Chaikhana Jalal Abad/Чайхана Жалал-абад
30 Togolok Moldo/Тоголок Молдо 30
(corner of Kievskaya/Киевская)
Entrées from 130 som ($2.50)
Ramadan began on June 28, but the only change in Bishkek that I can discern is that some of my favorite restaurants are closed or have restricted hours for the month. This includes Faiza, not only one of the best and most popular restaurants in the city, but also conveniently close to the London School. Thus I set out one night for Chaikhana Jalal Abad in search of lagman, plov, and other national dishes.
Though it’s not as close to school, Jalal Abad is near Ala-Too Square and all the stores along Chuy Prospect. It boasts a menu specializing in Southern Kyrgyz dishes – hence the reason it is named for Southern Kyrgyzstan’s major city – and while most of the subtleties of the regional distinction were lost on my Western palette, I was eager to try the plov. Perhaps you know it as pilaf. This rice dish is common throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, with numerous regional and national variations. Additional ingredients can include, onions, carrots, meat (traditionally mutton), garlic, chickpeas, raisins, cranberries, apricots, and/or nuts. While plov is certainly widely available in Bishkek it is even more popular in the southern part of the country, where the Uzbek version is made with onions, carrots and meat. Plov is typically made in large portions, and is often featured on menus for order, a table-sized portion for large groups or celebrations. Indeed, the best plov I’ve had has been this traditional, communal style. Recently, however, I’ve had to settle for individual portions of plov ordered off the menu, and it has generally been an underwhelming disappointment: bland and cold.
The plov at Jalal Abad was definitely a step up, perhaps because they specialize in southern Kyrgyz fare, or because the restaurant is popular and busy, and more people order plov off the menu like I did. It was warm, first and foremost, and greasy in the most satisfying way. Others at the table agreed: delicious! Also very good was the fried lagman. Not a soup, but the traditional soup ingredients minus the broth, all fried up together. Again, it was greasy, but very tasty. To balance some of the heavier portions on the menu Jalal Abad offers pages of salads, from the basic carrot or cabbage salads to a Mexican variant with corn and fish. My carrot salad was exactly as you would expect in the former Soviet Union, and a healthy counterpart to the grease that would follow.
The atmosphere at Jalal Abad is worth noting, as well. With plenty of outdoor seating, the restaurant is idyllic in the warm months. Ceiling fans overhead also help to make the summer heat a little less oppressive. I’d definitely recommend snagging a tapchan – a raised platform for reclining and eating – if available. It makes lingering over a slow meal all the more pleasant, and certainly helps capture the spirit of the region. Just beware of the bees. They descended on our tapchan as soon as the food had arrived, and proved an intimidating opponent to fight for a bite of food.
For groups and faculty-led tours, I’d definitely recommend Jalal Abad for national cuisine. I suggest calling ahead to reserve space, and perhaps ordering plov for the table, as well.