When reading just about every blog and article about food in Central Asia everyone said and I quote, “If you don’t eat meat you’re fucked.” “Plov is the bread and butter of the area. If you don’t like it you’ll learn to love it then get sick of it.” After traveling in Central Asia, I can say that actual vegetarians had no part in writing any of these food guides. After reading these guides, I was fully prepared to eat horse meat plov for every meal. I mean, these blogs made it sound like by the end of the trip I would have consumed an entire horse to myself.
We landed in Tashkent and immediately found a vegan/vegetarian cafe. It’s the capital I told myself, every capital probably has at least one vegan cafe. We continued into the heart of the Silk Road, and along the way, I ate my weight in eggplant, veggies, bread, jams, dips, and a lot of dill. I was thrilled to find so many colorful and tasty veggie options. Nearly one week into my trip, and I hadn’t had horse meat.
However, as I moved into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I came down with a bad stomach bug related to eating veggies washed with dirty water, and one yurt only had dishes that were cooked in animal fat or meat on the menu. I had to choose between veggies + poo splosion or a settled happy tummy. You too will have to make this decision, and this guide will help you do that.
All in all, as a vegetarian, I certainly wasn’t fucked by any means, and I ate pretty well. I will say with confidence that if you don’t like dill or plan on being strictly vegan 100% of the time, you are, indeed, actually fucked. If you follow the survival tips, and plan ahead you should be able to avoid eating meat altogether – unless you’re in remote areas for long periods of time then things might get a bit tricky.
Vegetarian Survival Tips for Central Asia
I only traveled to three countries in Centra Asia, and each place had a different relationship with vegetarian food, but there were a lot of similarities as well. During my time, I was able to pull together a few general tips for surviving in Central Asia as a vegetarian to help you avoid meat as much as possible.
1. Pack Meds
If you are eating as strictly vegetarian as possible, like I did, then you need to prepare to get a little sick. Before you leave, go to your local pharmacy or consult your doctor to get some probiotics and diarrhea medicine. Some medicines are not for long term usage, so ensure you know how to take your medicine. Overall, I found that taking regular probiotics was the best solution for me during my travels.
Pro Tip: Uzbekistan is a bit weird about bringing drugs into the country, so ensure you keep things in their original packaging if you bring them from overseas and if you have a prescription it is in the same name as your passport. If you plan to go to a pharmacy, look up local phrases to help you.
2. Cities & Major Hotels Are Your Best Bet
The most difficult times for me were in a small remote towns, dodgy road side restaurant, or a homestay where my host only spoke Kazak and Russian. In cities, I had no problem. Capital cities have modern vegan or vegetarian options, and the menus are more diverse. The water quality also seems to be a bit better in the larger cities. Even outside of the capitals, most major cities or larger towns had decent options. So, if you are a vegan and are not willing to make any exceptions, I suggest you stick to larger cities – but where is the fun in that?
Mirzo Hotel prepared us a vegetarian midnight snack!
Larger hotel chains that cater to westerners will have more veggie options. One of the more grand hotels, Mirzo Hotel, we stayed at in Tashkent even made us a vegetarian midnight snack. During our homestays, however, our hosts only gave us one option for most meals, and guess what, meat was a large part of the menu.
3. Prepare Yourself for Eating Some Meat (at least being served meat)
I wrote an article a few years back that essentially said, “I will never eat meat as I travel and will instead use my reasons for vegetarianism as a talking point with locals about the climate and ethical impacts.” I was young and naive back then. I have since changed my tune as I realize that for starters, you can’t have a conversation with a lot of people due to language barriers. Also, eating local meat from a small hillside farmer in Central Asia is more sustainable then expecting fresh veggies to be flown in from around the world. Plus, there were a few times I asked my Russian speaking friend to ask them to remove the meat (as I don’t even like the taste) but it came with meat anyway and I just picked it out. Many traditional dishes such as plov and laghman while cooked in fat, they don’t have a ton of meat on them. It was easy to pick around since I don’t even like the taste of red meat.
I’ve set my expectations over time that traveling in certain areas requires me to go outside my comfort zone. Having this acceptance allowed me to go with the flow and not make a scene as I traveled through Central Asia.
4. Find Supermarkets
Some hotels we stayed at had fridges or kitchens, so we often found a market to make cheese wraps, trail mix, muesli, fruit (we rinsed with boiled water from a kettle.) While the supermarkets aren’t amazing, they have enough to get you through those tight areas if you are averse to eating meat on the road. So, star some supermarkets, pack your reusable bags, and do a little shopping to help you fit your dietary needs.
5. Speaking of Dietary Needs…
Prepare to be malnourished. I know some vegans that would rather eat bread for 10 days straight then get plov cooked in fat, which is totally fine. If that is the type of traveler you are, its ok. However, in certain areas you might be faced with high elevation – IE Kyrgyzstan mountains at 4,000 m – extreme heat IE Kazakhstan canyons, and if all you’ve eaten is bread for 10 days you might be putting yourself at risk. So, PLEASE take of yourself and ensure you are getting the right amount of calories to not faint from heat exhaustion, and the right amount of nutrition to avoid fainting while hiking.
6. Choose Cooked Options
The main issue with vegetarian dishes in Central Asia is generally the water used to rinse them. When you have the option between a raw cucumber salad or a meal with grilled veggies, always choose the cooked food. Eating cooked vegetarian dishes will *usually, keep you in much better health than uncooked options. Look for things like grilled veggies, steamed dumplings, and veggie samsas. The water in Central Asia was somewhat better than India or parts of S. America, where I got sick just looking at a tomato, but it is an overall concern.
Grilled veggies are your best friend!
7. Get Used to Salty, Acidic Milk
People in Central Asia drink fermented sour milk or horse milk because these type of dairy drinks are fantastic natural probiotics. If you can get used to drinking it, try having a daily glass of the local milk product to help calm any stomach issues. Trust me; you get used to it after a while.
8. Don’t Assume Everyone Knows Vegan/Vegetarian
It is not uncommon to find something labeled vegan and for it to come with cheese on it. The concept of veganism is a work in progress in Central Asia. Similarly something might be listed vegetarian, but it may have been cooked in fat, but with no meat. Don’t be a dick and blame your server or cook for not understanding your dietary needs. Sometimes you just need to go with the flow and laugh it off. A lot of places are starting to come around the concept, so if they speak English, most places are willing to customize your food.
9. Bread – Eat All the Bread
The bread in Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan is top notch. It’s flame cooked on the outside with beautiful patterns with a cripsy crust layer and it’s soft and chewy on the inside. You’ll find vendors selling bags of this bread just about everywhere. So, stock up and grab some jam for a tasty vegetarian meal on the go!
10. Don’t Feel Guilty
While I do think vegetarians and vegans need to be flexible while traveling in Central Asia, it is your choice. You can go to supermarkets to buy your food, decline homestay food, bring your own pre-boiled water to rinse off veggies, or you can choose to eat meat. Whatever you decide, I want to prepare you for situations where you have to make these decisions. Whatever you decide, you won’t be judged – at least by me. I ate some meat to ensure I was healthy enough to travel, and that is ok. Don’t let anyone, especially yourself, shame you for eating meat. Sometimes embracing local culture is more ethical and sustainable than the alternative, and ALWAYS put your health & comfort first.
Vegetarian Guide to Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan was by far the most accessible place to vegetarian, and it set my expectations a little too high. Most of the food I had in Uzbekistan was tasty, menus had at least a full page dedicated vegetarian options, and many of the restaurants understood the concept of vegetarianism. While you can’t go wrong here, I’ll cover some of the most common dishes and foods in Uzbekistan and highlight some of my favorite restaurants in each city to give you a launching point.
Vegetarian Dishes & Foods in Uzbekistan
This image depicts just about every vegetable available in Uzbekistan – eggplant, bell peppers, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, onion, cabbage, and pumpkin/squash. Tomato, dill, bread, egg noodle, egg, and cheese which are not pictured were also quite common.
The main veggies in Uzbekistan
Some restaurants took vegetarian cooking to another level with pumpkin-filled steamed dumplings, eggplant satay fried in egg, samsas – with cheese or veggies, lavash – a flatbread – stuffed with cheese, tomato, and herbs. We were lucky enough even to find vegetarian laghman at one place. Laghman is a traditional Central Asian food typically made with horse meat, so this was a great find!
Vegetarian Restaurants in Tashkent
Ecorn – This place was our favorite. It was in the capital, so it was and not the norm for Uzbekistan, but the service was fantastic, and the vegetarian options were plentiful and easy to read. Ecorn is committed to healthy farm to table options that are good for the environment and the body. Along with a full bakery, which was perfect for breakfast, there was a dining area for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Our server welcomed us to the city and helped teach us some local phrases. We ordered ice coffee (ask for no straw) and a vegetarian platter with spinach and veggie patties, boiled egg, a toastie, and nut butter.
Indian Restaurants – There are a few Indian restaurants in Tashkent with veggie masala, spinach paneer, and typical options you’ll find in other Indian restaurants. The Host is one such example.
Jumanji – Jumanji has a bit of everything from traditional Uzbek dishes, sushi, to salads. With such an extensive menu, they have several pages of vegetarian food options, and the staff is willing to help you find what you need.
Potter Mania – There is a Harry Potter themed restaurant in Tashkent proving that J.K Rowling has touched every corner of the globe. Not only will you find magical foods and drinks like pumpkin juice, but also a decent vegetarian menu, with some vegan options for customization. If you are looking for something healthy, they have a large selection of smoothies and juices. I suggest grabbing decent healthy options any chance you can get.
Brocolli – This is the perfect spot for vegans or vegetarians that want control over what they eat. At Brocolli, you make your salad or bowl, adding ingredients to fit your dietary needs. Ask any of the staff members for help if you want to ensure your bowl is vegan or vegetarian.
Pro Tip: Just about every guide tells you to explore the Chorso Market and to be honest, I am not sure why, this market is really for locals to do their daily shopping. I find there are more meaningful ways to engage with locals. But I digress: Anyway, half of this market is a meat market that I traumatized myself by entering. I have a phobia of most meats – especially raw meat. Yes, to this day I have never cooked steak or pork, and I cooked raw chicken maybe 2x in my life. If you don’t like animal parts or raw meat, then skip this market.
Vegetarian Restaurants in Bukhara
While Tashkent had a few vegetarian options that weren’t conventional, we found that Bukhara had loads of traditional Uzbek restaurants with veggie menus and substitutions. It was easily our favorite place for vegetarian food during our entire trip through Centra Asia. Ee barely ate the same thing twice! While just about everywhere at least served french fries, bread, and a salad, but here are some of our favorites from the trip.
Temir’s – We ate here twice, partly because it was so close to our wonderful hotel Malika , and partly because of their wide variety of vegetarian options. Temir’s had a lovely partially covered terrace with cooling fans, so we enjoyed the ambiance. Their vegetarian options were not condensed, so you had to look through each category to find them, but English translations accompanied them. During our two visits we ordered pumpkin steamed dumplings, pumpkin samsas, eggplant rolls, eggplant salad, a veggie kebap, and ate lots of delicious Uzbek bread. Our servers knew the concept of vegetarianism and were quite helpful.
Vegetarian eggplant rolls!
Old Bukhara Restaurant – This wins the award for the best atmosphere. With a massive outdoor terrace on their rooftop, it is a great place to enjoy a romantic dinner overlooking the old town after sunset. They had one page of vegetarian options. We were happy to find vegetarian laghman, which is a traditional dish, usually served with horse meat. There is a good chance this dish is also vegan, but I can’t be 100% sure. We paired it with a cheese sampler and some local wine.
Minzifa – We came here after Lonely Planet recommended them as a great place to get coffee (most places serve tea, not coffee), but we were surprised to see how many vegetarian food options they had on their menu. We ordered a few small plates and shared them. They had fried cheese balls, lavash with cheese and tomato, and a vegan eggplant and tomato snack. It is a bit hidden away down a side road, but well worth coming to if you enjoy fantastic coffee and vegetarian food.
Vegan dish at Minzifa
Tea & Coffee Khona – We kept meaning to make it in this place, but we never did. However, their menu board outside was advertising vegan soups. I think it was too hot for us to stomach soup, but their menu had vegan pumpkin soup, tomato soup, and a few other options. They also serve coffee and tea in a great location overlooking a bazaar near the old town center.
Hotel Malika – Malika was our homebase for a few days and their vegetarian breakfast was fantastic! They had a full buffet of fruit, veggies, jams, veggie samsas, vegetarian omellets, sweets, and more. The staff spoke fantastic English and definitely were up to the task of helping us find great places to eat.
Vegetarian Restaurants in Samarkand
Samarkand was probably the most difficult in Uzbekistan, but they did have some options!
Antika BnB – We stayed here while in Samarkand and just LOVED it. The hosts were wonderful and engaging, and the property was adorable. Breakfast is included daily and was 100% vegetarian with crepes and homemade jam, bircher muesli, fruit, and more. Dinner, which is not included and can be purchased separately, is a rotating menu. Some days there was plov and meat and other days they had a vegetarian meal, so it was the luck of the draw. You MIGHT be able to ask for a veggie option, but I am unsure.
Vegetarian breakfast at our BnB Antica.
Old City Restaurant- Get ready for vegan plov, made with raisins, apples, pepper, and garlic – yay no horse! They speak a bit of English, and while their menu isn’t clearly labeled vegan, but the staff understand the concept and will make vegan plov or help you with other customizations. Probably the best place for vegetarians in Samarkand.
Bibikhanum Teahouse – This place as ok. They had the couch tables, which was a fun experience. The veggie options they had were listed, but a bit basic, like plain cold salads. It was also a bit weird that most of their servers were young children, but when in Uzbekistan, I suppose.
French fry salad- sure why not?
Oasis Garden – Oasis Garden is marketed to British/English speaking tourists, so they speak English and have a vegetarian menu. They accomodate large groups, but they welcome smaller tables as well.
Vegetarian Restaurants in Khiva
We did not go to Khiva, however, through research and a few resources, I will leave some suggestions for you. Mirza Boshi has vegan ravioli, veggie pasta, soups, and salads on their menu. Cafe Zarafshon has vegan bean salad, veggie pasta, and eggplant rolls. Terrassa Cafe has tomato towers, green bean salads, and other various veggie dishes on their menu – the view looks impressive too!
Vegetarian Guide to Kazakhstan
The first time I ate meat in a very long time was in remote Kazakhstan. While Almaty and Nur-Sultan were quite easy to eat at, once you head off into the smaller towns or nature, it is damn near impossible -without getting sick. So if you are hell-bent on being vegan with no exceptions, I suggest go to a supermarket before you leave a city.
Cheese samsa from a kazakh supermarket.
Kazakhstan had less veggie-based traditional options than we found in Uzbekistan. For example, their salads were tomatoes and cucumbers chopped up, as opposed to the eggplant and pumpkin dishes in Uzbekistan. Most of the veggie options we found in Kazakhstan were international cuisines and fusion. Look for Indian restaurants for vegan curry, Thai restaurants for tofu curry, Wok restaurants for veggie stir fry, and Italian for veggie pizza. We were traveling with friends so I took less photos during this portion – sorry!
Vegetarian Restaurants in Nur Sulta (Astana)
Veggie Cafe 108m2 – With a name like Veggie Cafe, you can’t go wrong. It is supposedly the city’s first vegetarian cafe, and it opened in 2016. The menu has more traditional offerings like veggie dumplings, and food more commonly found in North America, such as wraps and health food salads. If you’re more in the mood for comfort food, they have veggie burgers as well.
Koktem – A large sitdown restaurant with two separate kitchens. You order at the counter. The first kitchen has an extensive vegetarian and vegan menu. I ordered a hummus and veggie snack and a pumpkin veggie wrap, and my husband got a veggie burger. The other kitchen has Indian food, with plenty of Indian vegan and veggie curries, rice dishes, and snacks.
Tselinnikov – We were visiting local friends in Nur Sultan, and they took us out to dinner here one night. It is traditional Georgian food, which means the mains are mostly meat, but as we found with most Georgian places, there were lots of vegetarian sides. At this place, we ordered mix and match veggie dumplings, and you can mix and match them for a tasty meal. They had cheese stuffed mushrooms that were to die for and of course that Georgian bread filled with cheese and egg!
Trawa Modern Vegetarian – Nur Sultan’s go-to place for upscale dining for every dietary need. With a full menu of strictly vegan and vegetarian foods and gluten-free options, Trawna Modern Vegetarian in Nur Sultan may become your new best friend. The menu has dumplings, stuffed mushrooms, burgers, pasta, salads, and more! Nom nom!
Vegetarian Restaurants in Almaty
Almaty was a modern city with name brands you recognize and lots of progressive fusion foods from East Asia. We stayed in the mountains and at Hotel Kazakhstan, and enjoy most of our food options.
Luckee Yu – A Chinese/Japanese fusion casual option with lots of shared tapas-style foods. We ordered glass noodles with veggies, cucumber salad, veggie dumplings, and a stir-fried eggplant dish. Nearby this and Hotel Kazakhstan are options called Thai, and Noodles that both have vegetarian options.
Daredzhani – Another Georgian restaurant, this one has a bit more on the menu than the one in Nur Sultan, and they have vegan options. As with most places, you will need to pick a few vegan or vegetarian sides to make a meal, but the wait staff should help you. They serve green bean salads, soups, stuffed eggplant, and more.
Pumpkin filled dumplings.
Shymbulak Ski Resort Hotel LINK- Up in the mountains we stayed at this resort for day access to hiking and exploring. I ordered a salad with pomegranate, fresh greens, local cheese, and a yummy dressing and lentil soup. They had about 5-7 vegetarian items on their menu. For breakfast, they served loads of veggies, fruit, jam, toast, and very little meat. The rooms were basic, but the food was fantastic.
We rented an AWD car and headed out to Saty, a tiny town that is exploding due to a sudden interest in tourism. Saty is an excellent location for access to KolSai Lakes National Park and Kaindy Lake. On the way from Almaty to Saty we also stopped at Charyn Canyon National Park. At this point, we were definitely out of the city, and while we had snacks for the road, we made a stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch.
We sat down at the table outside, and the owner brought out menus. While we were looking it over, we noticed there was a grey channel of water running alongside the restaurant. Every few minutes, a piece of food would come bobbing down, someone would stop by to wash their hands, or use the hole in the ground bathroom around back. While our friends spoke Russian, we weren’t 100% sure what the water was for and determined it to be highly likely they rinsed food in this channel. Avoiding the one salad on the menu, I ordered laghman with meat. I am glad I didn’t eat the veggies in this area because as we got back in the car we passed lots of produce vendors sitting outside along this channel, and I definitely think it was for rinsing produce.
The kitchen at road side restaurants
Once in Saty, we booked a guesthouse with meals (breakfast and dinner) included. Our host spoke no English. For breakfast, we had vegetarian (with milk) porridge, jam, and bread. Dinner consisted of a platter of meat dumplings, fresh salad, fried and battered dough with jam, and cookies. We ate with the handful of other people staying int he guesthouse, so it was possible to eat the salad, dough, and jam for a vegetarian meal without being rude.
The next day we explored the lakes and national parks around Saty since we already checked out we were on our own to find lunch. If you type “food” into Google Maps for Saty, nothing comes up. Just about every person in Saty has turned their home into a guest house due to a significant tourism boom and offered food to their guests. We found a TINY corner market, a yurt/restaurant, and someone offering to cook for us in their kitchen. We chose the Yurt Cafe. The owner, speaking Russian to our friends, gave us the option of four types of meat. I wasn’t feeling great at this point, so I opted for some bread and water. My husband ordered the horse plov, and I picked at some of the rice. Even our meat-eating friends were feeling a bit sick from the oil-heavy foods in remote Kazakhstan, so we all ordered horse milk to act as a probiotic. It tasted a bit like if battery acid were to come out of an angry horse, but you know… when in Rome.
Vegetarian Guide to Kyrgyzstan
Unfortunately, we spent the least amount of time in Kyrgyzstan. We lucked out with some great vegetarian options close to Bishkek. For our day trips, we loaded up on food from the supermarket and used the kitchen at Interhouse to pack sandwiches and snacks for the road. So I made it through the entire country without eating meat. BUT, I have heard from friends who have traveled through remote Kyrgyzstan, especially for yurt experiences that most of the food options consist of meat. So, I imagine it is similar to Kazakhstan: In the city, you are golden, in more remote areas you may end up eating meat.
Vegetarian Restaurants in Bishkek
Biskek is a relatively modern city with a decent amount of vegetarian food options. The supermarket we went to had a small health food section with soy milk, dried fruit, muesli, and nuts, which meat we also at well on our hike. In Bishkek, coffee houses are your best friend. Bishkek has some fantastic coffee, and most of them boast a vegetarian or vegan menu.
Baan Baan Thai – We came here because it was right next to Save the Ales, a craft brewery owned by women. You can eat and order Thai food while drinking craft beer! We ordered a yummy spicy tofu dish and vegetarian curries. While the curry was a bit oily for me, it did the job, and the veggie appetizers were delicious!
Spicy tofu at Baan Baan
Sierra Coffee Manas Ave – This coffee house caters to foreigners and expats. That means you will have the choice between tons of salads, wraps, over the top coffees, soups, all accompanied by English speaking staff. They even have free wifi, so you can get some work done.
Vinothek – An upscale wine bar featuring wines from around the world accompanied by an Italian menu. Order the vegetarian pizza, vegan bruschetta or vegan grilled veggies.
Share for Other Vegetarians!
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan traveling through Central Asia it is going to be tough, but not impossible if you have a bit of an open mind. Have you visited Central Asia as a vegetarian, let me know what your experience was like or if you have any additional tips in the comments. Make sure you share to give other vegetarians a fighting chance!