ALMATY (Reuters) - It felt like I had been chewing for days, yet the plate of stewed horse, lamb and unidentified liver, served on a bed of greasy dough, appeared to be getting no smaller.
Determined to prove to the local officials hosting a group of foreign reporters that I would not spurn the Kazakh national dish, beshbarmak, I chomped on.
If only, I thought, there was something to wash it down other than vodka, still a staple even in the nominally Muslim parts of the former Soviet Union.
On cue, a waitress appeared with a steaming bowl about the right size to be a large tea cup. Tea, I thought, just the thing.
A swift gulp and everything got a lot worse. It was a bowl full of hot, astonishingly fatty broth.
Kazakhs were a nomadic people for much of their history and it shows in their traditional cooking. Vegetables do not really feature and, though I have never checked, I’m fairly sure “low cholesterol” does not translate.
The staple in the vast Central Asian republic is meat.
Beshbarmak, which means “five fingers” as you are supposed to eat it with your hands, is served both in humble yurts (tent dwellings) deep in the countryside and at upscale social events in the cities.
At a wedding it will often join koybas, a boiled sheep’s head, as one of the delicacies on the menu.
Serving koybas is itself a ritual. The host cuts the head into slices and serves different pieces according to the status of each guest. Brain is said to be the best and would go to the most honoured diner. Other parts are less sought-after.
One Kazakh friend complains that he always seems to end up with one of the ears. Chewy and not very tasty.
There are plenty of dishes not reserved for feast days. Kumys, fermented mare’s milk, is full of horsey goodness, apparently, but tastes like fizzy yoghurt well past its sell-by date.
MELTS IN THE MOUTH
I first tasted some kumys during a day’s horse riding outside Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city. The owner of the stables had given me, the only male in the group, a young stallion, despite my protestations that I was a novice.
The horse soon had my measure and spent much of the time bucking and rearing. I clung on until a kindly watchman calmed it down so I could dismount.
He welcomed me to his caravan where I sat with his family in the outdoor kitchen. Flies buzzed around as the watchman’s wife fed me kumys and kurt, a salty, hand-rolled ball of dried and filtered sour milk.
Kumys and kurt smell like a farmyard doused in manure, at least to my untutored nose.
Of course, it could be said that foreigners who dislike Kazakh food merely have not acquired a taste for it, a view supported by my British wife’s love of kurt.
There are many varieties of horse meat sausage. Kharta is horse fat wrapped in horse intestine. It melts in your mouth. Camels also feature; fried camel offal can be quite good, at least after a lot of kharta.
The Kazakhs themselves, however, are increasingly turning away from their traditional dishes.
Italian, Thai, and improbably for a landlocked place, sushi vie for attention in restaurants designed to look (and charge) the same as eateries in New York, London or Tokyo.
The Kazakhs can even joke at their own cuisine: A Russian gives a Kazakh friend a pig and tells him to feed it whatever he eats himself. A few weeks later the two friends meet again and the Kazakh says the pig has died.
“I did exactly as you said,” the Kazakh says. “It had tea for breakfast, tea for lunch, and beshbarmak in the evenings.”
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