the rice, some cook it separately; some include extra ingredients such as sultanas or variations of carrots; some use beef, others lamb; sometimes there’s a boiled (hard of course) egg, sometimes there isn’t.
Lagman – This is actually a Uyghur dish, so again it’s really common throughout Central Asia, originating in Western China. It’s made from hand-pulled noodles, with a mildly spicy sauce of meat and vegetables.
Yarma – Unique to Turkmenistan, yarma is like a really thick porridge with chunks of meat throughout it. Not many restaurants serve this, so if you come across it and do want to try it, don’t let the opportunity pass.
Dograma – This dish is only found in Turkmenistan. It’s a very basic meaty soup, made from essentially the animal itself, whether it’s mutton or beef, using the heart, intestines and lungs as well as the meat, boiled in a broth with tomatoes and sometimes potatoes, onions or other common vegetables.
Unash – Another Turkmen-only soup, unash is a noodle soup, usually containing a whole chilli and chicken on the bone. Unash is a pretty common dish throughout Turkmenistan, so you’ll get plenty of opportunities to try it.
Drinking in Turkmenistan
Alcohol is incredibly cheap in Turkmenistan, with cheap local beer available just about everywhere for upto about $1 a pint, and of course being a former Soviet country, vodka is aplenty and probably too affordable. There are also other options of course, including normal things like cola and fanta, but there are also some interesting ones too, such as kumis and shubat..