Hidden Treasures: Bread and Borscht in a Kyrgyz Cafe

Joel Carillet's picture

The Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan has been in the U.S. news in recent months.  Manas Air Base, located on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Bishkek, has since 2001 been a key transportation and supply hub for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.  In March, however, the Kyrgyz government told the United States the base would no longer be available to it after August 18.  The eviction notice came shortly after Russia announced a $2 billion aid package to Kyrgyzstan, and many analysts don’t find the timing coincidental.

The U.S. government is hoping to renegotiate the base closing, but if unsuccessful it will lose its last airbase in Central Asia (Uzbekistan kicked the military out in 2005).  But it should also be noted—and this is no small thing—that several hundred military personnel will lose their close proximity to some of the best bread and borscht on Earth.

Hidden Treasures: Bread and Borscht in a Kyrgyz CafeMen in an Osh park take advantage of the autumn weather to play chess


Hidden Treasures: Bread and Borscht in a Kyrgyz CafeTeens at a bus stop


In October 2004 I had the opportunity to spend several days in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city.  It was here that I basked in the glory of two things, the first of my own doing and the second most certainly not.  First, I learned at last how to spell Kyrgyzstan (this is one of travel’s many side benefits: you learn to spell the names of tiny nations, even those that take a lax attitude toward vowels).  Second, I experienced the culinary pleasures of Osh’s café scene.

Osh was experiencing unseasonably mild autumn weather during my visit, and so it was in the open-air cafes that I anchored myself for hours each day to read and to work on my notes.  Whether morning, noon, or night, bread was on the table, and it was good.  (Unlike the city’s bread, which is baked fresh daily, the city itself is ancient, dating at least to the fifth century BC.)

But it was not merely the bread that was good; it was also the borscht.  It was the lamb in the borscht, the sour cream atop the borscht, the warmth rising up from my borscht-filled bowl.  It was the taste of the borscht as I put it in my mouth, the smell as it wafted around my nostrils.  But it was not just the borscht!  It was also the site of fellow diners as I tore from the loaf of bread, or as I pored another cup of hot tea.  It was the site of the waitress as she smiled as I ordered a second or third bowl of borscht.  It was the sheer delight at the low, low prices, at the budget traveler bliss of being able to order more and more food without cringing at the cost.

Hidden Treasures: Bread and Borscht in a Kyrgyz CafeMeat at the local market, perhaps destined for a bowl of borscht


Hidden Treasures: Bread and Borscht in a Kyrgyz CafeLooking down upon a glorious scene


Being a backpacker in a Kyrgyz café, in other words, was like being a toddler in a bathtub.  If I tired of borscht – which I don’t think I ever did – I would order grilled fish, or perhaps a lamb kabob or plate of plof.  And if I finished eating, which I did occasionally, I’d take in the autumn leaves, the crisp air, or the subtle pleasure of recognizing that I was in a city few of my friends even knew existed.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like had I pursued a career in the military, which I had once seriously considered.  Sometimes I even wonder this with a degree of longing and regret.  But one of the advantages of being a travel writer rather than a general, at least when pondering Kyrgyzstan in 2009, is this: instead of exploring complicated contingency plans related to a base closing, one can simply imagine sitting still in a café, sipping borscht.

Hidden Treasures: Bread and Borscht in a Kyrgyz Cafe   Not only US military planners are thinking about the war in Afghanistan. So are these two Kyrgyz veterans who fought for the Soviet Union there in the 1980s.  They're looking at a memorial inscribed with the names of Osh residents who lost their lives in that war.


Hidden Treasures: Bread and Borscht in a Kyrgyz CafeMyself with three cooks, who were responsible for several of the numerous bowls of borscht I consumed in Kyrgyzstan


Joel Carillet, former chief editor of Wandering Educators, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, or to follow his weekly photoblog, visit www.joelcarillet.com.


Note: This article was originally published April 17, 2009, and updated August, 2017


Comments (6)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    13 years 4 months ago

    joel - your articles always make me want to follow in your footsteps. SUCH glorious food. i have several friends from kyrgyzstan and always loved eating at their house!


    thanks for sharing.


    Jessie Voigts, PhD

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

  • Ed Forteau

    13 years 3 months ago

    Really love the photo of the bread.

    Ed Forteau

    Publisher, WanderingEducators.com

  • Glinda

    13 years 3 months ago

    You are making me homesick for Osh-and I've never even gone there! I hope sometime I will also be able to sit in the cafe and partake of the bread and Borscht. Thanks for telling us about this corner of the world!

  • Dr. Debra Payne

    13 years 3 months ago


    This article is fantastic and so is the photography! Glad you became a travel writer...


    Debra Payne Chaparro, PhD

  • monacake

    13 years 3 months ago

    an excellent article, joel. you really felt the heart of kyrgyzstan through the people and food - the best way!

  • Jesse Miles

    13 years 3 months ago

    Joel - I always enjoy your articles and photos.  Thanks for sharing your adventures with us.

    Jesse Miles

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