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How Central Asian Countries Can Assert Their Identities Through Cuisine

Craving plov? 

Words: Natasha Hill
Pictures: Otabek Xatipov

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan find themselves increasingly in a tug-of-war with three world superpowers: Russia, China, and now the United States increasingly desire influence in the region. Not since the fall of the Soviet Union and the need to neogtiate Kazakhstan’s relinquishing of its nuclear weapon aresenal has the Western world seemed so vested in Central Asia. Not only are world governments seemingly more interested in this region than before, but Central Asia’s tourism industry has seen an uptick in recent years. People are noticing this region for its beauty and history. Central Asian governments are taking this newfound interest and capitalizing on it. Most of these nations implemented a five-year plan to increase tourism in the region, recognizing that tourism creates jobs, assists in the economy, and increases countries’ images on the world stage. While there are many reasons people would want to visit: impeccable scenery and vast cultural heritage, one prominent feature stands out: cuisine. Cuisine may be an important part of Central Asian nations’ attempts to balance great power competition, build tourism, and maintain their distinct identities while asserting themselves as key middle-power countries. 

While these five countries are categorized into one region, they each are incredibly diverse in terms of culture and politics. This heterogeneity is reflected in the countries’ unique dishes and also the dishes they share. The nomadic lifestyle of some communities in Central Asia led to a particular diet that was heavy in meat and dairy based dishes, while those who lived a settled lifestyle made up another portion of the culinary history, favoring dishes such as plov, a rice and meat based dish, manti, Central Asia’s take on the dumpling, and noodle-based dishes. The types of meat, dairy products, and vegetables that each country ingests depend on the country’s landscape and climate, with all five countries home to distinct ecosystems. Additionally, Central Asia’s gastronomic history melds together cuisines ranging from Russia, China, Iran, Africa, Turkey, and specific immigrant communities, as prominent Silk Road routes wound through the region. They share many recipes, all while maintaining a food culture that stems from foods unique to each region. 

The Silk Road and Soviet Rule

People have roamed and inhabited Central Asia for tens of thousands of years. We will not dive into that timeline, but two points must be mentioned: the Silk Road and Soviet rule both significantly altered the region’s cuisine. While the Silk Road era marked a key period in culinary abundance, the time spent under Soviet Communism was marked by severe shortages and key shifts. In 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics formed, and Stalin delineated borders to Central Asia. The Politburo desperately needed to propagate one national identity among all the cultures and nations they merged into one. These vastly different republics brought their own political, historical, and cultural identities to the USSR, and of course, their cuisine as well. 

While Central Asia often accepted Russia’s influence in the region, the war in Ukraine caused a shift in thinking and alliances.

Everyone knows the stories of Soviet food and the lack thereof during the Soviet era, but few know of the “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food,” first released in 1939. This publication not only established a cuisine that fit the Communist ideals and promoted the USSR culture, but it was ultimately a form of propaganda that melded nations’ identities into one and complicated individual national identities through recipes that omitted certain territories or claimed to be Soviet but were in fact initially one particular nation’s. Ukrainian borscht, now a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, was one such recipe. Uzbek plov, was another dish that the USSR merged into a Soviet cuisine. When the USSR was dismantled in the 1990’s however, the newly formed fifteen independent nations sought to reestablish their identity and cultural heritage. These nations worked tirelessly to separate themselves from the Soviet occupation and to regain their cultural identities, with culinary heritage being a key factor. 

So why does this matter? 

Sandwiched between two superpowers vying for influence, Central Asia must delicately balance who they partner with. While Central Asia often accepted Russia’s influence in the region, the war in Ukraine caused a shift in thinking and alliances. China, the neighbor for three of the countries, seized this opportunity and now has economically and politically positioned themselves in the country’s affairs. All five nations are economically and politically tied to Russia and China in various ways. Most do not seek to disengage with Russia or China fully, but they do seek to diversify their international ties. In recent years, the United States has also shown interest in this region, starting up language programs and other soft diplomatic tactics in the region to gain influence. However, many Central Asian governments view the three superpowers’ interest in the region with some hesitation, not wanting to be the middlemen in a world power standoff. Rather, they seek to diversify their influence, remain autonomous nations, and each is  on its own search for an authentic national identity. Food is political. Central Asia is positioned to use food as a way to increase interest among us ordinary people while also using it for their economic benefit. 


Culinary diplomacy, while still a relatively new concept, is highly effective at promoting a country and boosting its economy, tourism, and country rapport on the world stage. Thailand’s Global Thai campaign invested the equivalent of $15 million to promote their cuisine globally, opening over 10,000 Thai restaurants globally, all with hopes that investments and trade would increase. The outcome they sought is the exact outcome that they’ve received: higher trade and investment in Thailand, and the tourism rates have increased since implementing the program in 2002. Countries worldwide, specifically middle power countries, took note and began promoting their cuisine. Peru and South Korea are just two other examples. For Central Asia, utilizing cuisine to attract visitors, educate people about the region’s history, attract foreign investment, and promote themselves globally allows them to rise on the world stage, garner support, further assert their independence, and diversify their connections. 

Establishing a culinary campaign to revamp a country’s image to people worldwide must be done delicately. In the case of Thailand, the established national cuisine, Pad Thai, is not even representative to food culture in Thailand, but was promoted due to its appeal to Western governments. This does a disservice to the cultural identity of these countries. For Central Asia  to promote its cuisine to appeal to people rather than governments while balancing the political pull they face they should focus on authentic culinary products. While eating kurt, a round ball composed of dried, fermented milk, people can learn the history of Kazahk nomads and how this lifestyle faces extinction due to the Soviet Union’s campaign to halt the nomadic lifestyle unique to the Central Asian steppe. Or as you bite into manti, you taste culinary history ranging from Mongolia to Turkey, but through a recipe unique to Central Asia. In deploying cuisine to bolster their image, it shouldn’t be done inauthentically to appease Western tastes. The reason cuisine works as a tool for others to engage with new nations is because food communicates nuanced stories, sharing the  unique properties that stem from  the history and culture of the place it represents. 

In 2024, when some destinations are impacted by over-tourism, it is a coveted trait to fly under the radar. However, for middle power countries who hope to boost tourism and public image, cuisine can ultimately boost these countries’ economies and political standings, and it can all be done sustainably while also protecting the local population and cultural heritage. For Central Asia, a region with immense culture and history, creating appeal and allure to visitors is not hard. A key corridor for the Silk Road, as well as an area that found itself influenced by various empires and various people, its culinary diversity and history cannot be overlooked. As these nations seek to promote themselves and diversify their regional ties, their cuisine may be their strongest tool for appealing to people worldwide. 

Natasha Hill

Natasha Hill is a recent graduate from The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. She focused on US-Russian relations through the lens of cultural diplomacy. She currently works as an event planner for a diplomatic engagement center, where she gets to see her true passion come alive: educating people on the world around them via the cuisine they ingest. 

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