WHILE the Silk Route is famous for bringing economic and cultural benefits to both Asia and Europe, it’s far less known for creating a distinct cuisine.
This cuisine is centered in Central Asia although variations exist in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan — five countries that once belonged to the former Soviet Union.
The cuisine, which has been influenced by various cultures, is known for its meats and dairy products.
In general, Central Asian cooking reflects the “nomadic, eastern and Islamic customs of the region,” write Glenn Randall Mack and Asele Surina in their book “Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia.”
Geography and history have had a big impact on cuisine in the region. Around 80 percent of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are covered by deserts. Mountains are the norm in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan while Kazakhstan is a combination of mountains and deserts. The geography creates agricultural challenges but is good for livestock farming.
Many ingredients used in these countries are similar, especially milk, beef and mutton. But they are cooked in distinctive ways in each country, according to Kazakh Zhadyra Akhmetova, who is an overseas student at Shanghai International Studies University.
“We prefer single and comparatively light flavors,” Akhmetova says. “So we often use salt and pepper to season beef. However, people in countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been influenced by Uygur culture and prefer using cumin to give meat more flavor and fragrance.”
Persian influences in the cuisine date back to the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC). This includes the use of fresh herbs such as mint along with fruits like plums, apricots and raisins. Cinnamon is a popular spice in Central Asian cuisine and saffron is also used liberally.
Of course, with much of the Silk Road traveling through China, Central Asian cuisine has been influenced by Chinese cooking methods and ingredients. Chefs frequently use woks and steamers to prepare food while rice and noodles are important staples.
Russian influences are also apparent in the use of beetroot and potatoes while vodka is a common alcoholic beverage across the region.
These multicultural influences make it somewhat difficult to categorize Central Asian cuisine. Mack and Surina divide it into nomadic, Turkish and Iranian food.
Nomadic food culture is based on the meat and dairy products commonly found in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
“We eat yoghurt, cheese and cream and drink milk tea. One of my favorites is a kind of sweet milk congee served for breakfast,” Akhmetova recalls.
Borscht, originally from Russia, is also a highlight. The soup with a beetroot and cabbage base has been adapted for locals with the addition of yoghurt.
In these three countries, beshbarmak, literally meaning five-finger rice, is served to entertain important guests.
“It’s a big dish due to the high cost,” she says. “Three kinds of meat — horse, beef and mutton — should be included. They are cooked in a broth together with onions and black pepper.”
Turkish influences, mainly referring to Uzbek and Uygurs, has similarities to Chinese cuisine best typified by various noodle dishes.
For example, laghman, which originated from Chinese pulled noodles, is served with tomatoes, onions, chilies and meat.
Hunon is a steamed noodle roulade stuffed with potatoes, meat and onions.
Mutton is a particular highlight. It is often made into kebabs and samosas. Kebabs refer to mutton grilled on a skewer while a samosa is a baked pastry filled with ground mutton and potatoes. Both are often sold as street foods.
Naan is a leavened baked flat bread that is easy to carry and store. This staple is known for its chewy texture.
There’s an old saying in Uzbekistan that if you carry 50 naans then you can traverse Kyzyl Kum — the 16th largest desert in the world that covers parts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Iranian, encompassing Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan influences, is highlighted by Persian cuisine. It is represented by the liberal use of mint as a seasoning, stuffing vegetables with meat and lavish sweets.
A traditional Tajik meal starts with sweets like dried fruits, nuts and halva, a dense sweet confection made from sesame seeds and sugar syrup.
Authentic Central Asian cuisine is difficult to find in Shanghai.
“There’s no horse meat here,” says Akhmetova. “The yogurt in Shanghai is light and sweet, not like the thick and sour versions where I come from.”
She says she goes to a restaurant near her university opened by students from Central Asia or to Russian eateries to get a taste of home.
Shanghai Daily takes a look at her favorite dining destinations and two other restaurants, one highlighting Uygur cuisine and the other Persian food.
Spice Bazaar is a Xinjiang restaurant with stylish and exotic décor, which brings diners a more sophisticated experience. There are tapestries, French windows and wooden chairs and tables in simple design.
Most dishes in the menu are traditional Xinjiang cuisine with a twist of Western style. An intensely colored but subtly spiced traditional da pan ji (big plate of chicken) is one of its signatures.
The classic dingding noodles (chopped noodles with vegetables and bean paste) have rich flavor while the noodles are neither too soft nor too chewy. Skewered meat of beef and lamb is juicy and tasty.
There is an inlaid bar in the restaurant, which renders a good selection of drinks.
Opening hours: Daily, 10am-11pm
Address: 29 Dongping Rd
Flying Elephant Restaurant
Flying Elephant is among a handful eateries in Shanghai that serve quality Russian food.
Vareniki (dumpling) is light and uses curd as dipping sauce. Ukrainian borscht is another signature that has rich and authentic flavor.
The interior is nothing special but a live Russian band or Russian background music bring an atmosphere to the place.
Opening hours: Daily, 10am-5am
Address: 3/F, The Bund Hotel, 525 Guangdong Rd
The restaurant featuring sumptuous décor has an affordable and authentic menu of Russian cuisine.
The salad Olivier is one of the highlights. It is a combination of various vegetables and mayonnaise, also known as a Russian salad. Pancakes served with incredibly salty caviar, red caviar and bliny is an authentic Russian dish that is also worth a try.
Other highlights include golubtsy (meat and rice wrapped in cabbage), borscht and potato pancakes.
The restaurant also provides live performances in the evening.
It would be hard to go to this restaurant without gasping at the colorful decorations — shisha bottles, mosaic glasses and lamps, pearl decorations, and frescos — which show exactly that it serves rich Turkish and Mediterranean food.
The restaurant offers tasty kebabs with chicken, lamb and beef that come wrapped in flatbread. Rice pudding is the signature dessert, which has a mellow texture.