Normally Apples wouldn’t be mentioned when describing a country’s national food. However, to most Kazakhstani people, the apple is definitely a very special item of food, as it is believed that the apple first appeared on earth in Kazakhstan, just near Almaty. The name Almaty itself means Father of Apples.
The single most popular dish in all of Kazakhstan is Beshbarmak. Although you can find Beshbarmak in Kyrgyzstan as well, it’s in Kazakhstan where the dish has taken on a life of its own. Any special event that you hold needs to have Beshbarmak at the table.
Consisting of layers of pasta, topped with horse meat, onion and a hearty meaty broth, often the dish is also finished with slices of horse sausage called Kazy.
The name Beshbarmak means five fingers and comes from the fact that it is traditionally eaten with one’s hands. Traditionally the best cuts of meat are served to whoever is the most important person.
Another extremely popular way to eat horse is Kazy, a type of spiced horse meat sausage. Kazy is either eaten by itself as a snack, especially with beer and vodka, in a sandwich, or more often than not, on top of another dish such as Beshbarmak or Plov.
Horse meat in Kazakhstan
One of the most annoying aspects of taking guests through Kazakhstan (as well as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) is the constant fear many have that they are inadvertently going to eat horse meat. They'll be sitting down to a lovely meal and those sneaky Central Asians will sneak it into their food. Of course many of you will also know that is simply not the case as horse meat is a speciality and more expensive than the other meats available. It is understandable where this fear comes from though. For many they have grown up thinking horse is an undesirable meat and likewise there are plenty of parts of the world where undesirable meat is snuck into dishes and made to appear as the product you thought you were buying. Bush meat in Africa comes to mind.
One joke that was a constant during the horse meat scandal in Europe was what were those silly Europeans complaining about. They were paying beef prices and getting horse meat. What a bargain! Something no Kazakh would ever complain about.
Horse meat is known locally either by its Russian name – Konina (Конина) or by its local name. In Kazakh it is Zhilky Yeti (Жылқы еті). With this in mind, menus are almost always in Russian and very rarely will Kazakh appear.
There are plenty of other dishes as well which feature horse meat. Kuurdak (қуырдақ) is a dish of fried meat, onions and potatoes. This is also very popular in Kyrgyzstan. Zhal (жал) is a smoked horse lard similar to Salo, the Ukrainian pork equivalent. Or you could of course have it as a Kebab or Shashlik as it's locally known.
The most important thing to remember is you won't be served it unless you order it, and most Kazakhs know that eating horse isn't a given in other cultures, so visiting someone’s home also doesn't usually pose a risk either.
Most people will tell you that Lagman is a Uyghur dish from the west of China and most evidence shows this is where the dish originated. Bordering China has meant that there is some influence on their cuisine and Lagman is one of the great imports. Extremely popular all over Kazakhstan, Lagman consists of thick noodles with peppers, onions, and tomatoes in a spicy vinegar-based sauce. In many ways it is similar to lots of noodle dishes you would find in China.
A staple across all of the former Soviet Union, if you eat meat it’s hard to go past Shashlik. Big chunks of your favourite meat cooked on skewers over hot coals. Most Shashlik restaurants sell cheap beer and have great outdoor dining options for those beautiful Kazakh summer nights.
Shorpa is a ubiquitous soup known Central Asia all over. Meat and vegetables in a hearty and simple soup always served with bread.
Common throughout most former Soviet countries, Palaw, or as it is more commonly known by its Russian name, Plov. Plov’s spiritual home is generally considered to be Uzbekistan, and is a fried rice dish consisting of slow cooked mutton cooked in a large cauldron with thinly sliced carrots, garlic and sometimes raisins.
Another dish very common across much of the former Soviet Union, especially in Central Asia, Manty are steamed large dumplings with meat, usually mutton, and onions, with some fat to make them particularly juicy. There are also vegetarian versions of Manty which are made with pumpkins or even green herbs. Manty are usually served with sour cream and dill although it’s also common to serve them with a local chilli sauce.
Samsa are a great snack food when you’re on the go in Kazakhstan. They are cheap, simple, and tasty, although when it comes to Samsa there is something special about one that has been freshly baked. If the name looks familiar it’s because Samsa shares the same root word as Indian Samosas and Middle Eastern Samboosas. Samsas are good sized pastries which you can get with lamb, beef, cabbage, pumpkin and even just cheese.
Every street corner in Almaty has a Samsa stand nearby, and they are also extremely common in local markets.
Baursaks are small pieces of fried dough similar to doughnuts. Usually shaped as triangles, diamonds, or just small balls, Baursaks can be eaten at breakfast or for dessert with butter, jam or honey.
Baursaks are especially important at Nawruz, the Kazakh (Persian) New Year.
Like the rest of Central Asia, bread is extremely important in Kazakhstan. Bread is considered sacred and represents the hard work people have put into growing, preparing and cooking food. Because of this, a meal without bread on the table is not really considered a proper meal.
Bread is never thrown away, but if it has gone bad is placed up high for animals to eat or even for homeless people. Bread is always placed the correct way up on the table and never has anything else placed on top of it except other bread.
Bread in Kazakhstan is called Nan and is cooked in a tandoor. Kazakh bread is usually quite flat as well.
Usual spreads for bread include jam, sour cream or just butter.
If you asked a Kazakh person what the national drink of Kazakhstan was you would get one of two answers, either Kumys or tea. Tea is drunk at every meal and on every possible occasion. Usually Kazakhs drink black tea in winter and green tea in summer. Tea is served in small bowls instead of cups.
Kumys on the other hand is slightly alcoholic fermented mares’ milk. When driving around Kazakhstan you’ll see people selling bottles of a milk like substance on the side of the road – this is Kumys and although it is beginning to be a mass-produced product, most locals try to buy home-made.
Although the majority of Kazakhs are Muslim, alcohol is very popular, with beer and vodka being the two main drinks. There is also a small wine industry in Kazakhstan as well as other spirits popular in the former Soviet Union such as Cognac.
Like most of Central Asia, breakfast in Kazakhstan is a simple affair. Most Kazakhs will eat some porridge, made of oats, rice or buckwheat, some bread and jam and fried or boiled eggs.
Lunch is also not a huge meal in Kazakhstan. Soup, some fried meat, lagman or plov are usually on the cards and Russian style Stolovayas (canteens) are very popular where you take your tray and select prepared meals from a bain-marie. One well-known brand of Stolovyas is called Kaganat.
Korean food in Kazakhstan
Due to a large number of Koreans being forcibly transported to Kazakhstan during World War 2, there is now a sizeable Korean population in Kazakhstan, especially Almaty. Fully integrated into society, they have nonetheless created their own special cuisine in Kazakhstan, utilising the ingredients that were locally available and taking inspiration from their heritage. Throughout Kazakhstan you will see noodle salads, a spicy carrot salad (called Korean salad) and sushi rolls. Koreans will tell you it’s nothing like their own cuisine, so it’s even more special as it truly is a unique blend of cultures – fusion cuisine before it was popular.