What did Central Asian people eat? - Yogurt and beef
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Central Asian Food

Sour yogurt balls in Tashkent
Dried sour yogurt balls in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
(thanks to Jeff and Becca Zanatta)

The nomads who lived in Central Asia, like the Scythians, the Mongols and the Turks, mostly lived on the meat and milk from their big herds of cattle. They ate a lot of yogurt and cheese and steaks, and dried strips of beef like beef jerky. They also ate apples and carrots, and many herbs related to carrots like celery, parsley, cilantro, dill, cumin, caraway, anise, and fennel.

These nomads also traded their meat to farmers near them in China and West Asia and India to buy flour for bread. They were already eating wheat and millet bread by 3000 BC. Their bread was a flat bread like naan, or like pita bread, or pizza crust. With their bread, people ate stews and sauces made with meat or chickpeas or lentils. Sometime around 1000 BC, the first chickens arrived in Central Asia from India, and cooks added chicken and eggs (often hard-boiled) to their recipes.

As the Silk Road got going in the 400s BC, Central Asians got more used to eating foods that came from further away: Indian cinnamon and pepper and bananas, Chinese rice and peaches and citrons, West Asian figs and almonds, African dates. Then in the 350s AD, Indian food scientists developed sugar to sell on the Silk Road. In return, Central Asian food scientists developed foods they could sell too: about 800 AD, bigger, sweeter carrots in exciting purple and red colors, and by 900 AD, lemons, and sweet oranges. All of these became popular in Central Asia - Iranians and Afghanis ate a lot of lemons - but traders also succeeded in selling these new fruits and vegetables all over Asia and Europe and Africa.

Borscht, a Russian beet soup

Further west, in Russia, people farmed the land instead of herding cattle. Here people ate mainly rye bread (not flat bread but risen bread made with beer yeast or sourdough), kasha made from millet or barley, cabbage soup, and roots like turnips, carrots, and beets, that could survive the cold weather. Pickles (pickled cucumber, but also pickled cabbage and onions and carrots) were popular, and pickled herring, and onions and garlic. Everyone, even children, drank a lot of beer and ale. People also ate oatmeal.

For fresh fruit, the Russians had melons, apples, pears, plums, and cherries. They used honey for sweetening things. Nuts and mushrooms were popular. Like the Mongols, Russian people ate a lot of milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt too.

Learn by doing: making yogurt
More about carrots

Bibliography and further reading about Central Asian food:

Central Asian Food after 1500 AD
Chinese Food
Indian Food
Central Asia Home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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