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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Turkmenistan

Historic Diet

Turkmenistan is a country covered by a great desert, but also is home to some very fertile lands, meaning where foods can be grown is limited. Additionally, due to the weather patterns and the short summers in many areas, the foods and animals present in the country are fairly limited. Due to the climate and geography, the historic diet in Turkmenistan is limited in the number of fruits, vegetables, and animals present.

Among the fruits and vegetables found in Turkmenistan, are berries, mushrooms, wheat, melons, and some root crops like onions and carrots. The animal life is also limited in scope in Turkmenistan, but numerous animals are present and have been used for food for thousands of years. These animals include goats, sheep, and horses, all of which were and still are used for their milk as well as meat. Fish and other seafood is severely lacking in the local diet, but relative to neighboring countries is quite substantial; along the shores of the Caspian Sea fish was historically and continues to be a major food source, however elsewhere seafood is not a common food.

Culinary Influences

Turkmenistan has had relatively few culinary changes in its history. The earliest people lived primarily as nomads, whose diet consisted almost wholly of meat and dairy products along with whatever small produce could be found in the region. However, early in the country's history the people settled and this altered the diet as sustainable farming and more advanced cooking techniques became readily available.

These settlers were both the earlier nomadic people as well as the arriving Turkic people. With the arrival of these people, the local lifestyle changed as did the diet. Pasta, plov, kebabs, and pastries all rose in popularity among the people due to this settling effect and even today these foods are popular among the people.

During and after this time the Silk Road rose to prominence and Turkmenistan fell on the periphery of the major trading route as it crossed into the region in many areas. The influence from this trade changed the cuisine as new foods, spices, and cooking styles were introduced as people from every direction arrived in great numbers on a temporary basis to trade. Often these traders brought foods from their home to the region and with them raised the popularity of rice from the east and spices from the south, especially saffron and pepper, which are commonly found in numerous Turkmen dishes today.

The next influence, which again had a substantial impact, was the arrival of the Soviets in the early 1900s. With the Soviets came Russians and numerous Russian foods remain popular in Turkmenistan today. Foods like pelmani (meat dumplings), peroshki (rice, meat, or vegetables cooked in dough), borsch (beet soup), and more became popular dishes, which can still be found today.

In more recent times the foods in Turkmenistan have gained a more international flavor as many cities have adopted some "ethnic" restaurants. These restaurants are limited to major cities and little other than Chinese, Indian, and Turkish restaurants can be found.

Staple Foods

Bread: the local bread is generally round bread called naan or corek/chorek and is served with nearly every meal

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Manti/Samsa: dumplings filled with meat, usually lamb, and/or vegetables
Plov/Pilaf: the national dish is rice fried with meat, usually lamb, carrots, and onions
Shashlyk: grilled mutton, pork, or chicken sometimes served with raw onions, parsley, and/or a vinegar sauce
Shurpa/Chorba: soup made from mutton and vegetables

Dining Etiquette

The Turkmen consider it their responsibility to invite guests to their homes and turning away a person in need is considered neglect. For this reason it is not uncommon to be invited to a local's house. If you do get an invitation, be sure to bring a gift; local sweets or, if you know your host drinks alcohol, a bottle of vodka is a great gift. Once you arrive for dinner remove your shoes and leave them at the door. Let you host show you a seat, then be prepared as the people and their dining habits differ somewhat. You may begin the meal is a prayer, with soup, with tea, or with a glass of vodka accompanied by a toast. If there's a prayer, no matter your religion all that is expected of you is to be respectful. However, if they begin with vodka, it is your duty to drink, as turning down vodka can be interpreted as an insult.

Once you get past the initial drink or course, relax. The Turkmen are very forgiving of etiquette mistakes; if they correct you in your inappropriate habits they do so to educate you, not to condemn, so welcome their advice with a smile and change your behavior. Once the food is served, and there may be multiple courses so don't overeat on the first course, you will likely find that the host will serve everyone personally as certain cuts of meat are reserved for certain people. Unfortunately, this means you must eat what you're served and as a guest of honor that could be a sheep head. If dining at a restaurant with locals, remember to avoid ordering pork products as most Turkmen Muslims don't eat pork, although it is available and some Muslims do consume pork.

You may find that there are utensils (cutlery) present; if so use them in any manner you prefer, but ideally in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), especially if in a formal setting. On other occasions you will be expected to eat with your hand; if this is the case be sure to only use your right hand to eat. You'll likely also be served bread with your meal, which must be eaten in its entirety and placed directly on the table when not eating it; again use your right hand to eat your bread. When the food is finished, you may be served tea or another beverage, which you are expected to accept.

If dining out at a restaurant, check your bill to see if a "service charge" has been added. If not be sure to leave the server a tip of about 10-15%.

Celebrations & Events

When it comes to celebrations in Turkmenistan, the largest festival is most certainly nauryz, which is a New Year festival that is celebrated each year on the spring equinox. This event celebrates new life as the historically nomadic people have survived the long winter. During this event the people generally join together to celebrate by eating a number of traditional dishes including lamb or sheep, mare's milk, and other traditional foods.


The Turkmen drink quite a bit of tea and if you want to join the locals sit down for a glass of tea, which is available just about anywhere. For a more historic drink though try the gatyk, a yogurt drink, or the unofficial national drink, chal, which is fizzy camel's milk. This is fermented though so it is sometimes slightly alcoholic; be careful before you consume it. Juices, soft drinks, and coffee are also widely available in Turkmenistan, but none are nearly as popular as tea.

Alcohol is not widely consumed in Turkmenistan. The people are primarily Muslim, a religion that outlaws alcohol, however due to the people's long history under Soviet rule there is little taboo with drinking alcohol today. Even for locals who don't drink they rarely take offense when others drink. Also due to Soviet influence, beer and vodka are the most popular alcoholic drinks. For other alcoholic drinks, including wine and other hard liquors, you may have troubles finding what you want, but if you look hard enough they are available, although rarely in restaurants.

The tap water in Turkmenistan should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: September, 2012