I grew up in a vegetarian home, acquiring a taste for seafood in later years. Meats I pick and choose, and cook them occasionally and only passably. When I started the blog, I knew that I would confront a seriously meat-based cuisine at some point that would throw me off my comfort zone. Here it was.
Kyrgyzstan is the farthest country from any ocean or sea. The terrain is mountainous and the culture historically nomadic, so food was supplied by the livestock that travelled with the people. Sheep are the most common provider of meat, and eaten from nose to tail. Entrails are twisted and braided into shapes, and served boiled. If you are the guest of honour at a feast, you are offered the eye. Oddly, I could find not any fish recipes, even though the country has its fair share of lakes and rivers.
I looked through the less adventurous meat options and shortlisted two: Samsa and Manti. They are both based on the concept of cooking meat inside dough, but the samsa is baked and the manti steamed. I would make my choice later, focusing instead on another problem. I was unable to find a Kyrgyz shop or anything remotely Central Asian to buy the lamb I needed for the dish. I did, however, stumble on a hotel restaurant called Pasha in Camberwell, that served a medley of Central Asian, Russian and Turkish food. Their website invited me to “experience the delicious dishes and exotic ambiance of Central Asia”, adding that every Friday and Saturday night, I could expect to “enjoy a range of live entertainment with Belly Dance, Live Music and Song”. I was sold, reservations were made.
It was another perfectly sunny day, so we walked from Embankment station. We crossed the river and ambled past the South Bank, Waterloo, the IMAX theatre and Elephant & Castle, until we finally came to journey’s end on Camberwell Road. The receptionist directed us to the back for the restaurant. We went through a long corridor. We passed hotel rooms, a spa and a pool table. Just when I thought we’d lost our way, a waiter emerged from a nearby door that was the entrance. The place was empty, apart from a children’s birthday party winding down. The seating was two-part; ottoman style in the front, and tables and chairs at the back. We chose the former, sunk into a sea of cushions and placed our order. I got borsok (fried bread) for starters, manti (vegetable version) for mains and chak-chak (fried noodles in honey) for dessert. All well prepared and well enjoyed. A few more people had arrived by this time. The evening’s entertainment kicked off with an Uzbek pop singer. The music was pleasant, easy listening stuff, and a few songs later, I asked the waiter when we could expect the “Belly Dance”. We couldn’t tonight he said, because the dancer had a last-minute thing and the Uzbek guy was Plan B. But we didn’t mind, it had already been a nice evening and two hours had easily passed. We’d discovered a local gem, and said we must come back one day for the belly dance.
I started with the filling. I mixed the lamb mince with a finely chopped shallot, a few cloves of grated garlic, salt and pepper, and kept it in the fridge while I made the pastry. I mixed 2 cups of flour with a beaten egg and worked the mixture into a dough, adding dribbles of salted water (about ¾ cup in total) until it was pliant. After the dough had rested for 20 minutes, I rolled it out into a big flat circle and brushed the top with melted butter. Then, I rolled up the circle into a long tube, brushed it with more butter and let it rest again for another 20 minutes. Finally, I cut up the tube into smaller tubelets, rolled each one out, dolloped a little mince on top, folded over the dough and crimped the edges. I made a combination of triangular and circular samsy (plural for samsa), gave them a last brushing of butter, a sprinkling of nigella seeds, and dispatched the lot into a medium oven. After about 35 minutes, the samsy had worked up a good tan, and were taken out.
Verdict? Better than I expected. The pastry was flaky with a soft-medium bite. The lamb was melt-in the-mouth, the natural gamey taste tempered by the garlic. The nigella seeds added extra warmth to the flavour. Altogether, it worked. But if I do this again, I think I will find it more enjoyable with a vegetable filling. Perhaps pumpkin, which appears to be a popular alternative at the street vendors in Bishkek. Kününgüz jaksy ötsün!