Thursday, October 29, 2015


Laos is a showcase of Buddhist art and sculpture from one side to the other.  Most Buddhist art is typically made from metals like bronze, gold, and silver. Many of the larger and more elaborate Lao sculptures were looted by the Siamese over several centuries and taken to Thailand. Likewise, one of the largest gold sculptures found in Phra Bang was originally thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka even though some of the images suggest a later Khmer origin. Sculptures used a variety of other mediums as well including brick-and-mortar and wood. Most of these statues are of Buddha himself and either show him sitting in a meditative state or reclining. One of the most popular places to see great examples of these Buddhist statues (and Hindu statues as well) is Buddha Park, located in Vientiane. The park was created in 1958, and most of the statues here are created from reinforced concrete. 

In 1970, workers in a construction site unexpectedly discovered a kiln and ceramic works. They ended up finding several kilns in this area, and topographic imaging shows there may be several hundred kilns here. 

Textiles and other handicrafts are also an important part of Laotian art. Arts such as paper-making, basket-weaving, embroidery, tapestry weaving, and woodcarving have been passed down generation to generation. Dragons and other mythical animals are often common themes in their artwork. 

The French introduced European-style painting and sculptures as well. One of the first things they did was open up art schools around French Indochina to teach drawing, painting, metalworking, and other arts. Some artists were lucky enough to travel to France to continue their art studies. However, their society didn’t have a place specifically for this European-style art. These artists ended up painting mostly realistic paintings of their own land, people, and culture for the sake of the (mostly French) tourists. 

Laos has a long history of literature and storytelling. Many of the early stories were epic tales of a folkloric nature. Some of the largest and most well-preserved of these epic poems include the stories of Sin Xay, Thao Hung Thao Cheuang, Phra Lak Phra Lam, The Rocket Festival, and others. 

Mural showing Sin Xay epic in Thailand
There were also many Buddhist writings; however, most of them were written in Pali, the language of Buddhism. Some early writings were also translated and transcribed into Lao. Other religious writings, such as animist writings, were often written from oral histories and stories, but the ones that were translated and transcribed using a Khmer script. Other nonreligious texts (like court documents, histories, commerce documents) were often written in Lao or Thai.

After the French arrived, the French language began to be introduced into the country. However, it was only taught to the upper crust of Lao society who were able to afford the French parochial schools newly set up there. Only a few French scholars were interested in Lao literary traditions. 

The first novel composed entirely in Lao wasn’t published until 1944. Somchine Nginn’s novel The Sacred Buddha Image is about a Lao-French detective looking for a stolen Buddha image. This book was published amid a change that fell over the country. In some areas, the people were forced to adopt Thai language and culture while the French were trying to emphasize nationalism. It eventually set the Lao people to fight for their own independence, which ultimately ended with a communist government. There are a lot of sentiments regarding their identity that comes out in their literature. During the Vietnam War, there were many pieces written about the war and its effects. However, as a country under a communist rule, literature is required to reflect the approval of the government. To go against the government isn’t a safe thing to do, and authors who chose to criticize their government must often do so from outside the country. Regardless, there have been many efforts to preserve Lao literary traditions and to raise the literacy rates across the country as an effort to appreciate their own written histories and voices.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Years ago, I worked at a Japanese camp in northern Minnesota (part of the Concordia Language Villages). One summer, there was a girl who worked with me—I forget her name—who told me that she was Hmong. I had no idea what that meant. She explained that her family originally came from Laos and came to Minnesota to live. While attending high school there, she took Japanese classes. (Because of refugee movements during the middle of the 20th century, Minnesota and Wisconsin have the largest concentration of Hmong communities in the US, outside of California.) And of course, she taught me all the bad words in Hmong that I’ve completely forgotten by now. 

The country’s name refers to the Lao kingdoms. There were three kingdoms that were unified by the French. The French added the final “s” to the name based on French spelling rules. Many English speakers pronounce the “s” which is not pronounced in French. So, technically the country is pronounced as “Lao.” 

Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It’s surrounded by China and Myanmar to the north; Vietnam to the east; Cambodia to the south; and Thailand to the west. The Mekong River, an important river system in this region, makes up much of the border between Laos and Thailand. Much of the land is forested and mountainous with some plains here and there. The weather is tropical throughout the year and experiences a definite monsoon season. Laos is home to hundreds of species of tropical plants, birds, animals, insects, and marine life—including the rare Irrawaddy river dolphin. They’re known for their characteristic small heads that look like they’re smiling. 

French Indochina
Humans have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years: a human skull was found in northern Laos that dated back 46,000 years. Archaeologists have found iron tools and other objects indicating there was a complex society. There were actually many kingdoms established in this area. The early prince Fa Ngum established Theravada Buddhism as the official religion. He was also the founder of the Lan Xang kingdom. Laos suffered many conflicts with Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam up until the 1800s. During the late 1800s, the French took control of this area and made it a French Protectorate. During WWII several groups occupied Laos (known as French Indochina at that time). After the war, the country briefly enjoyed a period of independence. Briefly. Like for about a month. Then Japanese forces moved in and occupied it. But by the next year, the French took back Laos as a Protectorate. The Laos rebelled several times during the French occupancy. During the Vietnam War, Laos was the recipient of many bomb attacks by US forces. In fact, it is often considered “the most heavily bombed country on earth.” I saw a news program several years ago where journalists were walking through Laos and could still find unexploded ordinances lying around in fields. The highest point in the country, called Phou Bia (looks like the word “phobia,” which may be pretty telling of the area), can’t even be visited by tourists because of the vast number of unexploded bombs there. The Pathet Lao was a communist group that is the Lao version of the Khmer Rouge or the Viet Cong. In 1975, they took over the government and turned the country into one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. Numerous genocide and human rights violations, especially to the Hmong, have been documented after the take-over. And because of this, hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees have fled the country to the China, Vietnam, US, Thailand, France, and a number of other countries. 

The capital city of Vientiane is located in the northern part of Laos along the Thai border. The name comes from the Pali language, and if you’ve studied any Buddhism like I have, you’ll know that Pali is a very important in ancient Buddhist texts. The name Vientiane literally means “city of sandalwood.” I happen to really like the smell of sandalwood (I have a vanilla-sandalwood candle in my living room). However, others argue it means “city of the moon.” (I’m sure the moon doesn’t smell as great.) Regardless, this is the largest city in the country and is the center for government, finance, and commerce. Even though the city has about 783,000 people (a little smaller than the size of Indianapolis, IN). The spelling of the city is also based off of the French spelling: it was originally called Viangchan. 

The Laotian economy heavily depends on trade with its neighbors, and although the country is still a communist country, the US has lifted some of its trade embargoes against it. About half of their economy is based on subsistence farming. Roughly 80% of the people work in this field with the majority of the crops being rice. Investment is also an important part of their economy as well. Luckily, this country is also rich in mineral resources, and mining has become an industry that many foreign countries invest in. Laos has two main exports: hydroelectric energy and their own beer brand called Beerlao (which is supposed to be pretty tasty). They also have a large number of exports in coffee as well. Tourism continues to grow in the country, especially from France, even though much of the country is lacking in basic infrastructure. The interesting thing about Laos is that many businesses not only accept their own currency, but many also accept payment in Thai bahts and US dollars as well. 

About 2/3 of Laotians are Buddhist, and more specifically Theravada Buddhist. Although Buddhism has been established here for many centuries, there are also many Laotians who practice pantheism/polytheism or animism. However, there are a small number of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and other religions found here and there. 

The official language of the country is Lao and is closely related to Thai. Because of their history, French is still used for certain government and business functions. In fact, French is still taught in schools in Laos. Many students also go on to study English because of its status as an international language. 

Laos has a sense of mystery about it, and there are many things about this country that seems extraordinary. England has Stonehenge, but Laos has the Plain of Jars. For an unknown reason and created by unknown peoples, hundreds of stone urns—some large enough to hold a person—are spread in groups of five across a region of northern Laos. And here’s a travel tip: apparently fees are only collected at attractions if you enter through the main entrance. If you enter through side entrances, it’s free. (Well, uh, some people kind of know that’s true for just about any place, if you have access to the building codes, which are considered public records…). And unlike the US and most other countries, the highest officials in Laos only get paid $10/month. Even my Netflix bill is higher than that. But I have a feeling that the food is going to be extraordinary and have me smiling like an Irrawaddy dolphin. 

Up next: art and literature

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Several months ago, I attempted to make the Bolo à Moda da Guiné Bissau (Cake in the Style of Guinea-Bissau), and it didn’t turn out well at all. My springform cake pan was evidently bent, and all of the batter leaked out onto the bottom of my oven. I tried to fix it, but I think it is dead. I still haven’t thrown it out though. It’s probably ok for thicker doughs, just not liquid batter type of mixtures. Like this one. 

I think of it as a flan-cake.

However, a couple of weeks ago, I bought a 13”x9” baking pan when I was out. And last weekend as I was contemplating getting out of bed after waking up, I remembered that I never truly did go back and remake this cake. I got up and pulled out the recipe, and lo and behold, I actually had enough ingredients to make it! So, I tried this again using my new baking pan this time. It wasn’t quite the same shape as the recipe suggested, but I think the sun will continue to rise. (It did.)

My added additions that added more added flavor.

It seemed to me that because of the number of eggs it uses, it turned out more like a custard instead of a cake per se. And when it first came out of the oven, it smelled very much like flan. There was no topping listed on the recipe, and I’m sure it’s probably meant to be eaten as is. However, I took liberties to brush some simple syrup on top after it first came out of the oven. When it had cooled, I mixed some vanilla icing with some milk to make a weak icing of sorts and brushed it on, adding some sliced banana and some shaved chocolate for decoration. The family seemed to really like it (especially when chilled), and the kids wanted to eat it for breakfast (which I complied—it had bananas on it and is made with eggs, so it’s practically breakfast anyway). It made for a nice dessert, and I’m happy I remembered to go back and redo this. I might make this again and top it with raspberries and chocolate instead, or maybe I might add in some almond extract to the batter and top with crushed hazelnuts. The possibilities are endless.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


The kids have been on fall break for the past couple of weeks. But I have to say that it hasn’t been all that bad, actually. They’ve watched a lot of videos, played video games, played with Legos and pipecleaners, picked up books from the library, and generally just relaxed. Until I remembered they had a fall break homework packet that needed to get done, and my son had a ton more work than I actually realized. (Ooops.) And then I remembered that my birthday was next week, so thanks to my parents, I got to spend part of my birthday money to pay for my daughter’s glasses and buy ingredients to cook today. (The trials and tribulations of being a broke adult.)

Also called "Super Yummy Twisty Onion Bread."
Today, I started with making kattama, a type of flatbread with onions. In a large bowl, I mixed together 1 tsp of salt in 200 mL of warm water, a yeast packet (about 1 Tbsp?), and about 4 c of flour. I worked this until it became a smooth dough and let it sit for about an hour and a half in order to let it rise. During this time, I gave the dough a quick knead a couple times. Then I sliced about a half of an onion into small pieces (not quite minced), melted some butter in a small sauce pan and fried them. Once the dough was ready, I rolled it out until it was about a quarter inch thick or so and spread the fried onions evenly onto the dough. Then I rolled up the dough with the onions like a mat. Placing it in front of me, I sliced the “log” into disks. Laying each disk in front of me, I rolled the disk out until it was the size of a small plate (about 6” across or so). Now it comes time to bake this, and it can be done two ways. The most popular way (and the way I chose) is to fry this in a little bit of vegetable oil in a large skillet, flipping it halfway. But it can also be baked in a 350ºF oven for about 20-25 minutes. I think frying it adds a little more flavor because it gives the dough a crispy texture and flavor. I really liked this. Some pieces were a little more crispy than others, but it went very well with the soup. The amount of onions were perfect because it flavored it lightly but not overpowering it. 

There's nothing wrong with some super fat noodles.
The main dish today is called lagman. I saw a picture of this vegetable-noodle soup, and I just had to make it. I decided to start with making the noodles. I mixed together some water, eggs, salt, and then added in my flour and kneaded it together until the dough was soft and elastic. Then I formed it into a ball, covered it in plastic wrap, and let it rest for about 15 minutes. When it was ready, I cut my dough into two equal sections, rolling one into a large circle. Using a liberal amount of flour to keep it from sticking, I wrapped this around my rolling pin. Carefully pulling the rolling pin out (which was harder than I thought), I cut the dough into strips about a ½” wide. Some were a little thicker than others. (I sprinkled oil on the noodles to keep them from sticking to each other in the bowl before boiling them. But not before they sat there long enough to stick to each other.) Once I had done this to all of the dough, I put it into a pot of boiling water for about 5-6 minutes and then removed them. I was supposed to rinse them for 10 seconds, but I forgot. (I reserved the liquid for boiling the potato dumplings.) These ended up being really thick noodles. I don’t mind thick noodles, but I think it would’ve been better if I had cut them even smaller and oiled them right away. 

Tomorrow, I'm going to try it with the sriracha sauce and maybe some cilantro (if my cilantro  hasn't turned into a half-liquid mess in the bottom of my refrigerator).
But, now it’s time to make the rest of the soup. I julienned all of my vegetables (green bell pepper, carrot, and potatoes) and set them to the side. Then I added some oil to my skillet and browned my ground beef. (I should’ve bought a different cut of meat so I could have it in strips, but I forgot and bought ground beef instead. Oh well.) When it was browned well, I added in my onions and some black pepper, cumin, and salt and stir-fried it all together. After a few minutes, I added in about a third of a can of diced tomatoes, some minced garlic, and a little tomato sauce (in lieu of tomato paste because I already had some in reserve from a few days ago). Now comes time to add all the other vegetables I julienned earlier. After this sautéed together for a few minutes, I poured in enough water into my large skillet to soak all of the meat and vegetables and let it boil together for about 40 minutes. To serve this, I dipped out some of the noodles into a bowl and then poured the soup on top of the noodles. Some people eat this with some chopping scallions (which sounds good, but I forgot to buy) or some Sriracha sauce (which I have a gigantic bottle of but forgot to use). I really liked this soup—it was perfect for a cool fall day. I actually liked it with my super fat noodles, too. The broth was flavorful, and the hint of cumin went a long way.  

Too bad there's none left, thanks to my daughter.
I also made a dumpling called potato vereniki to go with all of this. To make the dumpling, I mixed flour, water, and salt in a bowl to make the dough. Then I boiled my potatoes and mashed them with some chopped onions. I then rolled out some of the dough, cut a circle in it, filled the circle with some of the potato mixture, and pressed the sides around the potato ball. When I had done that to use up all of the dough, I put my dumplings into a pot of boiling water for about 7-10 minutes and removed them. These are to be served with melted butter, and although we ate these plain, my daughter said she loved these the best. I made mine pretty large, so I only yielded about five and a tiny extra one. Perhaps I should’ve served it with melted butter because I thought they were somewhat on the bland side. Or perhaps I should’ve added some salt and/or pepper to the potatoes. 

These were surprisingly good. I think it would be good with a little cinnamon mixed in with the sugar. Or maybe almond extract mixed into the sour cream first. So many possibilities.
And finally, I chose a dessert of sorts. This super simple recipe is called mïkchïma. I poured some breadcrumbs into a bowl and then added some sugar and sour cream and mixed everything together until it was consistent throughout the mixture. I put this in the refrigerator to chill before serving. I wasn’t sure how to serve it, so I scooped some out and formed it into a ball. It almost had the flavor and texture of cookie dough, but you could definitely taste the sour cream. My son thought this was the best part of the meal. (Of course he did.) My daughter thought they were really good until I told her it was made with sour cream (which she detests), and then she thought I was trying to poison her. 

For a country that I knew very little about going into this, I was thoroughly pleased with how it all turned out.
This was definitely a meal to practice making dough. (I wish it were the money kind of dough. I could definitely use some of that.) Three-quarters of my recipes required me to make a dough as part of the dish. But yet, each one was a little different. And I think that’s the great thing about this project is finding so many different kinds of breads, cakes, pastries, noodles, pasta, and other bread products. And many countries have such as wide variety just within their own cuisine. Even less populated countries like Kyrgyzstan offers such a wide variety of dishes in their cuisine. Because of its location and history, their cuisine seems like a cross between Russian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern food. And for that, I highly enjoyed this meal. Immensely. Because diversity tastes good.

Up next: Laos

Saturday, October 17, 2015


Folk music in Kyrgyzstan shares many similarities with its neighboring countries, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. After the country fell under Russian rule, their music also pulled elements of Russian music as well. Much of their traditional music is based on their long-standing history of epic poetry. The Manas epic is one of the world’s longest poems, coming in at nearly a half million lines. Reciting sections of the Manas epic has also been a popular pastime as well. Many people have made a name for themselves just for being able to recite large portions of this poem. One type of musical style that is popular is called kui. This is a style of instrumental music centered around the rural musical traditions of the Kipchak people in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The topics range from philosophic ideas to the love of nature.

Kyrgyz music is known for its ensemble music. The Kambarkan Emsemble and Tengir-Too are two of the most well-known Kyrgyz ensemble groups—not only in the country, but across the world as well. They’ve almost become a representative of Kyrgyz music in general. They feature traditional instruments and perform music by a number of Kyrgyz composers. The Jetigen Children’s Ensemble is made up of children from a music school in Bishkek. They have also been the recipients of numerous awards and recognitions. 

There are several instruments that are used in Kyrgyz music. First of all, the komuz is probably the most important instrument in Kyrgyz music. The komuz is a fretless stringed instrument that is often viewed as a national symbol. Other instruments heard in their music include the kyl kiak (a two-stringed instrument played upright, which is also considered an important instrument in Kyrgyz culture), the chopo-choor (like an ocarina) and temir ooz komuz (type of jaw harp, which always remind me of Appalachian mountain music), and the sybyzgy (a type of flute played to the side). The dobulba (a type of frame drum) and the asa-tayak (a wooden instrument with bells affixed to it) make up some of their percussion instruments and have its roots in shamanism. 

Dancing is an old tradition, but at one time it looked like it might die out, especially during the communist years under Russian rule. However, in recent times, there has been a regeneration of traditional dancing among Kyrgyzstan’s youth. Dancing has traditionally been performed at weddings and other joyful celebrations. One dance called the Kara Jorgo (translating to “Black Stallion”) is particularly popular and is characterized by quick arm, elbow, and wrist movements with brief pauses between the moves. High steps and bent knees are countered with a move that looks like they’re trying to do a lunge on their ankles. The whole dance has its roots in their ancient nomadic, horse-loving culture that is also seen in neighboring countries as well. Today, some of the moves have been updated and sped up (in comparison to the styles of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), and there are actually flash mobs (made of both men and women) who perform this dance in malls and other public places. I find it interesting how they succeeded at making a centuries-old dance popular again. To me, it’s like instead of people flash mobbing the Thriller dance, they’re doing square dances instead. 

There weren’t too many Kyrgyz artists I found out there. I did manage to find a few albums on Spotify, though. Amazingly, they do have a metal band following. I have no idea if it’s underground or not, but I’m going to venture that it might be. I sampled parts of three different albums by the band Darkestrah (who are now based in Germany). It’s pretty dark and scream-y in places (of course), but from what I can tell, they tend to be more of a folk metal band (Wikipedia classifies them as black metal though, but they definitely have folk metal tendencies. I suppose it’s whatever they identify with, and I respect that.). There are songs that also mix a classical music feel with metal (like on the album Manas) that I really liked. And surprisingly, they actually sang through part of a song instead of strictly producing primordial vocal node-induced screams. And that made the song 1000% better. 

And now for something completely different: I came across the music of Salamat Sadikova. On the album I listened to (The Voice of Kyrgyzstan), she primarily sings accompanied by an acoustic banjo-sounding instrument (I’m guessing this may be the komuz). The melodic styles seem pretty consonant with a noted lowered note here and there, which may be an influence left over from Middle Eastern traditions. She’s known for being able to hold notes for a ridiculously long time. 

Kyrgyzstan also has a very limited number of hip-hop artists. There is a lot of information about artists, but not so much available on Spotify. I did listen to a DJ/artist called Dr. Twist. I thought his music was pretty good, although it was mostly instrumental. Actually, I liked his stuff a lot; I’d like to have a copy of some of his stuff. I found another hip-hop artist on YouTube called Tata Ulan who has a sound and flow that reminds me of the early- to mid-1990s. I found a song by an artist by the name of Kyrgyz Djigit “Alai” that was a little better, although the vocals could’ve been tighter in places. But I give them all credit for trying to do their thing. I found several videos posted from the Kyrgyz-American Hip Hop Fest in Bishkek and in Osh, and it’s evidently a highly popular event.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Kyrgyzstan is known for its arts and crafts. More specifically, they excel at the art of felt work, embroidery, and weaving. Many of the nomadic people still live in traditional houses called yurts: these are like large round tent-like homes that can be packed up and moved. Yurts are often decorated with a number of rugs and woven mats on the inside. They often make carpets out of felt with ornamentations called a “skyrdak.” It’s generally made out of wool, painted with bright colors, and is usually about 4m x 2m (13.1 ft x 6.6 ft). A variation of this is the “ala kiyiz,” which is not sewed together but rather rolled together. 


Before they lay the carpets on the ground, they place woven mats under them first. These woven mats are called “chiy” and are made with straw and colored threads of wool. They are designed to keep the moisture off of the carpets. 


Embroidery is also important to the Kyrgyz culture and is chiefly a women’s occupation. It’s namely used on wall hangings, bags, and clothing. Leatherwork is also valued for use in horse equipment, shoes, clothing, and other pieces of equipment. Woodworking is also essential and is often utilized in furniture, cooking utensils and other tools, game boards, and musical instruments. Silver, especially in the form of jewelry, is deemed sacred and is thought to keep evil spirits away. I’ve always liked silver jewelry better than gold since I was a teenager, so I think I’d fit right in. 

As far as painting goes, it wasn’t something their culture did for a long time. You have to remember for many centuries, much of their culture was nomadic, so painting wasn’t exactly conducive to that lifestyle. But as cities began to take hold and especially when country fell underneath Russian rule, the arts were highly subsidized and encouraged. Art schools were established. Once they gained their independence after Russia broke apart, their economy collapsed, and the arts were the first to suffer. However, some art galleries have reopened and artists are painting and creating again. Although many styles of art are taught in the art schools, many Kyrgyz artists latch onto realism and portrait painting (which is odd considering Kyrgyzstan is primarily a Muslim country, and painting human forms is traditionally prohibited in Islam. This is probably allowed due to their lack of devoutness.).  

by Semen Chuikov

By far, the most well-known literary work is the Manas epic. It’s one of the world’s longest epic poems, coming in at around a half million lines. (In comparison, it’s roughly 20 times longer than Homer’s Odyssey.) This poem tells the historical accounts of Manas and his efforts to unite all of the tribes in the Kyrgyz lands to fight against the Chinese and Uyghurs and others. 

Statue of Manas

Today, most Kyrgyz writers write in either Russian or Kyrgyz, and author Chyngyz Aitmatov writes in both. Aitmatov is often considered one of Kyrgyzstan’s most well-known authors. His first novel was published in 1956 and has published many novels with his latest novel being published in 2006. His most famous works include Jamilia, The White Steamboat, The Girl With the Red Scarf, and The DayLasts More Than a Hundred Years. Many of these also have English language translations. He won the Lenin Prize in 1963 for Tales of Mountains and Steppes, a compilation of several stories. 

Other Kyrgyz writers include Kasïmalï Bayalinov whose story “Ajar” was the first short story published 1927 and Tügölbay Sïdïkbekov whose novel Keng-Suu was the first novel published in 1937. Folklore has influenced poetry through the efforts of Joomart Bökönbaev, Jusup Turusbekov, Kubanïchbek Malikov, and Aalï Tokombaev. The first newspaper, Erkin Too, was created in 1924, and thus, the Kyrgyz press was born. 

There have also been a handful of books written about Kyrgyzstan, mostly by Americans and several of them Peace Corps members. Other Americans who found themselves in the country have written about their experiences as well.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, October 11, 2015


About ten years ago, I took a job in a 7th­–8th grade middle school working in the Resource Department (what’s typically called “special education” elsewhere). The students in this program were mostly there for learning disabilities and some behavioral issues. Part of my job was to help the kids with reading their homework and tests, re-explaining directions, and keeping them on task by sitting in on their classes. Geography has changed a bit since when I was in middle school, and although I had a college degree, the first time I truly learned anything about Kyrgyzstan was when I was sitting in on a 7th grade social studies class in 2004. The kids never knew that I had to memorize these countries along with them; yes, these former-Russian countries have been around for over a decade at that time, but I had barely even glanced at them on a map. And now it’s come back into my life. 

If you told me this was Switzerland, I'd full-heartedly believe you.

Kyrgyzstan literally means “land of the Kyrgyz.” The term Kyrgyz is stemmed from the Turkic word meaning “forty,” referring to the forty clans of Manas. Manas was a local hero who brought together forty different clans in order to fight against the invading Uyghurs. If you look at the literal translation of the word “Kyrgyz,” it means “we are forty.” (My daughter asked me, “What happens when you turn 41?”)

Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country located in Central Asia, surrounded by Kazakhstan to the north, China to the east, Tajikistan to the southwest, and Uzbekistan to the west. The Tian Shan Mountains cover roughly 80% of the land with several rivers running off from the mountains. In the northern regions of the country, the Issyk-Kul Lake is not only Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake, but it’s second only to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia as far as largest mountain lakes go.

The mountain regions keep the climate cooler and drier and can vary at different variations. The upper elevations typically experience sub-zero temperatures for over a month during the winter months. However, there are also areas of the country that can reach temperatures of over 100ºF during the summer.

The first people who were thought to move into this area were the Scythians. They united and reached their peak when they collectively defeated the Uyghurs in 840 AD. As the Mongol Empire expanded their boundaries, the Kyrgyz peacefully joined them. Traders between Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East used what was called the Silk Road, a series of trade routes across the land and water that linked major trade cities together. Issyk-Kul Lake was a major resting stop along the way.  Between the 17th–19th centuries, this area was also controlled by the Mongols, the Chinese, and the Uzbeks before Russia moved in and took the land for themselves. Many of the nomadic tribes continued to travel across the mountains between Kyrgyzstan and China. Under Russian rule, the Kyrgyz saw many improvements such as literacy, economic stability, and improvements in infrastructure. They renamed the capital to Frunze. Tensions between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz in 1990 were the beginning of a larger movement toward independence. In 2005, an uprising known as the Tulip Revolution took place in the capital of Bishkek. Several Parliament members were killed over the course of the next year and were linked to illegal business ventures and organized crime; the city was looted during the riots that ensued. Part of the results and findings of this revolution is what places Kyrgyzstan among the most corrupt countries in the world. Ethnic clashes continue to occur, and at one point Kyrgyzstan asked for Russia’s help in dealing with this, but this was denied and caused a big stink between the two countries. However, Russia did send some humanitarian aid in the end. 

You can see the remnants of Russian architecture.

The capital and largest city in the country is Bishkek. The city was originally founded as a fortress city called Pishpek. According to some historians, the name is thought to have derived from the word for the churn used to make their national drink of fermented mare’s (female horse) milk. (I read about this drink when I did Kazakhstan as well.) The city was later renamed Frunze after Lenin’s close friend who was born in Bishkek. Today, the city has many universities spread throughout it along with sporting venues, a public transit system, traditional markets, shopping centers, and parks. The city is also the center of government and financial services. There are still many Russian-inspired buildings still standing throughout the city.

Kyrgyzstan is the second-poorest country in Central Asia, and it’s also the second-poorest country in the former Soviet countries. Roughly one-third of its people live below the poverty line. Most of their economic woes are due to the break-up of Soviet countries and the subsequent loss of established trading partners. In the past 20 years, a significant portion of the economy comes from remittances from Kyrgyz workers who moved to Russia (or other countries) for work. However, the country is rich in mineral reserves: gold, coal, antimony, uranium, and others and has an established hydroelectric power industry. Kyrgyzstan also exports a large amount of wool, meats, dairy products, fruits, and nuts. 

The vast majority of Kyrgyz people—roughly 80%—are Muslim. The remaining 20% are made up of mostly Russian Orthodoxy and a number of smaller pockets of other religious followings. During the Soviet years, atheism was encouraged, (and by “encouraged,” I mean “mandated”), but today, Islam is more of a cultural practice rather than so much of a devout religious one. 

Saying Hello/Hi in Kyrgyz

Russian remains an official language of Kyrgyzstan along with the Kyrgyz language. Kyrgyz is a Turkic language that is related to Kazakh and a number of other languages. It originally used the Arabic script, later switching to the Latin script in 1928, and switching again to the Cyrillic script in 1941. Although most business and politics are still conducted in Russian, the use of Kyrgyz is becoming a growing trend and is often simultaneously translated along with Russian. Russian, Uzbek, and English are the most common second languages studied in Kyrgyzstan. 

While Kyrgyz culture remains relatively unknown to many around the world, there are things about this country that stick out. For one, it has one of the world’s largest epic poems written (the “Manas” epic comes in at around 500,000 lines). If you’re a fan of walnuts, Kyrgyzstan has one of the largest walnut forests in the world. The glaciers of the Tian Shan are often watched and studied by scientists as evidence of climate change: there is evidence showing they are slowly starting to retreat. The Kyrgyz people are also a horse-loving people like their Kazakh neighbors, and they are famous for the sport of kok-boru (like polo, but played with a headless goat instead of a ball--I found out that it's also called buzkashi in Afghanistan, which I already knew of). And while Kazakhstan is attributed the home of the apple, Kyrgyzstan boasts itself as the home of prunes and cherries. I’m sure there will be more things I discover while researching Kyrgyzstan this week. I’m certain of it.

Up next: Art and Literature

Sunday, October 4, 2015


So, autumn finally came to Indiana. The minute the calendar flipped over to October 1, the temperatures started dropping, and I had to pull out my sweaters and jackets. And for someone who loves to go barefoot and wear sandals, I was sad that I actually had to wear shoes and socks again. And the kids are home for their two-week fall break. I imagine the trees will start turning colors here in another week or so. But today, I will hold onto warmer weather by cooking food from Kuwait today where it’s 102º right now. 

I've always liked spinach dip, but most of it here is made with MSG. So, I'm really glad I can make this myself now.

I actually started off with making a Kuwaiti yogurt spinach dip so that I have time for it to cool. I took my spinach and made sure all the stems were off of the leaves. I bought it as a salad mix of baby spinach, so most of the hard work was already done, but there were still quite a few stems to pinch. I put this in a large pot and covered it with water. Once I brought it to a boil, I let it simmer for 10 minutes. Then I strained it in a colander and let it cool. When it was cool enough, I put it on a cutting board, chopped it up finely, and put it in a large bowl. Then I added in some minced onion, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. When I mixed everything together, I added in some plain yogurt and mixed that in as well.  It seemed that the lemon juice was really overpowering; I tried adding in more pepper to give it a lemon-pepper taste, but it just wasn’t happening. I put this in the refrigerator to cool until it was time to eat. The recipe suggested to top this with dried or chopped mint as a garnish, but I think I’ll just add it to my portion. I liked the addition. I thought it actually went well with the lemon flavor. My husband already gagged at this suggestion. The recipe also recommended to use pita bread to dip in this, but I used some garlic naan instead. I liked this dip, although I think I’ll only use 1 Tbsp of lemon juice next time. I even dipped sliced green bell peppers into it. It would go great with a vegetable tray. 

Confession: I ate two pieces before I told anyone it was even done.

Next, I got started with the bread. I chose Kuwaiti date bread. Dates are incredibly popular in this part of the world. I first soaked 1 c of dates in 1 c warm water. I bought mine already pitted and chopped, but if you buy fresh dates, you’ll have to do that part yourself. In a separate bowl, I mixed 2 c of flour, 2 tsp baking powder, and a pinch of salt together. In a third bowl, I creamed together 2 Tbsp butter with ½ c sugar and an egg. Then I added the creamed butter mixture to the flour and then added in the dates with the water to the mixture, mixing it all to incorporate everything. I added in about a 1/4 c of what is called “nut topping” to the dough and mixed it in thoroughly. (The recipe calls for 1 c of chopped walnuts or pecans, but I went with nut topping instead, which is chopped peanuts and pecans. I’m sure the change in flavor is negligible. I also cut down on the amount because I didn’t want the nuts to overpower the dates.) Then I transferred the dough into a greased loaf pan. This baked in a 450ºF oven for 33 minutes until it had a golden color on top. That might have been about a minute or two too long. I thought it was starting to get a little too dark on top and on the sides, but I think I caught it before it burnt. It was actually perfect. I loved this so much, I am thinking of making this for Thanksgiving next month. I’m really glad I cut down on the nuts because I could definitely taste them (especially the peanuts part), but because they were chopped small, it didn’t take away from the dates, which is the main ingredient. The crumb was small and moist yet the crust was crispy. Stunningly perfect. Even my kids loved it. In fact, there is less than half of the loaf left. 

[Enter smello-vision here] [Error: can't actually do that. Too bad, so sad. I get to enjoy it all.]

The main dish today is Kuwaiti Shrimp with Rice. One of their most famous dishes is machboos. But since Kuwait and Bahrain share similar cuisines and I had already made a Bahraini machboos when I cooked for that country, I wanted to try a different recipe. So, I found this one. I thought it would be a good reflection of the importance of seafood in their cuisine. First I soaked my saffron threads in a little water with a touch of almond extract in it (in lieu of rosewater; the flavor is different, but I’m hoping this will still do the job). Then I cooked my shrimp in a saucepan with some turmeric and salt and enough water to boil the shrimp. Once they were fully cooked, I drained and preserved the shrimp water for my rice later. I also had to pull the outer shell, legs, tail, and black thread from all of the shrimp as well. I had never cooked raw shrimp; I always buy fully cooked shrimp, so this was a learning experience in “I truly hope I’m not killing my family with undercooked shellfish.” I was unprepared for the array of color changes one small shrimp displays in its delicious afterlife. Anyway, in a separate bowl, I mixed my minced garlic, ginger, and green peppers together and set aside. I took out a saucepan and sautéed my onions until they were translucent with a touch of lemon juice, then I added in my garlic-ginger-green pepper mix to it. (I left out the black lime powder from this mix since I had no idea where to find it, and it would probably be expensive if I did; I substituted the touch of lemon juice instead.). To this I added in the rest of the spices: baharat mix (I luckily still had some made from when I cooked from Bahrain), salt, cardamom powder, turmeric, vegetable oil, and coriander. After stirring for a few minutes, I added the shrimp back in and let it cook for a few more minutes, sprinkling in a little of the fake saffron-rosewater mix into it. I covered it and let it simmer for a few more minutes before taking it off the heat.

But now it’s time for the rice. In my large deep-sided skillet, I used some of the reserved shrimp broth with some water and adding in some cardamom pods, cinnamon, black pepper, and clove (other than the cardamom pods, I didn’t have whole spices for the last three, so I was hoping the ground versions wouldn’t make this gross, which it didn’t). Once it was all boiling, I added in a pinch of salt as well. Then I added in my rice and stirred so it wouldn’t stick, boiling this until it was half cooked (about 8-10 minutes or so). Then I made a well, pouring the shrimp mix into the well, and covering it back with the rice I took out. I poured in the last of the fake saffron-rosewater on top of that and cooked for another 20 minutes. I was also worried that my rice would burn, so I added in some more water (probably about another ¼ c water). To serve this, I’m supposed to somehow dig out my shrimp from inside the rice and serve them separately. Maybe others can do that, but I just left the shrimp in the middle. This dish was also a winner—everyone loved this. The flavors melded together in absolute perfection. I just wish I had more shrimp. The balance of sweet spices with more subtle savory flavors (like the shrimp water flavoring the rice) is the key to this dish.

I really liked this, and no, I didn't share either. I really meant to save some for others. I tried. Sorry, not sorry.

Finally, I made a traditional-style saffron-cardamom Kuwaiti tea. I doubled this recipe: mixing together water, saffron, and cardamom in a saucepan and bringing it to a boil. Then I added in four green tea bags and let it steep for a few minutes. I removed the cardamom pods and tea bags before adding in a little bit of sugar before pouring a glass. My husband thought it smelled like medicine, but I thought it smelled good. I think he was actually smelling the black cardamom pods. I think it was a good finish to the meal. 

I can't wait for lunch tomorrow. I really can't. Maybe I'll share. Maybe.

As usual, I always look forward to cooking my meals. And I always pick recipes that I’m fairly sure I’d like. But sometimes a recipe will surprise me. It either surprises me at its simplicity or by its complexity. The shrimp and rice had a very complex flavor. When I look at Islamic architecture, it’s very much geometry-based in both design and aesthetics. This careful planning and precision in the details makes or breaks a space. It’s the same with their cooking and the balance between sweet, sour, spicy, and savory. These dishes have had centuries in the making, and it’s evident by the number of spices they used that they were at the hub of the spice trade—it was the best of all possible worlds. And I’m grateful I got a chance to experience this in a remotely miniscule way.

Up next: Kyrgyzstan

Saturday, October 3, 2015


Kuwait’s position at the head of the Persian Gulf and as a major port for the shipping industry has definitely defined itself as a seafaring country. And this seafaring culture has directly influenced their music as well. Kuwait City is one of the larger ports in this area with people coming and going from all over the Middle East, Africa, India, and other parts of Asia. This merge of cultures also has a direct effect on Kuwaiti music. 

One style of song, called fidjeri, is stemmed from their once-renowned pearl diving industry. It includes a lead singer with a chorus who sings backup accompanied by drums and clapping. There are actually eight different genres, some reserved for where you were singing these songs. Two styles called al arda al bahariya and al-nahma were inspired from the sailing culture. Liwa and fann al-tanbura are styles that developed out of various East African traditions. 

Kuwait has always been a frontrunner when it comes to music in the Gulf countries. During the 1970s, Kuwaitis were known for producing a type of bluesy music called “sawt.” Sawt is performed in other countries in the region as well. Much of the first commercially recorded music was produced in studios located in Kuwait whose music became popular throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Artists have also risen to notoriety through popular TV shows as well. Although much of their early music history was preserved and documented, a large portion of this history was destroyed during the Gulf War when Iraq invaded the country. 

Many of the dances in Kuwait are related to the sea, sailors’ life, boats, etc. But there are also songs and dances that have to do with the desert as well. It’s quite common for many of these dance songs to use the zither and the lute, and many dances include the performers clapping along in rhythm while dancing. There are a variety of other dances including the ardah, which showcases the performer’s sword skills. (I certainly hope you start out with wooden swords; otherwise this could end badly.) These dances are also accompanied by drumming and a poetry reading (the three together seem a little random). Weddings and other social events are also popular places for other dances such as the tanboura, the samri, and the khamari

I couldn’t find a lot of artists on Spotify, but I did find a few and listened to them. I found a couple of songs by Nawal al-Kuwaitiya. It was slower and had a classical music feel to them mixed with classical Middle Eastern instruments. I also noticed the reliance of the chorus of background singers who accompany the lead singer.

I also listened to Nabeel Shuail. His music is built on Middle Eastern percussion rhythms and utilizes other regional instruments such as the tabla and is accompanied by a string section. Like the vast majority of music coming from Kuwait, it is sung in Arabic. It also makes use of the chorus of background singers as well. 

I found Abdallah al-Rowaished’s album Meta Bansaak and listened to several songs from this album. I thought it was pretty catchy. The string part was definitely built on Arabian melodic scales. He also made use of the chorus accompanying the lead singer. There was some variety in musical style (some fast songs, some slower songs). It also seems at times that there might be some use of electronic instrument (synthesizers, perhaps?) along with the acoustic instruments. However, I found this video that looks like they were inspired of the Indian Bollywood style of singing and dancing.

Bashar al-Shatty is the only one I listened to on Spotify who had any kind of Western pop sound in his music. He still incorporated all of the traditional sounds (the background chorus, the traditional instruments, the Arabian melodic scales), but there was definitely more of a Western sound emerging in a few of his songs. There were other artists out there who fell into this category as well, but from what I could tell from my searches, most were kind of underground or local bands.

Up next: the food