A Moment of Road‑Trip Culinary Grace From a Merciful God
Pelmeni in Kyrgyzstan
“So what time do you think we’ll be getting into Osh?”
As soon as the words left his mouth, I knew it was the wrong question to ask. Our taxi driver eyed my boyfriend beadily in the rear-view mirror and said in a labored drawl, “There’s only one person who knows when we’ll be arriving.” He raised a hand, pointing dramatically towards the roof of his Chevy.
Our man then launched into a speech clearly reserved for those impatient foreigners who, for want of adventure and USD$40, decide to take the day-long drive between Bishkek and Osh rather than the hour-long flight. Setting off at dawn from the capital, for the first four hours of daylight we careened along Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous highways, past yurt-studded pastures and perilous canyons.
“If I drive fast, it takes longer, if I go slow—God has other plans,” he intoned with evident relish.
These divine interventions appeared to manifest themselves in the form of random government tolls (“Ech, keeping tabs on us… what is this, Uzbekistan?!”) and unhurried herds of goats, which appeared at intervals along the road. We nodded along awkwardly in the brief period of silence that followed his exhortations, before he exclaimed brightly, “Anyway, where shall we stop to eat?”
Before we had the chance to question whether there even was a place to eat this high up, let alone a choice, he suggested the Halal Pelmennaya. From St. Petersburg to Samarkand, the staple of Soviet cuisine that is pelmeni is usually served slippery, anaemic and, in my regrettably ample experience, filled with whatever cheap gristly meat is available. However, we’d missed breakfast, and neither of us had any desire to set him off again.
We soon pulled up at the gargantuan ‘Golden Beehive,’ which looks more like a ski chalet crossed with a mosque than a roadside diner. On the menu was one dish, and one dish only—though it did come in handy ‘Man,’ ‘Woman,’ and ‘Child’-sized portions. Taking our places at a tapchan, that glorious Central Asian picnic table/bed hybrid just right for post-lunch siestas, we awaited our food. There was an impressive view, and the peace of the cloudy valley was punctuated only by the chatter of road-weary travelers and the clink of teapots on ceramic bowls.
Hungry as I was, there was no mistaking the marked difference between my past encounters and the silky, lamb-filled pillows that arrived in oniony broth a few moments later. The driver poured us some strong green tea and handed around a pot of adjika, chili-garlic sauce that found its way across the desert from the Caucasus at some point in history. This, combined with the ever-so-Russian tradition of piling on the sour cream, was enough to make me an unrepentant convert. Whatever delays our cabbie’s God sent our way over the next eight hours in that sweaty Chevrolet, at least he afforded us this one, delicious act of mercy.