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Understanding Identity and Kyrgyz Cultural Values Through Food

In Kyrgyzstan, food culture offers insight into Kyrgyz cultural values which impact the way identity and religious identity are perceived. (Photo: Toby A. Cox)

Food is not just something we eat to enjoy and to give us nourishment; it is also a powerful tool through which we can view and begin to understand other cultures.

Every culture brings its own cuisine to the world’s culinary table and each of these dishes tell a story. From the ingredients, we can learn more about that culture’s geography and economy. From the cooking methods used, we can learn more about that culture's history.

But there’s more to food than its ingredients and how it's cooked: How is this food presented? How is it served? How is it eaten? The answers to these questions give much deeper insight into the culture the food comes from. Kyrgyz culture, for example, places a high value on community and these community-oriented cultural values are reflected in Kyrgyz food culture.

While waiting for the main meal, guests in Kyrgyzstan share bowls of salad, boorsok (fried bread), cookies, fruit, and candy. (Photo: Toby A. Cox)

Boorsok are (delicious) small pieces of fried bread that are always served when visiting someone's house. They are eaten dipped in jam, honey, salad, soup, and butter. (Photo: Toby A. Cox)

Think about food in the United States – usually when visiting a friend or family member’s house, individuals are given a plate and invited to serve themselves. In Kyrgyzstan, when visiting friends and relatives, guests sit around the table and are served tea. While the main dish is being prepared, guests eat from shared bowls of salad, candy, fruit, and boorsok (small bite-sized pieces of fried bread). One of Kyrgyzstan’s national dishes, beshbarmak, is served and eaten in a very specific way. Beshbarmak translates to "five fingers," because, as you may have guessed, you eat this dish using your right hand.

Beshbarmak is one of the traditional Kyrgyz foods. (Photo: Toby A. Cox)

The dish itself typically consists of homemade, bread-like noodles, boiled sheep meat and fat, and salt, and is served on large platters which are shared by 2-4 people. In the United States, although the meal is shared together, they are more private affairs between the person and their own plate, while in Kyrgyzstan, meals are much more intimate and communal. What might this say about the cultural values in the United States and in Kyrgyzstan?

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Consider these two sets of cultural values: individuality and individualism vs. conformity and collectivism. Which of these two sets do you value more?

Chances are if you are from the United States or another "Western" country, you probably chose "individuality" over "conformity." A year and a half ago, I asked a group of university students in Kyrgyzstan this same question, expecting the students to be pretty evenly divided between the two values. I could not have been more wrong. Their reaction was nearly unanimously "conformity" over "individuality" – some even saying the word "individuality" with a tone of disgust. This is because the culture of the United States tends to place a very high value on individuality and individualism, while Kyrgyz culture places a higher value on conformity and collectivism.

Of course, this does not mean that the people of Kyrgyzstan do not have unique skills and talents, quite the contrary. The skills and talents of the individuals in Kyrgyzstan are countless. This also doesn’t mean that the people of the United States do not value community. The difference is the value people place on these skill sets and how people view themselves in relation to their community. In Kyrgyzstan, it's not merely a question of "what can you do?’" but rather a question of "what can you do and how can that skill contribute to the community? Does this skill follow our community’s rules?"

Aibek, 30, explained to me that for many people in Kyrgyzstan, what it means to be Kyrgyz is rooted in their community.

Aibek Adigneev. (Photo: Toby A. Cox)

“I think for my parents being Kyrgyz means being part of the community. We have things called jamaat which are communities in villages where you were born, or where your extended family lives, or your tribe. Jamaat means community, so whenever something happens in the community you’re expected to take part in it. So for example, if my parents decided to throw a big family party, then everyone in our community - in our jamaat - would be expected to come and help with cooking, dishwashing, and organizing … I think for them that’s what it means to be Kyrgyz. The main thing for them is being part of the community.”

Growing up, Aibek heard the phrase “el emne deit? (what will people say?)” This phrase refers to the community and is asked to check whether or not they were behaving in accordance with Kyrgyz cultural values: community before self. Although Aibek does not personally place as much importance on community as his parents, this importance of community in Kyrgyz culture is echoed across the country: from north to south, east to west, from villages to cities, among young and old, and among the religious and the nonreligious.

This focus on community as opposed to the individual is also reflected in how most people in Kyrgyzstan think about identity. Identity is not about who they are as individuals, but how they as individuals contribute to the community and the role they play. A local university student, Elita, explained it to me this way, “There is no such thing as you AND the community. You are part of the community.” Unlike many people from the United States (and other "Western" countries), people in Kyrgyzstan do not see themselves as individuals separate from the community, they view themselves as parts of the whole.

Aman, 2, blesses the sheep with his family before his father slaughters it. (Photo: Toby A. Cox)

When exploring the story of religious identity in Kyrgyzstan, it is important to keep in mind the importance of community in Kyrgyz culture. Most of the people I’ve spoken with have said that to be Kyrgyz is to be Muslim – there is no separation, because to be Kyrgyz is to be part of the community and the community is Muslim.

This theme of cultural values and how they relate to identity will continue to appear as I learn more about religious identity in Kyrgyzstan. I would like to challenge you to also keep cultural values in mind as we continue on this journey of exploring the story of religious identity in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

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