November 01, 2003

Tolkuchka in Turkmenistan

Last June I found myself sitting in an outdoor café in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, eating a wonderful salad of grilled eggplant, onions, and tomatoes. Because of its wonderfully smoky flavor, this salad is known locally as dymok, from the Russian word for “smoke” (dym). As I ate, my friends told me of the latest ukaz by President Saparmurat Niyazov. He had recently declared that dual citizenship was no longer possible for anyone living in Turkmenistan, a decree that has caused many ethnic Russians to return to Russia — even those who have spent their entire lives in Turkmenistan. In a further attempt to rid the country of foreign elements, he had just ordered all foreign names removed from restaurants — no more “Nostalgiya” (Nostalgia), or “Romashka” (Chamomile), two favorite cafés bearing Russian names. I wondered whether the eggplant salad would eventually have to be renamed.

Russians have contributed in small but significant ways to Turkmen cuisine. For instance, until Russians introduced tomatoes and potatoes (both New World plants) to Turkmenistan, they were unknown there. Now, although most Turkmen food remains traditional, tomatoes and potatoes are a regular part of the diet, alongside such tasty local dishes as shashlyk (shish kebab) of grilled Caspian sturgeon and fresh mint, steamed dumplings (manty) filled with pumpkin and onion, and yagly nan, a rich bread layered with ground lamb and lamb fat.

Ashgabat is famous throughout Central Asia for its large outdoor market, which is open three days a week. The market is so lively and bustling that it bears the Russian name of tolkuchka, from the Russian verb tolkat, to push (or, perhaps more appropriately here, to shove). After passing by camels and carpets, you come to the food stalls, where you can buy wonderful snacks like puffed corn, sugar-coated peanuts, peanut pralines, and halva with poppy seeds and nuts. Here, too, are the dried fruits Central Asian is famous for. The words kuraga (dried apricots) and kishmish (raisins) have come into the Russian language to describe these delicacies, which are traditionally served with green tea. You can buy flatbreads called somsa, stuffed with spinach and onions, hot from the tandoor oven. Other stalls offer poppy seeds, honey, and all sorts of dairy products, from fresh curd cheese like Russian tvorog to chal, fermented camel’s milk. Rows of grains and pulses and spices, in huge burlap bags, provide wonderful color. Especially popular are the tiny, round green peas known throughout Central Asia as mash, which boil up into the mellifluous kasha iz masha.

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