Traditional Kazakh cuisine developed within the constraints of a nomadic life spent crossing landscapes that could not always be described as bountiful. Nomadic Kazakhs were completely reliant on their animals, and this is reflected in their food, which is rich in meat and dairy products.
“Kazakhs led a nomadic life. It was necessary to face hard winters and they ate meat, invigorating them and warming them,” Nazgul Anafina, chef of Yesil Restaurant of Astana’s Grand Park Yesil Hotel told Edge Kazakhstan.
Shashlyk – meat cooked on a skewer, like kebabs – and a spectrum of varieties of milk, cream, yogurt and soft and hard cheeses would make up typical meals and snacks in this region. But for special occasions, like weddings, holidays and funerals, or to honor visiting guests, there is only one option: beshbarmak, or simply et (which is pronounced as yet and simply means meat in Kazakh).
Beshbarmak (which means “five fingers,” either because it was traditionally eaten with the hands or because it should be made with meat that has a layer of fat five fingers high – the jury is out) sounds like a basic noodle and meat dish – which I suppose it is. The ingredients are minimal: dough, meat, onions, meat broth, some spices and oil or butter, but their preparation and presentation are crucial, and often ritualized.
Variations and significations
The dish is similar across the country, but there are regional variations. “In Northern Kazakhstan beshbarmak is cooked with solid chunks of meat and dough,” explained Anafina. “In southern, western and eastern Kazakhstan, meat is generally cut into wide and thin bits and sometimes is served with boiled potatoes.”
Presentation is also important. “The dish is layered on big tray: first boiled dough, then meat, over which the sauce (tuzdyk) made of onion, salt and hot meat-broth is poured. One of beshbarmak’s components is meat-broth (sorpa), which is considered to be very helpful and tasty. The addition of kurt (salty, fermented balls of dried cow’s milk curd) adds a special zest. If you don’t have kurt, you can use lemon,” she said.
Each of these ingredients must be prepared just so. “In Astana we cook this dish using the northern method,” Anafina said. “That means we cook meat in very cold water, bring it to a boil, skim off the foam, add salt, and cook it over a low flame for two hours. After that we get the meat out of meat-broth and cool it. At the same time we make dough using flour, water and eggs, add salt and let it sit for 40 minutes. After that we roll out the pastry, making it very thin, and cut it into to large square bits. The bits are boiled in meat-broth for 5–10 minutes. The boiled dough and meat is placed on a tray (tabak) and sorpa is poured over it. Aromatic meat-broth is served in teabowls.”
I made beshbarmak once, under the watchful eye of a Kazakh girlfriend. The dough was assigned to me, with the idea, I am sure, of passing off the simplest of tasks to the American visitor. In my poorly stocked kitchen, under the pitiless gaze of two Kazakh women, I rolled out wide strips of dough with a wine bottle.
“Is this thin enough?” I asked, after rolling diligently for a few minutes.
I’m sure my friend rolled her eyes. “No. Make it thin.”
I rolled with more enthusiasm. “Now?”
She looked up from the pot, where she was stirring the meat and onions, and frowned. “No. Thinner. It has to be really thin.”
I rolled until the dough felt like silk and I was sure it would split into pieces and I’d have to start over. I held up a nearly translucent sheet of dough. “Like this?” I asked.
She broke into a huge smile, red faced from the steam of the pot. “That’s it! You’ll make a good Kazakh daughter-in-law one day!”
She wasn’t kidding – well, not completely. “It has been considered from ancient times that a girl who is good at making besbarmak shouldn’t be worried about her marriage,” Chef of Astana’s Zhibek Zholy restaurant Ainagul Kaliyeva told Edge KZ. “If she can roll out the thinnest dough, thin like a piece of paper, she can be considered to be a good mistress.”
Honor by the bones
In my case, I invited my Kazakh friends to come to my house and help make beshbarmak, but ordinarily, being invited for beshbarmak is an honor. There are also traditional rituals that may go along with that honor. In Kazakhstan, guests are never invited to sit at an empty table, but beshbarmak is always presented after all the guests have been assembled, and with some flair. At weddings and other events, only after guests have been seated and nibbled on the fruit, salads and breads that the tables have been spread with is the beshbarmak brought in, carried by troops of waiters (or the women who have cooked it) and often accompanied by traditional music.
If the event is very traditional, a sheep’s head may be served with the beshbarmak. In these instances, the head will be presented to the most honoured guest, usually the oldest man in attendance, or a special visitor. The honoured guest will then cut the meat and serve different pieces, with different meanings, to the people at the table. Children are usually given the ears, so they will listen. They may also be given the kidneys and heart. Young women are given the palate, so they will be hard-working, but never the knuckle, which would mean they’d never marry. Parts around the eyes are given to older guests, as they must be wise and watchful.
In the north of Kazakhstan, the bones may also be significant. “Bas-tabak is a dish made of the most meaning-laden parts of horse, which are given to the most honored and respected guests,” Anafina said. “These are bel-omyrtka or beldeme (spinal column), zhanbas (part of the hip bone), zhaya (a horse’s aitchbone) and kazy (ribs with fat).”
Other cuts and preparations are recommended with beshbarmak, Anafina said. These include jerky and different preparations of intestines and fat. “All this is the minimal set of meat for the dish,” she said. “The complete set of meat includes more than ten different slabs of meat, specialty meats and meat delicacies.” The way they are dispersed represents the relationship between host and guest. “For example, the breast is given to sons-in-law; liver is given to relatives of one’s spouse, and so on.”
A winter’s feast
In a country with long, harsh winters, the possibility of a feast must be contemplated months in advance. “Kazakhs have a custom called sogym: winter meat procurement,” Anafina explained. “In the end of October or the beginning of November, as temperatures drop, horses and cattle are butchered. Relatives, friends and elders are invited to the sogym. Sybaga is very important part of sogym and is considered to be the pinnacle of hospitality. Part of meat and delicacies are given to honoured guests or sent to invited persons who weren’t able to come. The remaining meat is frozen or made into sausages and jerky and other delicacies.”
The national dish also changes with the seasons. “In warm seasons, beshbarmak is usually cooked using lamb meat,” Anafina said. “There is a custom called konak asy, ‘food for guests.’ A guest is offered to choose a sheep from a flock and the sheep will be butchered to cook beshbarmak.”
No pressure, guests.
Hospitality is serious business in Kazakhstan, and the ritualization of the presentation of meat and the life and health it represents makes sense when confronted with the long winter months of the northern steppe. And while today, you’re most likely to have beshbarmak in a restaurant, sans sheep’s head, sans intestines, it is still a dish that carries with it Kazakhstan’s nomadic identity, and not one to be taken lightly.