When I went to Tajikistan, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the basics, like how it’s a land-locked country in Central Asia. I could find it on a map, knew it was bordered by Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, that it used to be part of the Soviet Union, but that’s mostly it. But, I didn’t know what it would feel like, or look like or be like.
Still, I was excited. At work, we have a partnership with the Republic of Tajikistan, so I know a lot of people who have been before, and I was anxious to experience it for myself.
I went last year, while deployed, with a few other members of my team. One had been before, had even lived in Dushanbe, the capital, for a few months. He served as our tour guide, taking us to all the best restaurants and, more often than not, using his Russian language skills to order our food too.
We were there for work, but our days were pretty short. We spent the morning and early afternoon with Tajikistan’s soldiers, then headed back to our hotel, knocked out some daily administrative tasks and then headed out for a late lunch.
Lunch, for us, was a whole thing. We stuffed ourselves, each and every day, usually to the point where we didn’t even need to eat dinner. Everything we ate was so good, so different, so well-done and delicious. We would sit and stuff ourselves past the point of fullness and then we’d linger over the remnants of our feast, waiting for our food to digest enough so we could walk – not waddle – around the city some more.
Given Tajikistan’s geographic location in the middle of everything, the food options are endless and authentic. We were never once disappointed, except for maybe by a shrimp-flavored pack of Pringles someone passed around at the hotel.
ROKHAT TEA HOUSE – TAJIK/CENTRAL ASIAN
This was the very first place we ate in Tajikistan and one of the last, too. We had tea, of course, which was citrusy, perfect and delicious, along with a few beers and, of course, some vodka. This was my first introduction to the bread of Tajikistan, which is delicious in a way I can’t even explain. Bakers take balls of dough and throw them onto the inside of earthen ovens and the result is delightful. It’s served fresh and warm and I ate piles of it while we were there.
For the main course, I had plov, one of the national dishes of Tajikistan, made with hunks of meat, piles of noodles or rice, and vegetables. It is hearty and filling and a delicious burst of complimentary flavors and was exactly what I needed on that first day, one that was spent mostly on airplanes, but also included a multi-hour pit stop at the airport in Kazakhstan, where I slept on a very cold and very hard bench.
In addition to the food, a peak around the tea house is also worthwhile. They’ve got indoor and outdoor seating, both of which are lovely, along with beautifully painted ceilings throughout.
FIND IT: Rokhat Tea House, Rudaki Avenue 84, Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Open daily 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Listed on CNN’s list of top tea houses in the world || Facebook & TripAdvisor
ARIRANG RESTAURANT – KOREAN
This Korean place is seriously lacking in curb appeal, but the interior makes you feel like you’re in a different world. We were a big group and sat around the large wood table in the middle of the restaurant. The meal started with six little snacks to share, things like bean sprouts, red beans and kimchi, and then we launched into our meals.
I can’t even tell you what I ate, but I know I loved it. It was just spicy enough and there was an egg on it, and I really appreciate any food that’s been decorated with an egg.
Everyone ordered something different, mainly mixed bowls or mixed rice dishes, and we were all pleased with our meals. Authentic Korean food was something we knew we wouldn’t be getting once we headed back to Kuwait, which only made the meal more special.
FIND IT: Arirang, Rudaki Ave 96, Dushanbe 734000, Tajikistan; Open daily, except Sunday, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. || TripAdvisor
TAJ RESTAURANT – INDIAN
This was maybe the height of our gluttony. We ordered so much food, you guys. SO. MUCH. FOOD. We ordered a few types of naan, some small bites to share, some beers, and main courses and we were so, so fat by the end of it.
We sat on couches with a table in between, and once we consumed all the food, the conversation slowed, we all leaned back and tried to give our bellies as much space as possible because they were stuffed. And yet, we all still wanted to eat more.
I loved everything I tried here and nothing was too spicy for my somewhat delicate palate. The naan was perfection, all covered in garlic or herbs and I could not stop eating it.
FIND IT: Taj Restaurant, Rudaki Ave., 81, Dushanbe, Tajikistan; || TripAdvisor
MARCO POLO – AFGHAN
This was my favorite meal. I ate so many good things in Dushanbe, but this meal was the best. The bread came with a delicious herb-based dipping sauce that I actually considered drinking, the appetizers we ordered were flavorful and unique, and the main course – a mixed grill plate with lamb, chicken and beef sirloin – was incredible. It’s the one place I encourage everyone to visit in Dushanbe and a place I would visit again without hesitation.
Marco Polo is on the pricier end of Dushanbe’s restaurant spectrum, but it’s still relatively inexpensive compared to U.S. dining options.
Inside, the restaurant is decorated like the inside of a cave, which I found odd, fascinating and lovable. There’s also an incredibly charming outdoor patio area, if eating inside a fake cave isn’t on your bucket list.
FIND IT: Marco Polo Restaurant, Merza Tursom Zadah 80, Dushanbe 734000, Tajikistan; TripAdvisor
I loved Tajikistan and would visit again. It’s a unique place, an intersection of culture and the food is incredible. Plus, the currency conversion rate meant I could spend $5-10 USD a day and eat exceptionally well. It was my first time in Central Asia, and I was stunned by the jagged mountains that surround the city, by the kindness of the people and the deliciousness of the food.