Tajikistan does not have a long tradition of eating in restaurants: it was nigh on impossible during the Soviet period due to food shortages and the fact that people were encouraged to eat collectively in the work canteen. This has changed in urban centres, particularly as families choose to host wedding feasts and other large celebrations in restaurants rather than at home, but you will not find the density or diversity of restaurants typical in some other parts of Asia.
Restaurants in Tajikistan (particularly those situated outside of Dushanbe) typically have a limited menu of Russian and Tajik dishes. It is rare for everything listed to actually be available. If the restaurant is not fully booked for a celebration you won’t need a reservation, nor to wait for a table. Service may be chaotic but it is generally good-natured.
Sit-down places to eat typically fall into three categories. There are large, often fairly ghastly, restaurants which only cater to groups, either private parties or tour groups. These serve a buffet or set menu, and they may or may not welcome independent guests.
Second, and infinitely preferable, are Western-style restaurants which have multiple tables, a menu, and cook to order. You can wander in off the street and sit down, as long as it’s during opening hours. In larger cities you’ll have a choice of different cuisines – Dushanbe’s restaurant scene is looking decidedly cosmopolitan these days – and you can expect a reasonable level of customer service. You will be expected to leave a tip: 10% is standard.
Thirdly, you have local cafés, which are unpretentious and generally offer good value for money. These typically serve Tajik cuisine or other easily prepared snacks, and depending on the establishment you will either order from the counter and then take a seat, or wait for someone to come to you. There is unlikely to be a menu, and staff may well not speak English, so be prepared to look around at what other people are eating, point and smile. A tip, though not expected, is always appreciated.
More common than restaurants and cafés are street-side food stalls: from American fast-food stands with burgers and fries, to smoking grills and the vinegary smell of shashlik and onions wafting down the road, making your stomach rumble. Women with trays piled high with savoury pastries saunter through markets and the lobbies of office buildings; trestle-tables nearly buckle beneath the weight of freshly baked bread. The local fare tends to be tastier (and cheaper) than attempts at foreign food.
Tajikistan runs on bread and tea. Wherever you are, from a customs post to a shepherd’s hut, there will always be a kettle on the boil and a few china tea bowls filled with a light, steaming tea.
Tajik cuisine is definitely central Asian (plenty of grilled meats and dairy products), but with an influence from Afghanistan and Russia too. The national dish, as far as there is one, is plov or osh, an oily rice-based dish with shredded carrot, meat and occasionally raisins, roasted garlic or nuts. Plov is eaten with the hands from a communal plate at the centre of the table.
Equally popular is qurutob. Balls of salted cheeses (qurut) are dissolved in water and poured over dry, flaky bread. The dish is then topped with onions fried in oil. It may be accompanied by laghman (noodle soup with mutton). Tajik restaurants tend to offer diners quite a limited menu.
Every meal is accompanied by round, flat bread called non. Non is treated almost reverentially: it should not be put on the floor, placed upside down or thrown away. If it has turned stale it should be given to the birds.
Common snacks include manti (steamed meat dumplings), somsa (triangular pastry with a meat and onion stuffing) and belyash (deep-fried dough stuffed with minced lamb).
Dairy products feature heavily in Tajik cuisine. In addition to the qurut are chaka (sour milk) and kaymak (clotted cream), both of which are eaten with bread. Western-style yoghurt, including bottled yoghurt drinks, is popular for breakfast. If you are in Tajikistan in late summer and early autumn, the country is bursting with fresh fruits. Roadsides stalls sell watermelons the size of beach balls; the sweet, juicy pomegranates are a glorious shade of pink; and you can also enjoy grapes, apricots, apples, figs and peaches.