Bishkek (and just Central Asia in general) has an odd mix of eating and drinking establishments: cafes that serve more food than coffee and turn into bars at night, urban restaurants that play hip-hop and footage from the Victoria Secret show all day, sports pubs that double as betting salons, restaurants with dance floors dominated by sagging old couples dancing Central Asian style to local remixes of western club classics (if you’ve never seen someone over eighty bop and twist and twirl to “Gangnam Style” then you’ve never been in a Kazakh restaurant), pizza hubs that have an unfortunate Karaoke bar, dance clubs that serve normal dinner on the patio until ten, and pizza-sushi restaurants, pasta-sushi restaurants, bars with extensive sushi menus (actually pretty much just sushi everywhere you wouldn’t expect it). And then there’s the столовая, the cafeteria. The one sensible choice in Bishkek (unless your aim is Turkish kebabs and cuisine).
The stolovaya is a terrifying place if you don’t know any Kyrgyz or Russian. I tried a few in Kazakhstan, where the pace is slower and the food cooked with more care, and was hooked. The stolovaya is basically a homestyle cafe with a cafeteria-style line. You grab a tray and necessary utensils, hop in line, and then either put dishes on your plate, or order them from the cafeteria ladies with minimal instruction (warmed up, not warmed up, to go, with sour cream), pay your tab, and find a seat.
They are almost always cheap – two to three dollars for a complete meal, less for breakfast – fairly fast, generally offer a variety of Russian and local cuisine (as well as cakes and samosa-style hotdogs) and…actually offer healthy options like shredded cabbage salad, hard boiled eggs, roasted chicken, kefir by the cup, and vegetable stew. Coming from Xinjiang, where everything is bread-based or mutton fat (only a slight exaggeration), the idea that there exists a restaurant where I could order a mid-afternoon hard-boiled egg, cup of tea and non-greasy salad for under a dollar is simply mind-blowing.
To be fair, not all stolovayas are created equal. Last week I stopped for lunch at one by London School that was positively foul. I’ve walked into stolovayas and walked out because something in that damp, kept smell just wasn’t right. Some seem to specialize solely in mayonnaise-ful Russian salads and various types of fried bread. For first time-venturers, I would recommend NOT going during the hours or 11-2, as stolovayas are often insanely crowded during those hours, and cafeteria ladies short on energy, patience and smiles for indecisive or mumbling foreigners. But if you speak some Russian (or are a really expressive pointer), and don’t mind eating meals at non-orthodox times, then stolovayas can be a really good place to sample local food without risking unpleasant suprise.
Some stolobpvaya classics:
Манта Manti – big stuffed dumplings
Пельмени Pelmeni – small dumplings stuffed with potatoes or cabbage, in broth
Сырники Seerneeki – cakes made from cottage cheese
Блины Blini – like Russian crepes, usually savory with cottage cheese or meat.
Салата Salata – salad (generally these are on plates in a separate class display by the front, and you can just put a plate on your tray)
С мясом si myasum – with meat
С курицей si – coo-ri-say – with chicken
С картошкам si car tosh cam – with potatoes
С капустой si cap oo stoy – with cabbage
С творогом si tvor om – with cottage cheese