Turkmenistan offers a good introduction to Central Asian food and is a welcome relief after kebab-centric Iran, although after a few days here even the most enthusiastic of mutton eaters may start to crave something different.
As you’re likely transiting at speed through Turkmenistan, you may want to give up cooking for yourself for a few days and just eat at the roadside cafes instead. They offer hearty food at reasonable prices with an added bonus: they’ll often give you a simple room for the night free of charge or at a very low price, saving the hassle of putting up your tent.
Cafe prices for simple meals like mutton soup or dumplings, served with chunks of filling bread, are very reasonable (starting at 20,000 Manat per person). As long as you’re not vegetarian it can be almost as economical to eat whatever the cafe has on offer, rather than cooking your own food. It certainly saves the hassle of planning meals, shopping and carrying the food with you. No matter what the time of day, a cafe will always have at least a pot of soup they can heat up for you and at busier times there may be three or four choices.
Vegetarians will be met with confusion and will probably want to cook their own food but it’s worth asking if the cafe can whip up an omelette.
If you’re determined to self-cater, your biggest problem will be finding food to buy. In Turkmenistan it can be difficult to find things outside of the big cities and even in bigger population centres we rarely saw dairy products. We found yogurt and cheese once but never discovered where to buy fresh or long-life milk. We also looked for jam without success, finding only Nutella-like chocolate spreads.
Markets in Mary, Bajramaly and Turkmenabad have a good selection of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as staples like tinned tuna, sausages, pasta, rice and nuts. In the small villages, ask what the cafe has on offer. They are usually ready to sell you bread, eggs and snacks like chocolate bars and biscuits. Drinks like Coca-Cola are easy to find but not always chilled.
If the cafe doesn’t have what you need, ask where to find the local shop (“magazin” in Russian). They may not have much more than the cafe but it’s worth a try.
In villages, it can be hard to find bottled still water. If you don’t have a filter or other treatment with you, you will need to boil water to purify it or settle for water with gas.
You should not drink tap water without treatment in Turkmenistan. It only has a rating of 2/5 according to the group Safe Water for International Travelers. This means that “some water supplies comply with WHO Guidelines, but most of them not. There is not permanent monitoring and testing. Usually water quality is not good. Prevalence of waterborne diseases is high.”
With only a short transit visa, you don’t have the luxury of time to get sick and recover!