I am pretty sure that I can without hesitation double dare any of my American dining companions to describe the cuisine of Kyrgyzstan. Because I would most certainly win that bet. Who really knows much if anything about Kyrgyz food, unless they hail from the former Soviet Union… And even then it can be a stretch. However, it just so happens that I have experienced Kyrgyz cuisine first hand as a child. Imagine my excitement and utter impatience when I found out there is a Kyrgyz woman in Chicago, making hand pulled noodles from scratch. Don’t believe me? Check out this YouTube video created by Mike Sula.
Anora Khudayberdeva is the chef of a tiny North Side storefront called Jibek Jolu, that proudly serves Central Asian food. Roughly translated it means Silk Road, referring to the trade route that once wound its way through Central Asia, tiny landlocked country of Kyrgyzstan included. As soon as I found out about this place, I literally COULD NOT wait to eat there. Kyrgyz cuisine, influenced by both Asia and Eastern Europe, is robustly flavored and comforting at the same time. Garlic, fresh herbs (dill and cilantro), and spices perfume most dishes. And Jibek Jolu doesn’t disappoint.
It took me all of four days to get dinner plans together, and boy, was I hungry. My companions teased me about my eagerness to order every single item on the menu. And believe me, left to my own devices I would have. Throughout the evening our Russian speaking server gently offered that I could always come back another time to try the rest of the menu. So, let’s talk food… Kyrgyz cuisine is centered around meat and vegetables. Not much seafood, when you are a landlocked Central Asian country. But trust me, here you wouldn’t miss the fish.
We started with Korean carrot salad, spicy shredded carrots with garlic and cilantro. Sounds simple, and it is. But this $4 salad is so delicious and savory, that I asked for two more orders to go. Then came the dumplings. We got two kinds. Manty, stuffed with beef onions and pumpkin, were extraordinary: large and pillowy, like a Central Asian style raviolo. The Siberian style pelmeni were smaller, stuffed with beef and onions, and served with sour cream. Both were devoured in mere moments. We also tried the famous lagman (noodles) and some borsh (beet soup), both excellent. We had to stop, because all of us were getting so full…
But I am now anxious to go back for pirojki (hand pies), samsy (oven-baked pies) and chebureki (fried lamb pies). I want to try plov (famous rice dish) and kotlety (Russian style meatballs). And I most definitely have to experience beshbarmak, sheep’s head stew… Who is with me?! This is a Gourmet adventure at its best! Eaten with hands, beshbarmak needs to be pre-ordered and is as much a ritual as it is a meal.
For days after my Kyrgyz adventure, I hoarded Korean carrot salad, rationing it to make it last. I was nostalgic and exhilarated all at the same time. I am looking forward to dining at Jibek Jolu again, and soon. And I can honestly encourage you to do the same. After all, you can have your own Central Asian adventure without leaving the city!
5047 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL 60625
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