The basis of Tuvan cuisine, like in many nomad nations of Asia, consists of cattle-breeding products. The food as a rule is unleavened an generally poor with taste shades – Tuvans almost don’t use spices. Nomad life of the nation did not encourage gastronomic dainties.
The most honored product has always been milk (sut). All meals from milk since ancient times are called “akh chem” – “white food”. During celebrations, sending-off and meetings milk was served always first. Yurt hostess sacrificed it to spirits of sky and ground, spraying it by tos-kharack – special aspergill, “nine-eyed”.
The best way to get familiar with dairy cuisine is during some celebration at local or national scale. Tuvans have a habit to present examples of their khozhuun’s gastronomic achievements at such events. Tasty and interesting.
Apart from milk, the important place in Tuvan cuisine belongs to meat. Notion of family prosperity even today is connected to the opportunity to eat meat every day until completely full, while, according to Tuvans, meat never becomes boring to them. Meat of domestic and wild animals is dried, sun-cured, salted, frozen – in one word, diverse ways of its long conservation are invented. In any time of year Tuvans prefer to boil meat, but not fry. Mutton is the most widespread type of meat in Tuva. Literally everything left after carcass dressing becomes food, including all inward parts and blood. As soon as ram carcass is dressed and inward parts are dismantled, the meat is at once boiled into a pot; all family is necessarily present, and also closest neighbors an relatives living nearby.
Tuvans did not eat fish before, and now it is not very favored. In the districts rich with fish (for example, at Alash head-stream, on Khemchik) grayling, lenok and taimen are caught. Fish is usually served boiled, no special fish meals are made.
Nowadays influence of Russian cuisine reaches even remote areas. Tuvans started to make cutlets, fry them, for the absence of frying pen, at the bottom of a cup-like cast-iron copper. Cook also pelmeni – “manchy”, big, in shape like patties.
Aarzhy – clabber cottage cheese. Clabber is day by day collected to wooden dishes, and after that boiled for a long time, cooled, the whey drawn off and left for a day under a board with weight. Ready aarzhy is crumbled and dried. It is usually eaten with tea. In summer dry aarzhy is used as a component for cooking different meals.
Bozha. Saving Tuvans put everything to use. The liquid curds left after sublimation is poured together into a linen packet, cooled, filtered and dried – comes in another type of dried cottage cheese “ol aarzhy”. Apart from bozha, at the walls of distiller forms a curdled sediment which is scraped off with spoon and eaten. It is called “shu-urun itpee”. “Chom” beads are made from it, dried and eaten.
Byshtakh. Pressed cheese from whole milk. It is cooked from boiled milk adding clabber. A packet with a “blank” is put between two boards which forms the cheese properly. The cheese can be cooked during one day.
Dalgan is a meal from browned barley grains. After tea it is a favorite food of Tuvans. It is offered everywhere, even in the poorest yurt. Barley grains are first pounded in a big wooden mortar – sogaash, then winnowed, browned in a cast-iron pot (without oil) and ponded again. During further winnowing husk is completely taken away and only after that it is ground with a hand stone mill (deerbe).
Khumys is a soured during three days horse milk. A honored drink – it is served to guests and during celebrations. Tuvans consider khumys a curative drink and use it for tuberculosis healing.
Khurut. Cottage cheese is cut into cubes and dried, like mushrooms, on a string hanged on the yurt frame. The cottage cheese hardens fast. It is taken to long trips or, for example, to a pasture. It is hard to eat for want of habit, but it is worth trying. Khurut can be also taken as a souvenir – it carries its appearance for many month. There are cases when foreigners took khurut back home and kept it for years among their most dear souvenirs.
Sogazha. Favorite meal of Tuvans. Fine part of liver is fried on coals, after that cut and wrapped into a thin gasket, stringed on skewers, salted and roasted to a turn. It should be eaten only hot, so look out when you are offered this meal.
Khan is a meal from sheep blood. It is made in the process of carcass dressing: fresh sheep blood is mixed with salt and onion, poured into washed bowels and boiled in a big pot, adding salt and flavored grasses. Russians also add bay leaf to kill the sheep-yard smell. It is cut and eaten at once when it is still hot.
Khoitpakh is a kind of fermented milk (Turkic name is “airan”). It is drunk and it is distiled into milk vodka (araka); from clotted leftovers sour, sundry cottage cheese (aarzhy) and tasteless sweetish cheese (byshtakh) are made. To get khoitpakh leaven is needed. The best leaven is considered khoipakh itself, but when there is none – germed in linen packet wheat is used. Sometimes the leaven is prepared in advance: a peace of clean felt is imbued with khoitpakh and kept. During winter the felt dries, but the leaven does not lose its properties. In spring this felt is sunk into fresh milk, and it is soon fermented. Khoiptakh is kept in wooden tubs (doskaar) which create a specific smell in yurts. Khoiptakh is used as a quenching thirst and nourishing drink: have two pialas and you can shepherd cattle all day long.
Tea with milk is a favorite drink of Tuvans. The tea has to be green. It is boiled in a cast-iron pot adding salt, and when it is boiled, fresh milk is added and finished cooking together with tea. Tea is served not only with cow milk, but also with sheep, goat and camel milk. After the mode, the hostess pours tea first to the host, then to herself. Guests are served with a half-full cup held with both hands. You might not like the drink because of the unusual taste, but not to try it is to show disrespect.
Araka (araga) is a milk vodka. One of the national drinks which is worth trying at least once in lifetime. To make araka a hooch still is used – a unique invention of Tuvan mind, so called shuuruun: it is a poplar stem with removed pith, fixed with stones right in a vessel, on the top – a jar with cold water which condensates alcohol, tube cracks are wrapped around with felt. During boiling the drink called “shimi aragazy” comes out of the shuuruun by a special gutter. There is not a lot of alcohol there – about 20%. To get stronger vodka it is distilled second time until 70-80 degrees. Such vodka is called “dan” (“dawn”).
First round vodka has a not very pleasant muddy color and a corresponding smell. The taste is such that araka better be drunk fast. This drink will necessarily be offered you for degustation. The main thing is not to be carried away.