FOOD Kazakh cuisine is heavily based on the nomadic past of the Kazakh people. It is dominated by meat (especially mutton and horse) and various milk products, many of which have no direct English translation. The techniques of preparation emerged out of the importance of ensuring food preservation: thus there are many dishes based around smoked meat and soured milk. Meat is an important part of the Kazakh diet, and there are numerous jokes about the legendary capacity of Kazakhs for consuming huge quantities of the stuff (the punch lines tend to be of a 'right, where's the main course?' nature). An invitation to a Kazakh feast provides a great opportunity to try many of the classic dishes of Kazakh cuisine together with the rituals which accompany their apportionment, though most dishes are also available in Kazakh or generic central Asian restaurants.
Kazakhstan's cuisine is hard to distinguish from that of its neighbours, and it is difficult to identify dishes the Kazakhs can really claim as their own. Mostly these are meals prepared cooked mutton, and camel and horsemeat. The milk of these animals, served in tea or fermented in the form of kumis (mare's milk) or shubat (camel's milk), is the aperitif for every classic Kazakh meal, served along with baursaki (fried dough), raisins, irimshik (sour cow's cheese) or kurt (salted cheese balls).
A Kazakh feast tends to be referred to as a dastarkhan, actually the name of the low table around which Kazakhs traditionally sat, on the floor or propped up against cushions, to eat their meals. In rural areas, this form of dining is still common; in larger towns, chairs and tables have taken over, at least among wealthier Kazakh families. On arrival, you will find the table already laden with things to eat, typically fruits, nuts and a range of salad dishes. Tea is served into handle-less cups called pialas, and will be constantly refilled throughout the meal, even as vodka toasts are called for, and other drinks, such as kumiss, a drink of fermented mare's milk, are also passed round. Appetisers are brought out, focused heavily on sliced meats. Pride of place here goes to various sliced sausages made from horse meat of varying degrees of fattiness: among the most important varieties are kazy, karta and shuzhuk. There may also be a range of pastries on offer, such as a meat-filled variety, samsa, found throughout the region. Kurt, little balls of dried curd, is a salty snack which has the effect of draining all moisture from your mouth. At some point during the meal a dish of kuirdak will be served. This is made from the internal organs of a sheep or other freshly slaughtered animal: these are cut into small pieces, together with lumps of fat from the animal, cooked in oil, and served with onion and pepper.
The focus of the meal, and the signature dish of Kazakh cuisine, is beshbarmak. The name means, literally, 'five fingers', a reference to the traditional way of eating the stuff and not, fortunately, to its ingredients. It is generally served in a large dish, placed in the centre of the table. It involves large lumps of horse meat or mutton, boiled on the bone, which are scattered across a bed of flat layers of pasta which has been boiled up in broth. Onion cut into rings, garlic and a scattering of parsley and fennel, completes the dish. The broth, sorpa, is served up separately, in pialas.
Before the beshbarmak is doled out, one tradition which is often incorporated into such a feast, particularly if there is a distinguished guest to be honoured, is the presentation to that guest of a boiled sheep's head, or koy has. Since a foreign visitor may well count as the 'distinguished guest', be aware that this could be coming your way. The ritual here is that the guest is given a knife, and cuts off pieces from the head, apportioning them to the others around the table. This is traditionally done by identifying pieces appropriate to individual recipients: thus young people often receive a piece of ear, so they may listen well to their elders. You needn't worry too much about getting this symbolism right; if you can cut small pieces of meat from the head and apportion them, starting with the eldest person around the table and continuing in approximate age order, you will be considered to have discharged your distinguished guest function well. The lumps of meat on the beshbarmak itself are also distributed on the basis of various traditional customs. Thus elderly or honoured guests tend to be given meat from around the hip, while it is never done to offer brains to children, for fear that they may become weak-willed, or a knee bone to an unmarried woman, lest she be left on the shelf (given the elbow?). Ak nan, a type of bread flavoured with onion, is often eaten with beshbarmak.
Kazakhs have developed a number of techniques to preserve and prepare their main commodities, meat and milk. These methods are still in life today: salting, drying, smoking, pickling or even a combination of these. In the past, one rather piquant process of salting and tenderizing was to place a flat piece of meat under your saddle until it was "ridden to tenderness", the horse's sweat serving to salt the meat. Travellers may find comfort in the thought that this kind of preservation is no longer practised.
Sweet dishes served after the beshbarmak (though they may have been sitting on the table throughout the meal) include irimshik, which is not actually itself particularly sweet: it's a dry yellowish/orange dish, made of soured cow's or sheep's milk which has been boiled and dried. It is however an ingredient of the classic Kazakh sweet, zhent, which also contains millet, sugar, raisins and butter and has a rather powdery consistency. Baursaki, small, spherical, fried doughnuts, have an important place in Kazakhstani culture, and feature in many forms of commemorative and celebratory meals. Fruit will also be served at this time. Do expect the unexpected in a Kazakh feast: the kuirdak is for example occasionally served right at the end of the meal, after the sweets.
The multi-ethnic character of Kazakhstan and the centuries of trading and interactions along the Silk Routes mean that the cuisine of modern Kazakhstan incorporates a large number of influences alongside those drawn from the nomadic Kazakhs. You will find here some of the dishes popular throughout the region, such as plov, a rice-based dish served with lumps of meat, and pieces of carrot and onion. In Kazakhstan it is sometimes made in a sweet form, with the addition of dried raisins and apricots. Manty are also popular. These are dumplings, filled with spiced lamb or beef, sometimes with chopped pumpkin added, and cooked on a steamer. A range of noodle dishes are brought from Uighur cuisine, while shashlik, skewered lumps of various barbecued meats, cooked over hot coals and served with raw onion, is a south Caucasus speciality popular across the region. Korean-style spicy vegetable salads are also found on many menus. Kazakhstan's large ethnic Russian community has ensured the presence of numerous classic Russian dishes, including salads such as the chopped vegetable in mayonnaise confection described on menus here as olivye but known in western I in rope as Russian salad, the raviolilike pelmeni, sweet and savoury pancakes, or blini, and soups such as borscht.
Fuelled by the increasing wealth and aspirations of many Kazakhstanis, a whole range of newer arrivals from around the globe has supplemented these longer- established dishes. Thus, as the Where to cat sections under individual towns make clear, it is possible in the larger cities to lind Italian, Mexican or French restaurants. Sushi is currently all the rage among the Kazakhstani elite. Note that in Kazakhstani restaurants side dishes such as vegetables do not usually come automatically with your main dish, and have to be ordered separately. A 10% service charge is typically added. Tipping beyond this is not expected. Many restaurants in Kazakhstan offer a business lunch: this will usually be a set meal or a buffet. These tend to be good value, and are usually served promptly, though they are often fairly unexciting.
Restaurants are usually open every day, typically from noon until the last diner has Imished up in the evening, though some close for an hour or two mid-afternoon.
DRINK The drink most closely associated with the traditional Kazakh diet is kumiss, prepared from fermented mare's milk, and believed by Kazakhs to have numerous health-giving properties, from the stabilisation of the nervous system lo the treatment of tuberculosis. In parts of the south and west of the country, including Kyzylorda and Mangistau regions, it is supplanted by shubat, prepared from fermented camel's milk, whose advocates ascribe it an equally impressive range of curative properties, recommending it for the treatment of tuberculosis, diabetes and stomach ulcers. Both kumiss and shubat have a slight fizzy quality and a sour flavour, and are definitely acquired tastes. A foreign delegation greeted on arrival into Kazakhstan by their Kazakh hosts may well be confronted with a girl in traditional dress holding out bowls of kumiss and shubat, accompanied with baursaki.
Another important drink for Kazakhs is tea. Green tea is popular, especially in the south of the country, but 'black' tea, in other words the standard tea of the English-speaking world, is more prevalent. Ethnic Russians drink this black, sometimes with lemon, but, unusually for the region, Kazakhs traditionally drink their tea with milk. Do not be surprised if your host fills your tea cup only half full: it is an invitation for you to continue speaking. Once your cup is filled, you know it is time to leave. Coffee tends to be hit-and-miss, though there is an increasing range of coffee places in Almaty offering the cappuccinos and lattes you get back home.
Although some Kazakhstanis refrain from alcohol on religious grounds, the legacy of Tsarist and then Soviet rule has brought with it a tradition of vodka drinking, fhere are numerous local brands, from expensive varieties such as Snow Queen, which boasts that it has been distilled five times, to cheap and rather unpleasant products. You should avoid the cheapest offerings, particularly from outlets such as kiosks. Kazakhstan also produces a broad range of drinkable if rather sweet brandy, known locally as konyak. There are plenty of reasonable Kazakhstani beers: brands to look out for include Tian Shan, Shymkent and Karaganda. In swankier bars and restaurants in Astana and Almaty local beers and spirits do not however always feature on the menu, as they have been elbowed out by imported products. Belgian beers such as Hoegaarden are currently particularly in vogue.