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Adventures in Kyrgyz Fast Food

February 13, 2011

A burger stand named Behemoth sounds like it was pulled from American satire, but you can find them all over this Soviet city in Central Asia. Sure, the word in Russian is actually a nickname for a hippopotamus (begemot – just replace your h’s with g’s and you’re fluent in Russian in a flash!), but I suppose a burger stand named Hippo is just as silly. Yet there they are, in every quarter of Bishkek, clean and pristine in a way that most fast food joints here can only aspire to. They’re decked out in red and white pinstripes that somehow reek of Americana, and the patty flippers all wear matching uniforms to boot. It’s a little bit eerie, but it draws this foreigner in like a moth to a flame.

This ain’t no Burger King though – you cannot have it your way. There are only six menu items – burger, chickenburger; cheeseburger, chicken cheeseburger; double cheeseburger, and the doublechickencheeseburger. For some reason the toppings are different – if you want chicken, you get a kind of coleslaw on top and a tomato. If you get beef, you’re given only a lettuce leaf. One time, I tried to ask for my beefburger with the tomato-coleslaw topping. The cashier girl looked at me like I was trying to start a revolt. She pointed at the picture of the burger on the menu. “There’s no tomato on the beef burger.” I looked up at the photo. There was no tomato on the beef burger. That settled it. It could not be done. One of these days, I’m going to order both the chicken and a beef versions, switch the toppings, and see if the place explodes.

Is the fact that I eat at this place at least once a week as shameful as if I were one of those shmucks who goes to the McDonalds outside the Kremlin? I can’t help it. The burgers are juicy, the fries are satisfactorily salty, and my stomach feels at home. Once, my friend Margot and I actually met another American in line. After ordering in shiver-inducing Russian, she heard our English pattering behind her and said “Hey, where y’all from?” She was from Texas – her husband worked at the US air force base here. We made chit chat and then grabbed our food and ran, our heads bowed with embarrassment.

It’s all a bit more excusable when you know that all other street food here is likely to cause gut rot. If you don’t want a burger, you’re pretty much limited to a class of meat pastries that are remarkable only in their lack of originality. Here are your options: belyashi, which is fried dough filled with mutton and onions; chebureki, which is also fried dough filled with mutton and onions; or pirozhki – fried dough filled with mutton and onions (but – wait! – you can also get them with mashed potatoes. How thoughtful). The king of them all is samsy, which has more of a Central Asian credo (based on their names, the others are originally Slavic). Samsy follow the same formula – dough and meat – but they’re usually triangular, the dough is flaky, and sometimes they’re covered in sesame seeds. I generally stay away from them because they often sit in windows for weeks at a time. They’re supposed to be cooked in clay ovens called tandyrs, where the chef reaches their hand in and sticks them to the hot wall inside, but that is so 19th century. These days a toaster oven suffices.


Margot told me about a place where you could get chicken-and-cheese filled samsy, so we walked across town to try them. She thought they were heavenly but I thought they were lukewarm. In heaven, at least all the food is hot. I wasn’t quite stuffed so I made a daring proposition  – do you want to try the hot dog? It had stared at me from fast food menus across town, pictures of juicy-looking franks labeled with their Russian translation – khot-dog. As much as my stomach longed for this taste of home, I was too scarred to ever give it a shot. When I lived in Kazakhstan in 2005, 17 years old and a little wet behind the ears, I ordered a khot-dog once and was given a roll filled with what looked like chopped up balogna and coleslaw. It has haunted me ever since.

So when I went to the counter and ordered us a Kyrgyz dog, I knew it would not look like the stock photo on the menu. It was not promising when our waitress brought it to us in a plastic bag. We took it out and laughed. There was no hot dog actually visible. It was smothered in so much ketchup and that goddamn coleslaw again that its actual presence remained uncertain. We pried open the bun to dissect what was inside. That was a mistake. Inside, they had generously given us not one but two hot dogs, but they were painted in mayonnaise. Some French fries had been thrown in for good measure. It was horrifying, but we had to eat it. It was in the name of cultural understanding.

The actual franks were soft and cold, and the chopped carrots in the slaw didn’t help anything. Margot and I each ate half, groaning as we took bite after unforgiving bite. It didn’t help anything that the walls of the restaurant were made of plywood and the factory next door filled the room with evil-sounding shudders. It was an unsettling experience. Hot dogs should not be unsettling. But we did it and it was done, and I’ll never try a Kyrgyz hot dog again. I’ll stick to my Hippo burger, thank you very much.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2012 9:34 pm

    I chanced upon this. Thanks for making me laugh. That’s comically grim.

  2. Gchuvak permalink
    December 3, 2012 7:31 am

    You guys are pathetic! If you don’t like Kyrgyzstan do not go there.besides eating kyrgyz fast foods,you should’ve try actual restaurants.I’m kyrgyz but i live in US and believe me American foods are not that great either,kyrgyz foods filled with cabbage meat ,but your filled with CHEMICALS!

    • March 17, 2013 4:39 am

      Thanks for your comment! This is an article focusing only on Kyrgyz fast food, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t try other Kyrgyz restaurants or don’t love Kyrgyz cuisine.

    • guest permalink
      August 14, 2013 8:01 am

      don’t be pathetic! stop acting blind offended patriot.
      anyways, if you don’t like the blog don’t read it

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