As our plane swept low into Ashgabat, I was admiring the desert, illuminated in pale, dreamy moonlight, when the man seated next to me released a deep sigh. He had been silent throughout the flight, so I turned in surprise. With a broad smile, he said he was happy because soon he would be back home, eating dograma. He urged me to try it during my visit. Dograma, he said, captured Turkmenistan on a plate.
My flight arrived at three a.m., and the capital city was deserted, yet fountains in the parks shot jets of water into the sere landscape, and roses bloomed. Along the main thoroughfares, the smiling countenance of President Saparmurat Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi (“Chief of the Turkmens”), gazed out from countless mosaics, billboards and banners. A massive replica of Turkmenbashi’s official guide for his people, the Ruhnama (Book of the Spirit), rose up in the darkness, a motorized monument that opens to a screen on which films of Turkmenbashi play.
Ever since Turkmenistan gained its independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenbashi has, among much else, harnessed widespread nationalism and determination. (One initiative is his “Path of Health,” intended to encourage physical fitness; it’s a literal path constructed up into the Kopet Dag foothills overlooking the city.) But as a food historian, I wondered how the separation from Russia had affected Turkmen cuisine. Had a new culinary nationalism taken hold, as it has in Russia, where traditional dishes, suppressed under Soviet rule, are once again celebrated? Or was an influx of previously unattainable foods steering the cuisine on a more westerly course?
What I discovered was a striking, uniquely Turkmen blend of tradition and innovation. In Turkmenistan, the acknowledgment of the past is not a kind of tourist ethnography. Rather than simply adding modern practices and appliances to a traditional way of life, rural and urban Turkmens alike graft pre-industrial traditions onto the realities of contemporary life. Many modern Turkmen women still wear long, modest dresses of brightly colored cotton, and brides with demanding careers willingly don kilos of heavy silver ornaments for their wedding. Families still gather for meals around a cloth laid out on the floor, and people still eat the basic foods that have characterized Turkmen cuisine for centuries: hearty soups, pilafs and a wide range of dairy products. The daily Turkmen diet remains surprisingly unaffected by current global trends or even by foreign influences. This is not a political statement, but rather an expression of local culinary culture.
Turkmen dining customs are rooted in a largely nomadic past. With few permanent dwelling places and little wood for making furniture, the various Turkmen tribes naturally laid “tables” on the ground where they camped. Nomads literally carry their traditions, and change and movement are as constant as ancestral practices. This history may have better equipped the Turkmens to determine which of their traditions will continue to enrich their lives and which will bind them to practices that might prove burdensome.
Turkmenistan’s nomadic past means that food practices developed around ingredients that were simple to prepare: soups (usually with a meat base) and dairy products, with relatively few cultivated vegetables. With the Karakum Desert dominating four-fifths of the country, agriculture is difficult, unlike in neighboring, more fertile Uzbekistan. To compensate, Turkmens raised livestock hardy enough to withstand desert extremes, and they ate the meat and milk of their sheep, camels and mountain goats. Although Turkmen cuisine shares some general characteristics with other Central Asian cuisines—rice-based pilaf is nearly universal, and meat stews are prepared throughout the region—the historical lack of agriculture has kept the food of Turkmenistan distinct from that of nearby countries, where flour-based foods like noodles, dumplings and savory pies are more common.
Yet Turkmen culinary culture is not monolithic. It embraces regional dishes that developed according to local availabilities. In the southwest, for instance, inhabitants take advantage of the abundance of fish in the Caspian Sea to prepare grilled sturgeon and stewed gray mullet, often flavoring it with pomegranate juice in a gesture that reflects culinary kinship with neighboring Iran. In the country’s heartland, the predominant Tekke people prepare a kind of haggis (garyn) by stuffing sheep stomachs with minced meat and fat. They bury this garyn in the hot sand, then air-dry it in a process that preserves the meat for a long time. In the west and the north, the Yomut also prepare dried meat, usually from camel or mountain goat, and make an excellent pilaf with Caspian sturgeon. Unlike their neighbors the Kazakhs, the Turkmens do not eat horse meat: They prize their horses—especially the swift and beautiful Akhal-Tekes—too highly.
Despite Turkmenistan’s frequent periods of domination by outsiders—from Mongols, Persians and Uzbeks to Russians —surprisingly few foreign foods have penetrated the cuisine. (Notable exceptions are tomatoes and potatoes.) Even more surprising, given the location of the ancient city of Merv on one of the major Silk Roads from China, is the cuisine’s dearth of spices. Red and black pepper are used, but sparingly. The Yomut sometimes add the resinous spice asafetida, but for the most part, the flavors of Turkmen foods are simple and straightforward, relying on basic, very fresh ingredients.
The hot desert climate made the Turkmens adept at preserving food. This accounts for the great repertoire of cultured dairy products, as well as their preference for dried and smoked meats, especially sausage, and fish. Fruits, too, were dried to last beyond the summer season, and Turkmens enjoy an enviable selection of dried apricots—both halves and tiny whole ones—raisins, golden and brown, and dried melons. These are served both at meals and with tea, along with achingly sweet fresh melons in season and candied licorice root native to the Labak region near Uzbekistan.
Summer was traditionally the time to eat vegetables and fruits, especially those from the cu- curbit family, both because they were seasonal and because meat spoiled most easily during those hot months. This alternation defined the diet in terms of a seasonal balance (as distinct from the daily balance favored in Europe and North America). Other traditional summer dishes include rice with milk and doloma—grape leaves or green peppers stuffed with rice and vegetables, a dish common to all of the Turkic cuisines. As summer passes into fall, a specialty is manti, steamed, ravioli-like dumplings filled with pumpkin and onions. Among other traditional foods are yarma, a porridge made of cracked wheat, which is often served at the Muslim new year to symbolize hopes for abundance, and also watermelon “butter”—chunks of watermelon that have been boiled in a sugar syrup, then mixed with sheep fat to make a creamy spread—a favorite breakfast dish.
Where Turkmen cuisine positively shines is in its dairy foods, from both cows and camels. I tasted the famous chal, fermented camel’s milk, and it proved wonderfully cooling in the intense heat. To make chal, the cream is skimmed off the milk, and the milk is thinned with water and left to ferment slightly. (That skimmed-off cream, when it too is fermented slightly, becomes agaran, a rich, thick and extremely nourishing treat.) Gaymak is thick cream made from cow’s milk, while suzme, also made from cow’s milk, is cultured to produce a slightly tangy fresh cheese that can be mixed with water and aromatic greens like cilantro for use as a condiment or as an accompaniment to soups. In the heat of summer, suzme is often simply mixed with chopped, fresh tomatoes and herbs and thinned with a little water to make a refreshing soup. The local peynir, or smoked cheese, resembles fresh, firm mozzarella.
These products and more can be found at Ashgabat’s biweekly market, considered the best in Central Asia. Known familiarly by its Russian name, Tolkuchka (from the verb “to push” or “to shove”), the market is a good-spirited place as well as crowded. I followed my nose past the automobiles and camels, past the famous Turkmen rugs and silks, to the food stalls where somsa—turnovers filled with spinach and onions, cousins to Indian samosas—were baking on the sides of massive tandoor ovens. Here, too, were fitchi, round somsa stuffed with lamb or camel meat, and corn puffs, a lightly sweetened snack that would give Kix cereal a run for its money. Sugar-coated peanuts were sold in paper cones for eating out of hand, and they also found their way into grainy, praline-like sweets. Sacks of poppy and sesame seed and huge jars of honey stood ready to flavor halva, along with pistachios and hazelnuts.
Rice came in short-, medium- and long-grained varieties to make the pilafs Turkmens adore. In contrast to the Uzbek style, Turkmen palav (also known as ash) is not highly inflected with spices, and the meat is mixed with the rice as it cooks. Short-grain, sticky rice is considered best for the most traditional palav because it holds together well, enabling a diner to scoop up a clump of rice with the fingers. Old-school purists insist that the pilaf should be so rich that lamb fat runs down the eater’s arm, but at least in some families, contemporary health concerns override old-fashioned pleasure. (An old-style lamb palav I tasted was wonderfully flavorful, though it did sit a bit heavily afterward.)
Better yet was a modern version prepared by Zohra Meredova, the mother of a young woman who works at the US embassy in Ashgabat. Meredova uses basmati rice, which produces a lighter dish. She also adds little fat, substituting sunflower oil for the heavier, more common cottonseed oil. She also prefers rabbit to lamb, not only because her husband raises rabbits right outside the kitchen, but also because the meat is leaner.
In addition to rice, the market offers a dizzying array of dried legumes. I saw sacks of tesve, a dried green pea believed to have both healing and magical properties. Some people string the peas onto a chain like beads to protect against the evil eye. There was also golden semolina and the ubiquitous mash, a tiny, round green pea that is used in soups and stews.
After befriending the Meredovs’ extended community of friends and relatives, I was invited to attend two gatherings where Turkmen specialties were served. The first was a day-after wedding celebration for a young couple who had studied in the United States. Tekke and Maral represented the cosmopolitan generation of young Turkmens. We went to the house of Tekke’s family, where the relatives of both bride and groom had gathered. Tekke was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. At first the bride was nowhere to be seen, but I soon discovered her cloistered in a back room, completely covered with a huge shawl to hide her beauty. Her shoulders sagged—not with emotion, but because she was weighed down with about 35 kilos (75 lbs) of silver jewelry rented for the occasion. She was, she said, happy to be observing this tradition. Her female friends and relatives visited her and offered plenty of opportunity to socialize.
Meanwhile, the guests gathered in the main room to watch the women of the two families engage in a traditional, symbolic wrestling match, in which the groom’s family wrests the bride away to bring her into their family’s life. The wrestlers’ efforts were met with much clapping and cheering, punctuated by gales of laughter. Whoever could throw her competitor to the floor won.
Beyond the range of the wrestlers, a table was laden with dried fruits, pickled eggplant with dill, fried potatoes and garlicky carrots dressed with cottonseed oil. A modern, Russian-style potato salad with mayonnaise, the legacy of 70 years of Soviet rule, stood next to a very traditional sheep’s heart that had been wrapped in caul fat and fried—the symbolic dish offered to the couple to ensure marital bliss.
The celebratory meal is known as a sadaka; it is shared with others on important occasions such as births, housewarmings, marriages and the like. I attended another sadaka the very next day, this one at the home of a Meredov cousin, to celebrate the 40th day following a baby’s birth.
It was here that I finally got to taste dograma (pronounced doe-gra-ma). The stew was bubbling in huge cauldrons over open fires in the shady courtyard when we arrived. The men had gathered there and were keeping an eye on it. Then the dograma was carried in steaming bowls to a large room completely taken up with cloths spread on the floor, which were covered with bowls of bread, suzme, dried fruits and peshmeh, deep-fried bits of dough not unlike savory beignets. Dograma—the word comes from the verb meaning “to cut to pieces”—is basically a rich mutton broth filled with a special type of stiff, dry, unleavened bread called churek. The churek is torn into small pieces that are stirred into the hot broth, thickening it into a stew that is surprisingly flavorful given its very basic ingredients. As I spooned the stew from my bowl, I suddenly understood my airplane companion’s nostalgia: Here was Turkmen comfort food!
This indoor-outdoor way of life—cooking in the courtyard, eating inside— is important in Turkmen culture, as it is throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. The courtyard offers not only respite from the day’s heat, but also a place to pass time with family and friends. Children freely come and go; so do chickens. Sometimes meals are eaten outdoors under grapevine-covered pergolas. Sadly, this community- centered way of life is now endangered by the spread of modern high-rises, which lack space for such gatherings and for the animals that are part of Turkmen economy and food.
In Ashgabat, there is also the Russian Bazaar, an excellent indoor market specializing in all sorts of prepared foods. A large section was devoted to varieties of churek, from the flat, dense daily loaf to gatlama, a layered pastry for which the dough is rolled thin, then spread with oil and folded into layers like puff pastry. Gatlama is fried in the fat of the fat-tailed sheep, which is highly appreciated throughout Central Asia. (Turkmen cuisine favors frying: According to superstition, bad luck burns off with the smoke.) The standard churek was originally made with a sourdough starter, but today it is more often leavened with yeast, to the dismay of older Turkmens, who claim that the national repertoire once boasted no fewer than 114 varieties of filled breads.
However, a revival of sorts is bringing back breads lost during the homogenized era of Soviet rule. At Ashgabat’s public bakery, half a dozen tandoor ovens are fired with natural gas from some of the largest natural-gas reserves in the world. In the midsummer air, the heat is almost unbearable, and the women tending the ovens cover their faces with scarves to protect them. They rhythmically prick the shaped loaves with a decorative pattern, then slap them against the inside of the oven to bake briefly before retrieving them with a metal hook.
While the vast majority of food in the rural regions of Turkmenistan is still traditional, it is in urban cuisine that one can sometimes spot an overlay of western style. Thus I experienced two very different restaurants in Ashgabat: At Ak Oyle Chayhana, a series of camelhair yurts on the industrial outskirts of the city, I reclined against large pillows to feast on camel’s-milk agaran, mutton chorba (soup) and yagly nan, a rich, crisp bread layered with sheep fat and meat. Not long after, at an outdoor restaurant near the city center, wooden picnic tables were set up under canopies of vines. There, to the blare of American rock music, I sampled delectable shashlik with Caspian sturgeon and fresh mint, and a lovely salad known as dymok: a smoky grilled-eggplant salad with onions, tomatoes and bell peppers, all in a harmony of Old World and New World ingredients.
But the experience that most typified present-day Ashgabat for me was a midday meal in one of the city’s new apartment buildings. Like other showcase buildings, this one was faced in marble and had a marble-and-glass interior. A sleek elevator carried us to the door of Beginc, a young, single professional man. I was ushered into the main room, where an extraordinary meal had been laid on a brightly colored cloth on the floor.
Beginc’s mother—the cook—appeared, wearing a bright green caftan and patterned headscarf. I sat down on the floor with the others.
The first course was chorba, a lamb-based soup with chickpeas. Beginc explained that chorba developed out of the nomadic way of life and was once prepared over fires of saksaul (Haloxylon persicum, salt tree), a dense, native aromatic wood. The nomads served the soup with bread that had been baked in the embers of the fire, sometimes right in the sand. Another variation of chorba called for frying meat, placing it in a sheep’s stomach and steeping it in tea. Beginc’s mother’s chorba, however, was thoroughly modern, with tomatoes and potatoes, the now-ubiquitous New World additions to Turkmen cuisine.
Next came ishlekli, a large, round meat pie with local mushrooms. After that, stewed lamb with carrots. The meat was followed by a heaping platter of fried peshmeh, which I couldn’t begin to do justice to. Beginc’s mother put some in a bag for me to take home.
Today, younger Turk- mens like Beginc are eager to integrate with the rest of the world without losing the rich traditions of their own culture. Despite rapid change, one thing seems to remain constant in Turkmen life: the sharing of food with family and friends around a brightly colored cloth—and afterward, the memories of a just-right dograma.