What about all the silly European vegetarians in Bishkek? Interestingly, in general, many people you get to know while traveling are vegetarians, although this lifestyle is much easier to maintain if you have a stable environment and well-known places you can go to – to have your meals – WITHOUT MEAT!
Of course I knew in advance that it would be hard. But honestly, I didn’t expect to be forced to eat meat on my first evening in the country. My really nice bosses who picked me up from the airport at 4.30 in the middle of the night served me at 6.00 in the morning: “plov”. Plov is a typical Kyrgyz meal which consists of basically two ingredients: rice and meat – and basically nothing else. I told them in the car while driving to her place that I am a vegetarian. “We give you some weeks and then you will be eating lots of meat”, was the answer. So in the first night I was allowed to leave the meat aside, although usually I wouldn’t have eaten any of it. This does not mean that there was only meat to eat. No way. There are lots of delicious fruits and milk products (important nomad stuff – although cheese doesn’t seem to be the thing here).
But nevertheless meat is really important for the culture.
“The wolf eats the most meat in the world! Guess who’s second: the Kyrgyz”
This is actually not true – as you will have already guessed. In several stats I was supported in the fact that meat consumption in Latin America, the USA, Australia and Europe is much higher, which is of course in these cases part of the welfare economies and in this case OUR weird cultural habits (Horse meat is quite common here, by the way).
So some data: In Kyrgyzstan daily meat consumption only applies to 16% of the population in 2000. Annual per capita consumption (2009) is in the lower middle field with 36,9 kg – nothing compared with Germany (88,1kg) or the USA (120,2 kg)*.Still it seems to be more important to the cultural habits than in the Global North. I tend to continue telling people that I am a vegetarian so they are aware of that I simply don’t want to have so much meat. Usually this is not really appreciated and rather some “stupid foreigner” thingy.
So where does this meat obsession come from?
While it is quite probable that it is the same reason as everywhere else: meat as a welfare indicator, there may also be additional reasons, I’m not yet in the position to assess properly and the following ideas shall be written down only as hypothesises: I’ve been told by now about a hundred times that meat is really healthy – especially if you have stomach problems (just nod and smile ^^). I don’t know, but read and have been told that this idea of meat as something extremely healthy dates back to nomadic days (it’s not to mean that they are over, there are still nomads in Kg), where meat was the only thing produced and supposed to give you strength for the pastoral routes. This could also apply to the idea that: “our meat is better than yours in Europe. It’s more natural”. I don’t know whether this is true or not.
Obviously I don’t taste the difference, since I have already forgotten how “European meat” tastes like, but I could agree on that the cows/sheep or whatsoever are kept in a more natural way here since many (if not all) are still put out to graze in the mountains. This image is far more pleasant than European cattle pressed in small boxes, never seeing the sky. Nevertheless, I don’t know much about other ecological issues and standards for medical treatment. I think I have to dig a bit deeper into that.
Actually I have heard of people who stay vegetarian here, but I think they must either be quite extreme and don’t care about cultural habits at all or just don’t have connections to the local population (which is far more probable I hope). Since I live alone in Bishkek I also don’t eat meat. But once you are invited to someones home, it is a matter of impoliteness and misunderstandings. And when it comes to decide whether I would be culturally sensitive or an integre eurocentric vegetarian, I think my decision would be clearly for the former.
To make my point clear, a story from the countryside:
My ultimate meat-experience until now was Besh-barmak (kg. five fingers). According to Wikipedia it’s an animal slaughtered and long-term boiled in an immense pot of water. Again we got there (at the house of my bosses’ mother) at about midnight. On the table lots of watermelons, which are extremely tasty around here. There were also fried potatoes and the usual tomato-cucumber salad. I was already taught earlier on the trip that if you are invited into someones house and don’t finish your meal, it is probably the most impolite thing you could ever do. No problem here, this was really tasty – and so it was only after I was full up (I had just eaten my 5th or 6th slice of watermelon that was slipped into my hands), that the hostess started to stir in that immense pot, and I suspected the worst. The host took off the immense bone of whatever animal and started to take off the meat, which he put directly onto our plates. From the pot, the soup (water with the smell of long-term cooked meat) was pourn into our cups. Since I had already said I didn’t eat meat, I only got like 5 small pieces and courageous finished the broth (without breathing in) and was really proud of me. I learned later that this is the introductory habit to serve guests the best pieces (and usually also eyes and head – lucky me!) of the animal before eating the actual dish, which is with handmade kyrgyz noodles and the rest of the meat and the broth.
The thing I have learned from my first trip to the countryside is to eat as slowly as possible so that nobody thinks about filling your plate again
– with more slices of meat!