Central Asia has a culinary legacy that is mind boggling. Like the region’s history it spans millennia and has undergone a vast amount of change from era to era. It is both fascinating and delicious. Being positioned along the Silk Road allowed for this as trade brought new ingredients, technique and recipes to chefs and to the delight of eaters. And while the cuisine today still reflects those ancient, international roots, it is sadly not getting the attention it deserves.

While I am hardly qualified to talk about the challenges facing chefs and tour operators in Central Asia, there is one thing that I know and that is how to eat and drink! I also know how to profit off the two. As a professional chef turned gastro-tour operator, nothing gives me greater joy than sharing the culinary culture of my adopted home in San Sebastián with guests from all over the world. The fact that I get paid for this is incredible! Which I think answers the question that yes there is money to be made in food tourism, after all 25% of travellers took a food experience over the past year and the global culinary tourism market size is anticipated to have a value of $1.8 trillion by 2027, up from $1.1 billion in 2021 (an increase of over 576% in six years).1 Central Asia should be capitalizing on this trend!

Upon a recent trip to Uzbekistan to present a Master Class in Gastro Tourism at the Samarkand Tourism Forum I was keen to see what the country’s food scene was like. To be honest, I was a little disappointed as complacency seems to be getting in the way of celebration. Being the optimistic eater that I am, I am not discouraged and I smell an incredible opportunity for Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia with regards to the gastro-tourism sector as well as the restaurant industry as a whole!

There’s an entire world of culinary possibilities in Central Asia that many locals are not taking advantage of. Time and again I heard people remark that their home country’s dishes were meat-heavy, greasy and sadly uninteresting. Tourism professionals could not believe that I was paid to operate market tours, tastings, cooking classes and multi-day culinary excursions. But Central Asia is uniquely positioned for the same success if only the status quo is abandoned. Food, much like tourism, is in a constant state of evolution, just like the Silk Road was and just like Central Asia still is. Want to create a thriving, dynamic food culture? Look to your ancestors!

The Silk Road is where it all began. The world’s first international cuisine! From the many spices, dried fruit and nuts, vegetables and exotic bites at the bazaars, how could so many of my meals in Uzbekistan miss the mark? Instead of celebrating the unique culinary culture of Central Asia, many restaurants seem to be stuck in a rut ignoring their potential and offering the same menus over and over. Indeed, food seems to be regarded as something of a chore versus something to be cherished and enjoyed. There is, however, one meal in Uzbekistan that is phenomenal: breakfast. Every breakfast I had was a delight and I think most visitors will agree.

If the national cuisines and culinary history of Central Asia are presented with more enthusiasm and pride, you’d have a real winner and a serious money maker. 86% of travellers are interested in eating the local and regional cuisines at their destinations.2 And 45% of travellers polled by Skyscanner chose a holiday destination because of the food or to dine at a specific restaurant.3 If you are still sceptical, just remember that not every traveller is going to buy souvenirs, but every traveller MUST eat and will happily pay a premium for a good experience. Putting a focus on culinary culture is a win-win for tourism and restauranteurs.

To the restauranteurs out there, I’d like to see more invention. In the spirit of the Silk Road, borrow from your neighbors near and far. Be bold and inquisitive! Don’t be afraid to explore new recipes, ingredients and techniques, then make them your own just like Laghman from Uighur China and Kimchee from Korea were adopted.
The local populous and restaurant scene has certainly had no problem embracing western junk foods with Pepsi marketing, lifeless pizza and hamburgers everywhere. Spice these dishes up with some inventive twists like the old timers of the caravanserai were apt to do! Hamburgers could become exotic horsemeat burgers, seductively spiced and dressed with suzma. Pizzas and pastas topped with local fresh herbs, sundried tomatoes, peppers and cheese. Speaking of cheese, contrary to what the Bradt Travel Guide to Uzbekistan says, the cheeseballs at the markets are not strong and difficult to eat. They are delicious with flavors rivaling the finest of French goat cheese. This is exactly what I’m talking about, instead of cautionary descriptions the book should have encouraged its readers to dig in!

I want to rally the tour operators of Central Asia to remember that they are cultural ambassadors and have the power to cultivate a new sense of pride in local bazaars, tea houses and eateries. Using food and drink to share your culture and history is wonderfully fun. An entire lunch could be made out of a bazaar tour with tastings at various vendors and stalls to the delight of clients. Walking food tours of a city could easily be organized by themes, from sweets to shashlik or how about a tour focused on cross-cultural dining exploring the increasingly popular influence of Turkish cuisine as well as Korean, Uyghur even Indian eateries? Wanna make a killing? How about a workshop in the home of a local family to make a traditional plov? This is a great example of how it’s not always about the food, but the experience! Add a vegetarian option and I can guarantee you’ll have extra sales and rave reviews.

Visitors come to Central Asia for a number of reasons, history, nature, adventure, religion, architecture, arts and crafts. Food and the culinary culture of the region deserves a seat at the table as well.

by Gregory Schaefer, founder of Basque Bites