Lagman and Lobio: A Journey in Kazakhstan
Author & Photographer: Elaine Zhang
In June, a friend and I traveled overland from northern Kazakhstan through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. Day after day, I drank in the sights and sounds of places I had never dreamed of being in — the shining skin of Kazakhstan’s futuristic capital; the humming of mosquitoes on the shore of Issyk-Kul at dusk; lively chatter filling the night air over a carnival in Tashkent. I filled my belly, too, with floral-patterned bread, crumbly farmer’s cheese, and paper cups of tangy fermented malt. One sweaty summer month was far too short to see all of Central Asia, but the taste of roadside ice cream cones and dust from marshrutka wheels lingered long after I left.
Our journey began in Nur-Sultan, where we ambled around the turquoise concert hall and baked floppy cheesecakes made with biscuits and smetana (sour cream). On our way south from Nur-Sultan to Almaty, we stopped in Qaraghandy, primarily to visit the nearby village of Dolinka and its gulag museum. The train station in Qaraghandy housed a stolovaya (canteen), one of many similar establishments found on every street corner like fluorescent Russian fingerprints. We shuffled down the line with our red plastic trays, pointing at pans that looked appetizing and admiring bowls piled high with bread and blinchiki (pancakes) near the cash register. My friend reached for a glass of kompot, a sweet drink made by cooking fruit, while I browsed the soups.
Stolovayas, the go-to source for a convenient and affordable meal, frequently offer plov, bread, and a generous selection of soups, along with salads, pastries, and desserts. This was my first time eating blinchik, a tender crepe stuffed with mildly sweet tvorog (farmer’s cheese), and it ignited my desire to seek out blinnayas in every city that followed. Later that evening, while waiting in the stolovaya for our overnight train to Almaty, we sampled a fruit tart perched prettily in a glass case. It was the first of many disappointing desserts, dry and cloyingly sweet.
Eleven hours later, the narrow, winding train corridor released us into the cloudy light of mid-morning Almaty in a jumble of suitcases and sleepy hair. Bellies rumbling, we strolled along the wide, quiet road near our apartment, beneath trees heavy with green foliage. A few blocks away, we encountered Karal Lagman, a charming restaurant with checkered wallpaper and flowers on the windowsill. After a choppy (but surprisingly effective) conversation with the waiter, we looked forward to our lagman (noodle stew), manty (steamed dumplings), bread, and tea.
The last time I had eaten manty was in Dushanbe, Tajikistan a year ago, and these reminded me how simple and good they were: fresh pumpkin cradled in a silken wrapper, balanced against the richness of a savory yogurt sauce. My luck ran out that day, though — pumpkin went out of season the moment we left Karal Lagman, and I never got another bite of manty s tykvoy.
A cozy ambiance and the flamingo-pink egg waffle shop next door made Karal Lagman an attractive place to relax on a sun-soaked afternoon, breathing in the aroma of broken bread and steam rising from porcelain teacups. We came back a couple days later to have lunch, lagman with dzhussay (from jiŭcài, garlic chives), before heading to Big Almaty Lake, an hour south of the city, for a day of easy hiking and refreshing skies.
In Almaty, there was a hill (Kok Tobe, or “Blue Hill”) on which there was an amusement park, featuring an upside-down house, a Beatles monument, and a thrilling Fast Coaster. After hopping off the bus from our apartment, we popped into O-Cake Bakery near the bus stop for a quick bite. The custard tart, caramelized and creamy, made me smile. The kartoshka, a chocolate cake ball traditionally made from leftover crumbs and named for its resemblance to a potato, was dense and moist, a little more than I could handle. Stuffed with sweets, we boarded the cable car that would carry us to the hilltop.
Before leaving Almaty, I was determined to eat at Daredzhani, a Georgian restaurant that my favorite travel website had named one of the best in the city. The night before our five-hour bus ride from Almaty to Bishkek, we arrived at Daredzhani’s doorstep only to find that the kitchen had closed an hour before the posted closing time. Propelled by the dream of Daredzhani, with its rhythmic name and perfumed bathroom, we returned the next morning, dragging our suitcases behind us with obstinate hope. We sat in wicker chairs on the veranda, where sunlight and sprinkler droplets drifted past translucent curtains and baskets of trailing vines dangled from the ceiling. We sipped raspberry-tarragon lemonade and learned (the hard way) that water came in an expensive-looking glass bottle.
Lobio, we thought, would be excellent to scoop with bread. By the time it arrived, however, steaming in a bowl the color of a freckled eggshell, we were too hungry to wait for shoti to come to the table. Luckily, lobio flourished on its own, bold and hearty with celery chopped up fine and cilantro roughly strewn. We finished it in minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl for a remnant of the humble, belly-warming satisfaction that beans tend to bring.
Shoti appeared like a rustic canoe (or crooked boomerang) floating on jewel-blue tablecloth, accompanied by khinkali, Georgian boiled dumplings. We broke the shoti with our hands, delighted by the crunch of its toasted exterior and the fragrance of its fluffy interior, and mopped up cream sauce from the khinkali plate with cheerful enthusiasm.
“You’re not supposed to eat the knob,” my friend told me, picking up one of the khinkali with his fingers. The smooth wrapper melted as I bit into the dumpling, revealing tender mushrooms rich with umami and warm soup that trickled down my wrist. We dunked our khinkali in herby sauce and engineered clumsy, mushroom-rationing bites until only the doughy knob on top of each dumpling remained, lying abandoned on our amber-speckled plates. I ate one of the knobs to see what it would taste like (bland and rubbery). My friend ate the rest, because he was feeling rebellious.
Lunch at Daredzhani put a bounce in my step as we entered the train station, where we would board a marshrutka bound for Bishkek. Ten days of yurts and glimmering lakewater passed before we returned to Kazakhstan, this time farther west, en route to Tashkent.
The sky above Taraz, a city near the Kyrgyz border, darkened from lavender to rose as we drove past large buildings ablaze with neon signs and sparkling windows. Tomorrow, we planned to visit the Aysha-Bibi mausoleum on the outskirts of the city; tonight, we wandered on the dim road outside our hotel in search of a late dinner. Across the road from a hookah club, we found Kristall, a hamburger-and-sushi joint with a Justin Bieber music video playing on a TV near the door. The cashier punched our order into a calculator. We admired the photo of Will Smith holding a hot dog on the opposite wall.
Kristall’s baked salmon roll was hot and mayonnaise-heavy in a way that sushi probably shouldn’t be-- indulgent after a long day of bumpy roads and bananas squashed at the bottom of a backpack. The crab sandwich was entertaining — triangles of rice, stuffed with cucumber and covered in green roe. The night was cooler as we walked back to the hotel, the lingering taste of pickled ginger sharp on my tongue.
After returning from the mausoleum the next afternoon, we went back to the bus stop. I waved goodbye to Kristall and to the more distant memories of train station blinchiki, pumpkin manty, and mushroom khinkali. The sky darkened again as we left Taraz, heading south to bask under the Uzbek sun.