One of the great pleasures of travel is experiencing the food and customs of other cultures. A recent surprise email from a friend in Kyrgyzstan reminded me of our experience there a few years ago.
We had volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. For two weeks we scraped paint, stripped wallpaper, plastered ceilings and painted. We were rehabbing crumbling apartments in the old six story concrete apartment blocks found all through the once USSR countries.
Lunch each day was provided by the families who would be living in the apartments. In addition to our group of 16 there were Kyrgyz people working with us. The families providing lunch for 25 or so workers cooked it in their tiny apartments on primitive stoves. They brought it to us in battered old vehicles or on city buses. Shortly before lunch time the food started arriving. Rugs were spread out on the ground, a table cloth down the center, and the food arranged the length of it. We sat on the rugs or pillows, not easy for most Americans, especially those of us on the upper end of the age scale.
They provided a veritable feast each day. Heaping bowls of rice and shredded carrots with chunks of lamb or chicken, bowls of slaw, shredded radishes and cucumber, tomatoes and cucumber with dill, plates of dried apricots, raisins and whole walnuts. Or some days heaping bowls of fresh strawberries. Two kinds of bread, little fried bread triangles and large flat loaves with poppy seeds, each person tearing off what they wanted from it. We served ourselves on china plates with metal utensils and drank hot tea made in a samovar as we watched.
The magnitude of the meal and the rugs, dishes, and food that had been brought and then needed to be carried away was a source of amazement to our group accustomed to the throw-away Western way of picnicking.
We also had the interesting experience of trying Kymys, the Kyrgyz national drink made from fermented mare’s milk. Most of us tried it in keeping with the local custom, that to refuse offends. It has a sour taste, not unlike beer but an after taste that would have to be an acquired taste.


Lunch al fresco