May 25, 2008
Café Nooruz was, until quite recently, my favorite restaurant in Bishkek. Despite its not entirely stunning ambiance, the lagman (a Kyrgyz noodle soup) and shashlik (meat on a stick) was fabulous. Additionally, the fact that it’s located directly across the street from the school means that we go there all the time. And did I mention that it’s super cheap?
The other night, a group of us went there, as we so often do, and promptly ordered mutton shashlik. Soon four skewers of meat arrived at our table, sizzling, fatty chunks of meat, obviously fresh from the grill. Equally obvious was the fact that this meat was by no means mutton.
In many tales I’ve read over the years of visits made by Westerners to the Soviet Union and later to its former republics, I’ve encountered numerous descriptions of “unidentifiable meat” – but in all such tales the “meat” in question has been processed beyond the point of recognition: not only is the species unidentifiable, but whether or not the substance in question is actually *meat* is somewhat debatable.
What arrived at our table was unquestionably meat: large, meaty chunks with ubiquitous clumps of fat, charred and sizzly, adhering to the pieces. What it didn’t look like was mutton; it was too light. It didn’t smell right either. We tasted it and were all in agreement that it was most definitely NOT mutton. Nor was it chicken, beef, pork, fish, or venison. I couldn’t stomach it. It wasn't that it was bad - it wasn't - but something about being unable to identify the meat was just too disconcerting for me. The others ate theirs, but without pleasure.
When our waitress returned, I asked her what kind of meat it was:
“Are you sure? It doesn’t taste like mutton.”
“Of course it’s mutton. We only have mutton today.”
“But this has a very strange taste. It doesn’t taste like mutton.”
/shrug/ “It’s mutton.”
We’ve been back twice since then, and we haven't been able to bring ourselves to order shashlik.