Have you ever heard of a little place called Kyrgyzstan? While it is not as well known as its neighbor and home of Borat, Kazakhstan, or nuclear armed Pakistan, it a very interesting corner of the world with a lot of history. The word “Kyrgyz” in Turkic languages means “We are forty” which is a reference to the forty clans the legendary Kyrgyz hero, Manas, united to fight against the Uighurs (A predominately Muslim group that resides in what is now western China). The number forty also appears in their flag in the form of a sun with forty rays and a criss-crossed center to symbolize a yurt or traditional tent the Kyrgyz sleep in. It’s one of my favorite world flags, and recently I found that Kyrgyz food is right up my alley as well. Janice and I had a double date with one of her best friends and her husband at a Kyrgyz restaurant in Chicago called Jibek Jolu. Her friend and husband raved about it, so I was curious to see what exactly Kyrgyz food consisted of.
While I never had this particular type of cuisine, I had a faint idea of what to expect given the geographic location of the Central Asian nation and its history. First, I expected there to be a lot of meat given that most nomadic peoples rely on high energy meals focusing primarily on protein and dairy. Second, I found out that Jibek Jolu means “Silk Road” in Kyrgyz, so there were bound be plenty of dishes that combined the influences of Chinese, Indian, and Western cooking. Finally, given that Kyrgyzstan was a former Soviet republic, there would be lots of Russian dishes, and Janice’s friend’s husband is Russian, so we had our cultural “in” if we needed anything. When we walked up, it was funny to see all of the cabs parked out front due to the high number of Central Asian cabdrivers in Chicago. We walked in, and the place was jammed for dinner. We were quickly seated by the friendly staff, and I perused the menu options. I wasn’t surprised with the amount of meat and root vegetables being offered, but all of that had the making for a great meal in my eyes. The ingredients don’t have to be super fancy to make a superb meal; it’s all in the freshness of ingredients and execution. The prices were also very reasonable compared to other Russian restaurants I have been to. To start the meal, I wanted to try an appetizer, but a majority of them were Russian dishes. So I went for the tandyr samsy ($4.00) which seemed more Kyrgyz since I had never seen it on a Russian menu. Plus, it was cooked in an Indian tandoor oven which once again shows the multicultural nature of the cuisine. When it came out, it reminded me of a ghost from Pac Man,
and once I bit through the semi-crunchy crust, I was going “wakawakawakawaka” gobbling it up like the little yellow guy. It was a great combination of freshly baked bread, plenty of ground beef, and some soft, stewed potatoes to give the dish a little more body. Then there were the entrees, and each one was quite unique. First, there was the lagman ($12) which after a bit of research turns out to be more familiar to me than I had previously thought. Ramen noodles or just “ramen” are known the world over as a cheap snack for poor people and college students, but it turns out the word “lagman” is the Turkic word for “ramen”. Once again, the interconnected nature of Kyrgyzstan was reflected in this lagman dish that utilized the same hand-pulled noodle techniques that originated in the 16th Century in China. It was different than the Japanese ramen I tried in Tokyo, but it reflected the no-frills approach to cooking the Central Asian Republics take. Of course, there was stewed pieces of tender beef, peppers, onions, green beans, and onions along with a beef based broth to bring the ramen bowl together. I don’t normally say this, but I loved the noodles because they were super soft due to soaking in the aforementioned broth. I enjoyed every slurping forkful. We also got a small order of the meat oromo ($7.00), and they were still very substantial. Looking at these traditional steamed pies, I could only think of the steamed dumplings in Chinese dim sum. They had the same translucent skin as the little potstickers I’ve taken down many a time in Chinatown. While the exteriors were Chinese inspired, the interiors were more Slavic in nature with beef, minced potatoes, onions, cabbage and carrots. They were kind of hard to slice and share due to the fragile skin of the pies, but they were very hearty and all of the ingredients came together like a mini beef stew in a pie. After we tried that, I got a taste of my girlfriend’s plov ($10.00). This entree, more commonly known today as “pilaf” which originates from the Sankrit word “pulaka” meaning “a ball of rice”, has been around since the beginning of time. Alexander the Great comments on being served the same meal while visiting Samarkand, one of the stops for future explorer Marco Polo on the Silk Road. Alexander’s troops took the “pilav” recipe back to Macedonia, and it spread throughout Europe as “pilaf” from the Greek word “pilafi“. I didn’t think this rice dish lived up to the other entrees we tried since it just consisted of a broth-infused rice sprinkled with beef, carrots, onions, and garlic. While moderately flavorful, it seemed to be average in comparison to the other types of food we had tried. Then there was my kuurdak ($12) which was as elemental as food can get just short of ripping a hunk off a cow. Turns out this entree is one of the oldest and most traditional of Kyrgyz meals. It literally was stewed beef, potatoes, and onions. Simple as it sounds, the combination was amazing in my eyes and on my tastebuds. I would take this Kyrgyz beef over an American steak and potato dinner any day. I don’t know what they did to the beef, but it tasted like it was char-grilled and coated in a possible garlic/olive oil mixture. Then, the potatoes were herbal tinged and extremely tender which combined perfectly with the beef. The icing on the cake were the raw onions since I love onions in any way, shape, or form. It was one of the ugliest dishes at the table, but it was a definite hit as the others were sneaking bites off my plate. The final and most hardcore of the entrees was the beef shashlik ($11.50 for two). Janice’s friend’s husband, Ivan, ordered it, and when it came out, I couldn’t believe the presentation. There were two extremely long knives on the plate that had chunks of tandoor cooked beef on them along with a pile of rice and a salad just in case to protect you from a heart attack from ingesting that much red meat in one sitting. This part of the meal was as delicious as it was fun and dangerous to eat.
The Indian tandoor oven really brought out the intense flavor of the beef, and surprisingly we didn’t cut off our tongues when ripping the beef off the blades as the girls stared on in disbelief. Best double date ever.
So if you want to try a cuisine you’ve possibly never heard of for a great price with friendly service, make a pilgrimage to Jibek Jolu!