EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was verified by Aruzhan Kenessova, an executive assistant and Kazakh food expert based in Aktobe, Kazakhstan.
Borat put Kazakhstan on the map. In the years after its release, tourist visas to Kazakhstan rose tenfold. You remember the fake mustache and funny accent but how much did that movie really teach you about this country in Central Asia?
Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world with one of its lowest population densities. It lies mostly in Central Asia with a small portion crossing the border into Eastern Europe. It’s favorable climate and large areas of grassland have made Kazakhstan’s terrain ideal for a nomadic lifestyle.
Historically, Kazakhstan has been inhabited by nomadic Turkic groups who migrated seasonally to find pasturage for their livestock. In fact, the name Kazakh comes from the ancient Turkic word qaz, meaning “to wander”, while stan means “land” or “place of”, so Kazakhstan literally means “land of the wanderers”.
With nomadism being such an important part of their culture and identity, traditional Kazakh food had to be well-suited to this nomadic way of life. As a result, you’ll find that portability, durability, and a heavy lean on meat and soured milk products are common threads in traditional Kazakh cuisine.
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WHAT IS TRADITIONAL KAZAKH FOOD?
Traditional Kazakh food is nomadic food. For centuries, Kazakhs were herders who raised horses, sheep, cows, and Bactrian camels. They relied on these animals for transportation, clothing, and food, developing cooking techniques and methods of preservation that facilitated their nomadic lifestyle.
Being able to produce food that was portable and long-lasting was important to the Kazakh way of life. Food needed to withstand many months on the road so salting and drying meat became a necessity. Milk was soured to improve its shelf life while boiling was the most practical and commonly used method of cooking.
The nomadic lifestyle made raising crops difficult so meat has always formed the biggest part of the Kazakh diet. Mutton and beef were considered everyday food while horse and camel were regarded as festival meats. Horse and mutton are the most popular proteins in Kazakh cuisine and figure prominently in many dishes, including Beshbarmak, the Kazakh national dish.
THE BEST OF KAZAKH CUISINE
Kurt is a hardened fermented ball of cheese and one of the best examples of nomadic Kazakh food. It’s one of many fermented dairy products Central Asian herders have been preparing since the Middle Ages, to create a source of sustenance that can withstand many seasons on the road.
To prepare, soured milk from a sheep, mare, cow, goat, or camel is strained into soft curds and then shaped into small balls or disks before being left to harden in the sun. This creates a portable high-calcium snack that can last for many seasons and withstand long trips.
Kurt is an incredibly salty snack that’s best enjoyed in small doses. It can also be crumbled into stews, soups, and salads or dissolved in kumis (fermented milk drink) or water to make shalap. Because of its high salt content, it also makes for great bar chow.
Some Kazakhs joke that kurt gets its intense saltiness from being rubbed under someone’s armpits. Not the prettiest picture but you get the analogy.
Shubat is a drink made from fermented camel’s milk. It’s a Turkic beverage popular throughout Central Asia, particularly in Turkmenistan (chal) and Kazakhstan, where it’s a staple summer drink.
To prepare, fresh camel’s milk is poured with a prepared starter into a leather wineskin bag or ceramic jar. It’s left to ferment for the next few days before the soured milk is gently stirred until it takes on a thick, homogenous consistency.
Shubat is touted as having a multitude of health benefits. It’s beneficial to the digestive system and pancreas and great for people suffering from anemia. When applied topically, it’s said to have a moisturizing effect while nourishing the skin with vitamins, proteins, and minerals.
Kumis (or koumiss, kumys) is a popular Kazakh drink made with fermented mare’s milk. It’s been an important source of refreshment and nourishment for Turkic and Mongol nomads for thousands of years.
Mare’s milk is naturally high in sugar and lactose. It has a severe laxative effect when consumed fresh but it’s high sugar content makes it easy to ferment. To prepare, fresh mare’s milk would be kept in vats until it acidified and alcoholic carbonation was produced. Nomads would then transport the liquid in leather bags and punch it from time to time to keep the kumis agitated.
Historically, kumis has been a culturally significant drink for Central Asian nomads. At the beginning and end of every milking season, it was customary for nomads to invite friends and family to drink kumis. They shared in the first and last kumis of the season while exchanging blessings and well-wishes.
Like shubat, kumis is known for its many health benefits. It’s good for the gut and nervous system and is said to be effective in the prevention of tuberculosis. Mothers would even give their babies a milder form of kumis that was low in, but not completely devoid of alcohol.
Kumis was traditionally made with a higher alcohol content but modern versions contain only about 2% alcohol. Commercial versions are now commonly made with fortified cow’s milk, but in rural areas, you’ll find kumis still made in the traditional manner using fermented mare’s milk.
Shalap is a type of fermented drink made with water, salt, and either qatiq (yogurt) or kurt. Traditionally, it was made with regular water but modern versions of shalap are often made with carbonated water instead.
Shalap is also popular in Kyrgyzstan (chalap) and Uzbekistan (chalob). Though not often, it can sometimes be made with herbs which gives it the appearance of a cold soup. Like shubat, it’s a popular and refreshing summer drink whose taste has been described as pleasantly salty, sour, and smokey. For some westerners, it may be an acquired taste.
5. Tandyr Nan
Tandyr nan is a disc-shaped bread popular in Kazakhstan and in other parts of Central Asia. It’s essentially a Central Asian version of naan bread traditionally cooked in a tandyr (tandoor). Depending on where it’s from and how it’s made, it goes by many different names like tandir non, tonur non, patyr nan, and lepyoshka.
About the size of a dinner plate, tandyr nan is characterized by its raised edge and decorated indented center. It can be prepared in a number of ways – plain, enriched with egg, or dusted with sesame or nigella seeds. Plain or seeded versions are typically eaten for breakfast while heavier versions are enjoyed for lunch or dinner with salad and meat dishes. At Kazakh restaurants, you may be served smaller, highly-decorative versions called damdy nan.
In spite of its name, it’s interesting to learn that the Kazakh version of tandyr nan wasn’t traditionally made in a clay tandoor the way it is in Uzbekistan. Instead, it was baked between two metal pans, either in an oven or more traditionally over a dung fire. It’s essentially a portable mini-oven that was well-suited to a nomadic lifestyle.
Shelpek is a type of Central Asian flatbread widely consumed throughout the region. It’s made with a dough consisting of flour, milk, sour cream, butter, baking soda, sugar, and salt. The dough is formed into balls and rolled out into discs before being fried in hot vegetable oil till golden brown.
In Kazakhstan, there’s a tradition of giving out seven or more shelpeks on Fridays, the holiest day of the week in Islam. They’re given to friends and neighbors, left at mosques, or consecrated by reading The Koran. This practice of commemorating the dead is common to many Turkic nationalities.
Baursak (or boortsog) are puffy pieces of fried Kazakh bread. They’re essentially Central Asian donuts made with flour, yeast, eggs, margarine, milk, water, sugar, salt, and vegetable oil. Shaped into triangles or spheres, they’re usually served with tea and eaten as a dessert with sugar, honey, or butter.
As tempting as they look, baursak isn’t an everyday Kazakh dish. It’s typically reserved for special occasions like weddings and memorials. According to legend, the aroma from the oil and frying baursak floats into the heavens so that your deceased loved ones can enjoy them with you.
On 7 September 2014, a Guinness World Record for the most baursak ever made was set in Almaty. To celebrate Mother’s Day, 856 kg (1,887 lbs) of baursak were cooked in a competition consisting of seven mother-in-law / daughter-in-law teams.
Manti refers to a type of dumpling popular in Turkic cuisine. It’s widely consumed throughout Central Asia, the South Caucasus, the Balkans, and beyond.
Manti exists in different shapes and sizes depending on where they’re from, but they’re typically made with a spiced meat mixture, usually ground lamb or beef, that’s wrapped in thin dough and either boiled or steamed. They’re similar in appearance to Mongolian buuz, Chinese baozi and jiaozi, Tibetan momo, and Korean mandu.
The exact origins of manti are unclear but the strongest theories suggest it may have originated from the territories of the Mongol Empire. Others trace it back to the Uyghur people of northwest China while some believe it may have originated in the Middle East.
In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, manti is commonly filled with minced lamb but it can be made with beef or horse meat as well. The minced meat is usually spiced with black pepper and mixed with chopped pumpkin or squash. It’s typically served with butter, sour cream, and an onion or garlic sauce, but when sold as street food, it’s usually sprinkled with hot red pepper powder.
Lagman refers to a hand-pulled Uyghur noodle dish made with meat – usually lamb, goat, or beef – and different vegetables like bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, green beans, garlic, and potatoes. It’s common throughout Central Asia and northwestern China where it goes by different names like laghman, lag’mon, and lengmen.
Lagman is especially popular in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan where it’s considered a national dish of the Uyghur and Dungan ethnic minorities. Interestingly, no native Turkic words begin with the letter “L”, so it’s believed that the name lagman is derived from the Chinese “lamian”, though its taste and preparation are distinctly Uyghur. This seems to indicate that the dish originated in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China, though Bukharian Jews also lay claim to the dish.
Lagman exists in many forms throughout the region, as a soup, stew, or stir-fry. In Kazakhstan, stir-fried lagman is one of the most popular versions of the dish.
10. Lagman Shurpa
Lagman shurpa is essentially the soup or stewed version of lagman. Shurpa refers to a meat and vegetable soup common in Central Asia, so lagman shurpa is a type of shurpa made with lagman noodles.
Plov (or palau) is the Central Asian version of pilaf, a dish consisting of rice cooked in stock or broth with spices and other ingredients like lamb, onions, and carrots. It’s typically cooked in a kazan, as a common family meal or when entertaining a large number of guests.
Kuurdak is an ancient Central Asian dish made with roasted or fried meat, offal, onions, garlic, and potatoes. Originally from Kyrgyzstan, it’s widely consumed throughout the region where it goes by different names like qýyrdaq, gowurdak, qovurdoq, and qordaq.
Kuurdak can be made with different types of meat depending on where it’s from. In Kyrgyzstan, it’s most commonly made with mutton or beef but Kazakh versions of kuurdak are typically made from sheep offal like liver, heart, kidney, and lungs. It’s usually prepared immediately after slaughtering the sheep.
Beshbarmak is the national dish of Kazakhstan. It consists of boiled meat served with thin pasta sheets and a sauce (chyk) made from onions, meat broth, salt, and pepper. Horse and mutton are most often used but it can be made with beef as well.
Beshbarmak is one of the most culturally significant Kazakh foods. Even the manner in which it’s served is dictated by ritual (ustukan). When an animal is slaughtered in a guest’s honor, the host serves the different cuts of meat to people according to their age, gender, and social rank. The oldest people and honored guests are always served the best cuts of meat.
For example, the oldest men receive the thigh bone (jambash) while the oldest and most respected women are offered the tailbone (kuiruk or kuymulchak). The smaller bones are reserved for the daughter-in-law of the house. The legs and shoulders are given to younger adults while the children are left with the animal’s spine (omurtka).
One of the best parts of the animal – the head (bash) – is given to the guest of honor or the eldest or youngest male, to cut pieces from it and distribute to other people. Other parts of the animal like the shin bones, femur, and ribs are apportioned according to tradition as well.
Beshbarmak is the national dish of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan but it’s widely consumed throughout the region. It goes by different names like naryn, turama, dograma, tullama, and khorkhog. The name beshbarmak literally means “five fingers”, in reference to how nomadic people traditionally ate the dish using their hands.
Kazy (or qazi) refers to a type of horse meat sausage popular in parts of Central Asia like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. It’s traditionally made with the meat and fat taken from the animal’s ribs.
To prepare, the horse’s ribs with the meat still attached are hung to dry for several hours. When completely drained of blood, the meat is seasoned with garlic, pepper, and salt before being stuffed into the animal’s cleaned and brined intestines. The sausages are then smoked for several hours or left to dry for a week in an area exposed to the wind and direct sun.
Kazy is boiled and sliced before serving. It can be eaten cold as an appetizer or incorporated into other Kazakh dishes like beshbarmak.
Zhaya refers to another Kazakh dish made with horse meat. It consists of salted, dried, and smoked meat derived from the horse’s hip or hind leg. Often served with onions, zhaya is typically enjoyed cold as an appetizer but it can be incorporated into other dishes as well.
Kazakh cuisine is a great reminder why food is one of the best communicators. It can tell you so much about the local culture and Kazakh food is the perfect example of that.
Looking at dishes like kurt, beshbarmak, and kazy, you know this was a cuisine and culture heavily shaped by nomadism and a strong sense of community. Food was simple but it was made to last, it was meant to be shared, and nothing was left to waste. Even horse hair was saved and braided into rope.
Dishes like kazy and zhaya may not be for everyone, but keep an open mind and the food in Kazakhstan will show you what life was like on the plains. At the very least, it’ll do a better job than Borat.
Cover photo by lenyvavsha. Stock images via Depositphotos.