For many, Karakol is the gateway to the mountains. This is where many a hike and horse trek begins, but for me, Karakol was all about the food!
This town is a melting pot for cultures – Kyrgyz, Dungan, Tatar, Uyghur and Russian – which means you get quite a bit of variety when it comes to the food. From refreshing soups to bowls of spicy noodles, and from sweet treats to fermented mare’s milk, Karakol has plenty of experiences to keep your taste buds interested.
So whether you’re a foodie looking to tuck into the local cuisine, or you’re a hungry hiker in search of a delicious post-trek feast, here are some fun food experiences to check out in Karakol.
I hope you’re hungry!
Have a bowl of Ashlyan-Fu
Ashlyan-fu is one of my favourite dishes, so much so, that while in Karakol, I was having a bowl every day!
This is a cold soup that has two different types of noodles made from wheat and starch. The wheat noodles look a lot like spaghetti and the starch noodles have a jelly-like consistency. It has a vinegar-based broth with a mixture of tomatoes, bell peppers, and garlic. The whole thing is topped off with a spicy red chilli paste that you can mix into the broth, and a little bit of chopped cilantro. It’s delicious and such a refreshing dish on a hot summer’s day.
This dish is very easy to find; you can order it at just about any restaurant, but for a truly local experience you can go down to the market and eat at a bowl in Ashlayn-fu Alley where there are lots of little food stands packed together, all serving this one dish.
Once you’re inside the market, just ask a local to point you in the right direction, because this alley can be a little tricky to find!
Here are a few other Kyrgyz dishes to keep in mind during your visit.
Address: Ashlyan-fu Alley inside the Karakol Small Bazaar
Enjoy a meal with a Dungan Family
For a feast to end all feasts, you need to eat with a Dungan family.
The Dungans are an ethnically Chinese group who are also Muslim, and they have their own distinct cuisine.
Since the Dungans are primarily farmers, this means that a lot of their dishes consists of vegetables. We had an assortment of rice bowls, noodle dishes, stir-fried vegetables, steamed bread, fried dumplings, and plates with fresh fruit.
Once the meal was laid out in front of us (there must’ve been at least 50 plates!) we learned that a Dungan meal must consist of a minimum of 8 dishes, but often more!
This was a very casual meal where we all ate together and had the freedom to ask our host family questions about Dungan culture. Just make sure you have a light breakfast or skip breakfast altogether because you’re going to be stuffed!
You can book this Dungan Village Family Dinner here, or you can visit the Destination Karakol offices once you arrive in Karakol at 22 Gagarin Street.
Learn to make lagman from scratch
Lagman is a popular Uyghur dish that you’re going to encounter time and time again as you travel through Kyrgyzstan.
This is a hand-pulled noodle dish with Chinese origins. The noodles are generally served with meat and vegetables, but they can be prepared 3 different ways: fried, soupy, or something in between. We had been eating this dish all along our travels in Kyrgyzstan, so it was time to finally learn how to make it ourselves.
We took a cooking class through Destination Karakol and met Gulya, our Uyghur master chef for the day. She taught us the art of stretching out the noodle, which is surprisingly tricky (we broke a few noodles short in the process), and then once that task was completed, we all crowded around her kitchen to see how the sauce was made.
It was a fun way to spend the morning and we were all ready for lunch by the time the food was ready.
Note: This cooking class can also be arranged directly through Destination Karakol, or you can visit their offices in Karakol at 22 Gagarin Street.
Indulge your sweet tooth at Fat Cat
If you’re craving some good coffee and home-baked goods, then you need to make a beeline for the Fat Cat Cafe. They serve up cheesecakes with raspberry jam, brownies with vanilla ice cream and caramel, layered honey-cream cakes, and other sweet treats.
One of the reasons I love this spot is because the owner Zhamila is using her cafe to do good in the community. The cafe is involved in numerous projects, ranging from providing students with school supplies for the year to teaching women baking skills so they can start businesses back in their communities. It’s a great cause plus the food is great, so we paid a few visits over the course of our stay.
Also, in the evenings, this place transforms into a cool hangout spot with lots of travellers, so it’s a nice place to drop by for a craft beer with a grilled sandwich or pizza.
Address: Corner of Gagarin and Alybakova (right next to Destination Karakol offices).
Drink a glass of mare’s milk
It seems that wherever you travel in Kyrgyzstan, someone is always trying to offer you a bowl of fermented mare’s milk. Yes, we’re talking about horse milk. I think they do it to get a funny reaction out of foreigners, but hey, when in Kyrgyzstan!
I’ve had it a few times and while I can’t say it’s my favourite (it’s a bit too salty and sour for my liking!) it seems to be a rite of passage, so why not try it at least once.
Again, this is very easy to find in Karakol. You can order it at most restaurants, or you can look for buildings that have a ‘кымыз’ sign out front. At one of the hotels we stayed in, we even found a bottle of kumis in the fridge right next to the water and sodas, so you know it’s a popular drink!
Address: Pretty much every restaurant!
Have you ever tried Kyrgyz or Central Asian food?
What was your favourite dish?
This trip was made possible in partnership with Discover Kyrgyzstan and Destination Karakol. As always, all opinions expressed here are my own.