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Why Foodies Should Flock to Karakol, Best Restaurants & Food
Updated March 2020, Karkol for Foodies: Karakol Restaurants & Best Food to try in Karakol was originally written in October 2019
Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia as a whole get a bad rep in the food department– and that’s not totally unearned. I’ve sat many a time over a tasteless and bland bowl of muttony shorbo. After many trips to Central Asia over the last 5 years I can quite honestly say that Karakol is the shining star of the Central Asian food scene. While yes, you can head to the leafy capitals of Bishkek, Tashkent, Dushanbe and (okay, I know, ex-capital) Almaty for a variety of local and international cuisine, Karakol has a more down-home feel to it, and an array of amazing foods to try.
So How Did Karakol End Up With All The Good Food?
Okay, I’m going to use one of the typical cliche Central Asian statements here: Karakol is at a crossroads. A new crossroads that is, Karakol doesn’t have the immensely long history of the well-known Silk Road cities. But hear me out…
An Extremely Condensed & Simplified History Lesson
Karakol was founded in 1869 as a military outpost by the Russians. Following the foundation, many came to the area to explore the peaks and valleys nearby, but the big migration wave didn’t hit Karakol until the late 1870s. The first group to settle near Karakol (mostly in the village of Yrdyk) came in 1878 as a result of the Dungan Revolt over in Xinjiang. In 1881 The Treaty of Saint Petersburg was signed, ordering the withdrawal of Russian troops from Western China during the Russian Conquest of Turkestan. Under this order, Russia was required to return a large chunk of land back to China, but the Dungan (Hui) and Uyghur people were given the choice to select if they’d like to live on the Russian or Chinese side of the border. Many chose to move to the Russian side (present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).
Naturally, with the waves of Russians (and minorities that were under the control of Russia at the time), Kyrgyz, Dungan and Uyghur people, came a mixture of cultures and traditional dishes to Karakol.
So without further ado, here are the best dishes and where to get them in Karakol (sorry, I know I’ve been dragging on as those food bloggers do on recipe posts!).
Don’t forget to pick up a copy of Bradt Kyrgyzstan to help you plan you own trip
Best Foods To Try In Karakol
I just had to kick off this post with Ashlan-Fu. This is without a doubt my favorite dish to grab whenever I’m back in Karakol.
Ashlan-Fu is a spicy Dungan cold noodle soup (though you can at times find it served up warm). I first gained an appreciation of cold soups when I traveled through Ukraine several years ago slurping up bowl after bowl of Russian okroshka in the hot summer heat, but sorry my Slavic friends, ashlan-fu blows your cold okroshka out of the bowl. A typical bowl of ashlan-fu consists of starch noodles, wheat, and egg noodles, peppers, garlic, vinegar, carrots, tomato, onion, chilis, egg and meat (but don’t worry vegetariankas! It’s easy to request a bowl of ashlan-fu with nyet meeyasa). Don’t forget to grab a Piroshki to pair up with your spicy bowl of ashlan-fu, a delicious fry bread filled with potato.
Ashlan-fu has gained an appreciation by those that may have had a little too much to drink the night before as the perfect hangover cure.
Where to grab a bowl of ashlan-fu: Ashlan-fu alley at Bogu (small) Bazaar. The most renowned Karakol restaurant for the best is Ashlan-fu Saida. You can also try ashlan fu, as well as try your hand at making your own by booking a Dungan family meal.
Wanna get out beyong Karakol? Head to gorgeous Jeti Oguz
Oromo is a traditional Kyrgyz (and Kazakh) type of steamed dumpling. Dungans and Uyghurs introduced dumplings into Kyrgyzstan as they made their way from China, but Oromo has a uniquely Kyrgyz twist. Commonly you’ll find Oromo filled with carrots and onions as well as onions and minced meat and almost always are served up with a plop of sour cream on top. Another popular version is filled with potato and in fall you can find them stuffed with pumpkin. The word Oromo translates out to ‘wrapped’. It is typically prepared by rolling the dough around the filling to create a long wrap, which is then cooked and sliced into thin pieces.
Where to grab a plate of oromo: Kochevnik Restaurant serves up a yummy Oromo, but you can easily find them sold around Bogu Bazaar.
Oh lagman, how would I ever get through Central Asia without you? If I had to round up the handful of dishes that are served up in every nook and cranny of Central Asia and select my favorite, lagman would be it. Lagman arrived in Central Asia with the migration waves of Dungans and Uyghurs that made their way west from China. Lagman can be soupy, or it can be served up drier or even fried. The one common denominator is the stretch-noodles that form the backbone of the dish. The literal meaning of the word lagman is ‘stretch noodles’. These long and thick, handmade stretch noodles are believed to be good luck and bring a long life. Lagman stretch noodles can typically be found topped with bell pepper, meat, onion, tomato, garlic, and cilantro, though lagman ingredients can vary widely with preference, available ingredients, and the chef.
Where to get your lagman fix: Cafe Zarina serves up a flawless Bozu Lagman, and is one of the best restaurants in Karakol. You can also take a class to learn how to make lagman. Contact Destination Karakol for details.
Mompar is another dish brought to Kyrgyzstan and other parts of Central Asia thanks to the Uyghurs. Mompar is a hot soup typically consisting of meat, red pepper, potato, cilantro, and square dough noodles. It’s the perfect dish to warm you up if you’ve been out exploring the mountains nearby that Karakol has become so famous for.
Where to warm up with a bowl of mompar: Home cooked mompar is always a treat, so if you’re staying at a locally ran homestay you’ll more than likely slurp some up there. If not Cafe Zarina serves up a mean mompar.
Don’t worry there’s more to Karakol than food: The Karakol Travel Guide + 13 Things To Do In Karakol
Manti are one of the most widespread dishes throughout Central Asia and beyond. Who created them first seems to be unclear, but the dish is pretty traditional among Turkic people. So past the history book and onto the table: manti is a dumpling. They are most often served up steamed and stuffed with minced meat, animal fat and chopped onion. Vegetarians can rejoice in meat-free manti, most typically found with potato or pumpkin.
Where to get your manti on: Just about anywhere! Manti is served up at nearly every restaurant in town as well as at Bogu Bazaar.
Funchoza is another personal favorite to grab in a restaurant or on the go in a bazaar when I’m back in Central Asia. So where did funchoza come from? I was told Korea when I was in Central Asia, I’ve read some sources claiming the Koreans, others saying Uyghur. Either way, I’m not here to debate it, just to make you drool over it. Funchoza is a salad of julienned carrots and glass noodles drizzled in vinegar and oil and typically includes bell pepper and cilantro, though veggies in Funchoza can vary. Strips of grilled beef are a pretty common topping as well, but getting a vegetarian option without the meat is a pretty easily fulfilled request.
Where to get some funchoza: Most bazaars seem to have an aisle of merchants that will fill a container (or a bag) with funchoza for you. Funchoza is also a popular appetizer brought out at homestay meals and at restaurants.
Start planning: the Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide
Ganfan is a family of dishes that all have Dungan and Uyghur origins that all involve steamed rice, and tastier in my opinion than the ubiquitous plov served up all throughout Central Asia. The most common variations of Ganfan you’ll find are Jutse Tse, Latse Tse, and Swan Tse. Jutse Tse is steamed rice topped with egg and chive. Latse Tse includes fried peppers and meat served atop steamed rice. Finally, Swan Tse is the version with steamed rice with cabbage and meat. Many compare Ganfan as the rice version of lagman.
Where to test out the ganfan family of dishes: The best Ganfans I’ve tasted have been served up at Dungan family homes. Click here to book a Dungan family meal in nearby Yrdyk when you visit Karakol.
Azu is a dish that many compare to poutine, but guess what, we’re not in Canada anymore! Azu hails from Tatarstan, a region along the Volga River in Russia and home to the Tatar people. In Tatar, azu translates out to ‘food’, though some argue that azu is actually Persian, in which azu means meat. Azu has evolved over time, first, it was a dish that consisted just of meat. With Russian influence in Tatarstan brought the addition of potato, dill, and pickle to azu. Tatar dishes such as azu can be found served up throughout Russia as well as many ex-Soviet and Eastern European countries.
Where to try out a delicious azu: Kaynar Restaurant.
It wouldn’t be Kyrgyzstan if we didn’t bring up Kumis. Similar to kefir, kumis is a fermented dairy product, though quite different from any kefir you’ve likely ever drunk before. Kumis is fermented mare’s milk and an important member of the cuisine for the Kyrgyz and Kazakh as well as Mongols, Kalmyks, Bashkirs, and Yakuts. Kumis is fermented over the course of a span of hours up to a few days in which mare’s milk is put into a container and churned occasionally. This process results in a mildly alcoholic, slightly carbonated milky concoction. Many a traveler will try kumis and most will say they don’t care for it. I am among the few that actually do (however I do actually like fermented milk). The best way I can describe the taste is like bacon and sour cream mixed together but with a fizz to it.
Where to say nazdroviya and throw back a glass of kumis: pick up a bottle of Kumis from Bogu bazaar among other places around Karakol. Look out for signs that say ‘кымыз‘ on it, you’ll find it sold there.
Headed to Kazakhstan too? Check out the two week Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan itinerary
Let Them Eat Cake
So one thing is largely missing from the list of foods to try in Karakol– dessert (and coffee!). Don’t fear weary traveler, head over to Fat Cat Karakol to get your sweet (and caffeine) fix.
Wanna Try All The Karakol Food In This Post?
You’re in luck! For 600 KGS per person, you can set up a Karakol foodie tour with Destination Karakol, including all food and a guide. On your tour of the best Karakol restaurants, you’ll try ashlan-fu, Oromo, lagman, azu, and desserts at Fat Cat on this tour. Click here to book and to read up on details. You can also set up a Dungan family meal with destination Karakol where you can try ashlan-fu, ganfan, mompar, manti, and more. A minimum of 4 people are needed to book and must be booked at least 1 day in advance. The price is 1400 KGS per person and includes all food, a local guide, and transport from Karakol to Yrdyk and back.