Text by Vitaliy Shuptar
The main thing about food in Kazakhstan is that Kazakhstan is a multicultural country, and that its cooking is too. Most Kazakhstani families, regardless of ethnicity, will have heard of dishes from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, even if they can’t cook all of them - indeed it’s quite possible that they won’t have tried them all either. But nevertheless, the food cooked in Kazakhstan hails from a wide variety of culinary traditions, the main ones being Kazakh, Russian, Korean, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Uighur and German.
KAZAKH AND OTHER CENTRAL ASIAN CUISINES
Sorpa is the principal soup, and very easy to make. Boil your meat, usually mutton or, preferably, horse, over a low heat for a long time - between three and three and a half hours - and that’s more or less it. The broth should be skimmed periodically, and some salt added, but there’s really very little more to it than that. The slow cooking allows more of the fat to melt into the broth, so although this is a clear soup, it can be quite rich.
Aside from bread, the most typical dough-based food are baursaks, which consist of unleavened or sour dough formed usually into small balls a centimetre or two in diameter and then deep fried. Hollow in the middle, they’re delicious when hot but frequently eaten cold too.
The main dish, in the fullest sense of the word, is besbarmak. Based on sorpa, it’s not much more complicated to make. While the sorpa is cooking, make some pasta dough, using flour, water, salt, and an optional egg. Roll it out thin and then cut it up into squares or lozenges two or three centimetres long. When the meat in the sorpa has boiled long enough, take it out of the broth and boil the pasta with some chopped onion in some of the broth. While the pasta is boiling, shred the meat quite finely. When the pasta is cooked, which takes between five and ten minutes, remove it from the broth and arrange it on a large plate or tray. Put the shredded meat on top of it, and pour the broth with boiled onion over the meat and the pasta. If you have the head of the animal that donated its body to make the besbarmak, it should be boiled with the rest of the meat and, since it is a delicacy, shared out among the diners by the host.
Three specifically Kazakh dishes all made from horse are kazy, karta and shuzhuk. Kazy and karta are simply boiled large intestine and stomach respectively. Both are quite fatty and therefore best eaten warm. Shuzhuk is a kind of sausage whose casing is small intestine and whose filling is rib meat and fat. The rib meat and fat, together with seasoning, are simply stuffed into the intestine, after which the resulting sausage is tied at both ends and boiled. The proportions of fat to meat in shuzhuk may vary from almost all meat to almost all fat - it’s purely a matter of taste.
Plov is another extremely popular dish, especially in southern Kazakhstan. The main ingredients are rice, meat, onion and carrot in more or less equal quantities by weight. The grated carrot, chopped onion and coarsely chopped meat are first fried in plenty of oil. Then the rice is added, and after that sufficient water to cover the rice generously. When everything is boiling, the heat is turned down low and the pan (usually a kazan, an almost hemispherical cooking pot) is covered with a well-fitting lid until the rice is cooked. At which point the plov is ready to serve. Many people add a few cloves or even an entire head of garlic to the meat, onion and carrot at the beginning of the process.
Mants are a kind of steamed pasty made by folding thin-rolled dough round a small quantity of minced or diced meat and fat - usually mutton - and onion, and then steaming the resulting hemispherical parcel until cooked, usually for between half and three quarters of an hour.
Samsas, the most popular local fast food, are similar to mants but usually made with puff pastry rather than unleavened dough. Moreover, they are baked rather than steamed, and the parcel is differently shaped too: usually triangular or rectangular. The filling is also a little more varied: it may be mutton, but may also be beef or chicken. The tandyrnaya samsa, popular in the south of the country, is made with unleavened dough and baked in a tandyr, a spherical clay oven. It’s rather better than the standard samsa, but you have to be careful of the fat and meat juices that inevitably leak when you bite into them: they tend to run down your finger, and from there they can go anywhere. And as samsas, like mants, should really only be eaten hot, this can be quite awkward, particularly if you’re eating on the hoof.
Lagman consists of two basic components: noodles and a vegetable and meat sauce. The noodles are usually freshly made from the kind of dough used in besbarmak; the vegetable and meat topping usually contains diced meat (mutton or beef usually; chicken rather more rarely), paprika, tomato, carrot, garlic, onion, black radish and - of course - seasoning.
Many of these dishes are familiar to other peoples of Central Asia, albeit with minor regional variation. Uighur lagman, for example, tends to use a richer blend of herbs and spices than the Kazakh version; and Uzbekistan is especially renowned for its plov.
Borshch and shchi are the most popular soups. Being usually quite thick and substantial, they often replace the main course entirely. The basic procedure is to boil some meat, usually beef or pork (pork tends to be preferred: it’s tenderer than beef and fatter, which makes the soup richer), and to add vegetable ingredients to the boiling meat. For borshch these vegetables are diced potato, shredded cabbage, grated carrot and beetroot, chopped onion and tomato or tomato paste; for schchi, sauerkraut, potato and carrot. There are many versions of both of these soups.
Solyanka is a very thick soup made of fresh meat and a variety of smoked meats and sausage, with potato and pick-led cucumber. It is always served with sour cream. Connoisseurs of solyanka tend to prefer the version cooked in the oven in individual clay pots.
Noodles, formerly made of pasta dough as for besbarmak or lagman, tend nowadays to be of the pre-prepared variety such as vermicelli and spaghetti. They are commonly added to chicken broth and served with chicken and fresh herbs such as dill, parsley or coriander.
Pickles have a special place in Slavic cuisine, especially pickled cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers and gherkins. Why are they so special? It may be the taste alone; but also significant here may be the widely held belief that these pickles can play a useful role in hangover management. Pickled mushrooms, especially milk mushrooms, are also much loved; and salt-pickled herring is a standard Russian appetiser, usually served with boiled potatoes and pickled gherkins.
Bliny are made of a relatively thin batter and are fried very thin, an important difference from American pancakes. Bliny may be sweet or savoury and filled with meat, caviar, or condensed milk. A tradi-tional accompaniment is sour cream and jam.
Pelmeni, a dish of unknown origin but most probably Chinese, is nowadays regarded as Siberian. It’s a popular dish in Kazakhstan, very similar in principle to Italian ravioli, consisting of small (2-cm diameter) spherical parcels of pastry contai-ning minced meat. These are boiled and served with a little sour cream.
Regardless of its nation of origin, you can find shashlyk more or less anywhere in the former Soviet Union. Shashlyk is marinaded meat grilled on skewers over charcoal. The meat may be mutton - the best-tasting, although also the most expensive except in southern parts of Kazakhstan) - or pork (not the classic recipe, but tenderer and juicier than mutton), liver or chicken. Shashlyk is served with plenty of thinly-sliced onion, chilli vinegar and red pepper. Beef is not used so commonly because it tends to be tough. Fish shashlyk is available in western Kazakhstan.
Tea, both black and green, is a very popular drink in Kazakhstan, and has been for many centuries. It is essential that the tea be acceptably strong. Black tea is commonly drunk with milk, so if you don’t want milk you should tell your host. Tea may be sweetened with sugar, honey or jam.
Koumiss and shubat (fermented mare’s and camel milk respectively) are the most popular genuinely national Kazakh drinks. Moreover, they are both valued for their medicinal properties. Strictly speaking, they are both alcoholic, but the level of alcohol is so low that they are usually considered soft drinks. However, a litre of koumiss on the high summer pasture 3,000 meters above sea level on a sunny day at the height of summer may well induce a certain amount of pleasurable - and quite possibly irresistible - drowsiness. Enjoy!