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„Can you prepare anything without meat?“ „No,“ the owner starts, but „Yes, no problem,“ another customer jumps in. In Central Asia we have become used to blank stares, when we ask for something without meat. Usually we end up with rice and fried eggs and perhaps a few tomatoes and cucumbers. But this time it's different. Ashlyanfu, proclaimed a sign on the door of the restaurant. It turns out the proprietress can't prepare anything because she has no kitchen in her one-room restaurant. All her food, that is the Ashlyanfu, is prepared in advance and it is without meat anyway: It is a Dungan, i. e. Chinese, dish from noodles, a starchy jelly, some vegetables and a spicy vinegary broth.
Otherwise the food here consists of skewered meat, meat pies, meat stews with noodles and rice with meat. The tastiest food we had was a vegetarian plov (rice dish) made especially for us in a guesthouse in Arslanbob. Breakfast usually is safe, too, because it consists of sweet rice puddings or sweet pancakes, always served with bread.
“When I studied in Germany,” someone tells us, “my host family was kind enough always to buy bread rolls for me because they knew that a meal wouldn't be complete without bread.” To our surprise, we find that despite the emphasis on having bread, the freshness or taste of the bread doesn't seem to matter much. Several times we are served mouldy bread, and even more often stale old factory bread – although the delicious flat breads fresh from the tandoori oven are readily available.
Thus, we often buy our own food: bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a lot of kefir. Befitting for a nomadic country, dairy products, at least in summer, also make up a major part of the national diet. Apart from milk, kefir and sour cream, this also includes a wide range of fermented and / or alcoholic drinks: kymyz (slightly alcoholic fermented mare's milk), tan (non-alcoholic fermented milk), jarma (non-alcoholic fermented, but made from grains) and bozo (made from more different grains, with more alcohol). Even more alcohol? We have no appetite for the zillion varieties of vodka and related spirits available cheaply in every village kiosk, and on every bus and share taxi ride we hope that the driver didn't have too much of it either...