Nobody has ever accused Bishkek or Kyrgyzstan of being a foodie destination, yet with just a little effort the city makes for a great opportunity to try excellent versions of Central Asia’s most popular dishes in a nice atmosphere at authentic local favorites – a great introduction to the country or the region. In addition to the standard Bishkek itinerary of visiting Manas Square and shopping at Osh Bazaar, be sure to set aside some time for exploring the local culinary scene as well.
Authentic dishes from across Central Asia, particularly the widest selection of traditional Kyrgyz food in Bishkek, and a colorful atmosphere that seemed designed entirely to make the space photogenic for Instagrammers. Staff wear traditional Kyrgyz outfits, upstairs tables recall sitting barefoot on the floor of a carpet-covered yurt, the borsook fried dough and kaimak cream is some of the best in town; altogether a real crowd-pleaser, especially for first-time visitors to the city. There are 8 branches across Bishkek (and at least two in Almaty!), but our favorite is the central location on Togolok Moldo just south of Kievskaya.
Togolok Moldo 114/1
A more traditional chaikana (teahouse) experience, the hand-carved wooden facade and wraparound terrace full of tapchan daybeds is evocative of the southern-Kyrgyzstan region of Jalalabad from which it takes its name, popular among tourists for the walnut forests of Arslanbob. The enticing smell of wood-fired shashlyk grilled meat tinges the air (and definitely builds up appetites), but be careful not to eat so much that you’re tempted to stretch on the tapchan cushions for a nap after. Chaikana Jalalabd is best on a summer evening when the heat has departed for the day and a cool breeze blows across the terrace – you’ll definitely consider sticking around for just one last cup of tea.
Togolok Moldo 30,
The food is certainly good at Supara, but it’s the traditional stylings that make it worth the trip out to the edge of Bishkek in the suburb of Kok-Djar. Choose to dine in traditional yurts, historically-accurate mud-wall dwellings, stone cabins, or any of a number of other replicas of Central Asia’s traditional dwellings; through it all, expect waiters in colorful Kyrgyz clothing and the occasional band of musicians to wander through playing the Kyrgyz komuz (a local take on the lute) and temir komuz (mouth harp) to accompany singers on traditional songs. This is also one of the few year-round places you might be able to try sumolok, a traditional harvest drink associated with the Nooruz New Year celebrations.
For an even more exciting experience, continue past Kok-Djar for another 29km into the mountains to Supara Chunkurchak, a similar concept built on a beautiful mountain hillside, and with yurt-styled hotel rooms for a weekend getaway from the city. This is a great winter trip option as well, as the restaurant complex is just past Chunkurchak Ski Base, one of the most popular ski bases in Kyrgyzstan.
Karagul Akmat 1a,
Kok-Djar Village, Bishkek
A ‘Taste of the East’ is definitely on order here – it says so right in the name. Kyrgyz and Uzbek favorites share menu space with Chinese-influenced dishes and a handful of token Russian stalwarts. There’s a lot to love on the menu, but a perennial favorite is the ‘friend noodles with mushrooms’, a laghman noodle-based dish with a deep earthy flavor of mushroom offset by the salt of soy sauce and the crispness of green beans. Stick to the original Moskovskaya location – there are a few others in town, but the kitchens just don’t seem to match the same delicate balance of flavors as the first and best.
Occupying the location of a former legend, locals maintain that Janybai Samsa was rebranded to Kyrgyzbay Samsa for a bit of, er…, tax subterfuge. Whatever the reason, they still seem to be putting out the same tandoori oven-baked meat pastries that are widely considered the best samsa in the city. There’s a wide range of Kyrgyz dishes on the menu here, but we genuinely couldn’t tell you how anything else – the samsa are just so addictive that we’ve never managed to move past them into other options.
Every post-Soviet capital worth visiting has at least one incredible Georgian restaurant, and this is Bishkek’s best. Satisfy all your cravings for Caucasian kachipuri, khinkali, and kharcho at this dimly-lit dining room tucked away off a backstreet in the heart of the city. It’s equally great for a romantic date or a the start of a wine-fueled night out with friends – just be sure to reserve a table on weekends as it stays busy throughout the year.
Bar Na Krishe at Ak-Keme Hotel Rooftop
Once among the most fashionable venues in Bishkek – popular for weddings and high-profile parties – the Ak-Keme Hotel’s ‘Bat Na Krishe’ (literally ‘Bar on the Roof’) remains a popular ending point for the latest of nights (open daily from 6pm-6am) and an excellent place for a summer sundowner to enjoy the incredible mountain views – the foothill south of Bishkek are less than 15km away from the hotel’s location. Consider this one for pre-dinner drinks or to tie one off to end the night before heading out to one of Bishkek’s excellent cafes for breakfast.
Bar Na Krishe
Chingiz Aitmatov 93, 11th floor,
Kyrgyz-Cuisine Cooking Lessons
Travellers looking to take home their experiences in Central Asia might consider learning to make a few of their favorite dishes themselves. (After all, what else will you do with all the spices you bought at Osh Bazaar?) Two local Bishkek tour agencies offer cooking classes, on request throughout the year and on a regular schedule during the summer season.
The next time you come down with an urgent craving for a samsa or laghman, you’ll be prepared to relive a little bit of your Central Asia experience back at home.
About Stephen, Author of Monk Bought Lunch
Stephen Lioy is a passionate travel writer and photographer based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. His work has appeared in numerous Lonely Planet guidebooks and popular online publications, as well as on his Silk Road travel blog. Follow Stephen on Instagram @Slioy, Twitter @Slioy, and Facebook for more.