Kazakhs recalling their childhood often remember preparations for winter started well before December came to the nation. In many households, it has been a tradition to arrange for the season of scarcity well in advance.
Traditions such as sogym (preserving meat throughout the winter season) trace to the times when Kazakhs were nomads traversing the great steppes. Others, like canning (preserving vegetables, fruits and berries in jars of various shapes and sizes), are newer. Behind this simple description, however, lie hours and hours of tremendous effort requiring certain skills mastered throughout one’s life.
Children watched as their mothers spent most summer and early fall evenings in the kitchen canning all sorts of foodstuffs. Bountiful gardens (dachas in Russian) supplied abundant amounts of fruits, vegetables and berries during the warm season and, preserved, throughout the cold weather.
Summer came alive in winter just by slinking to the basement and opening a jar of raspberry jam or dolled pickles. The smells of the canned supply were not something one could find in stores.
When fall ended, families brought sogym home from the countryside where relatives slaughtered animals every year. Though nomads preferred horsemeat due to its high nutritional value – its low fat and high protein were necessary for a person travelling long distances – today’s Kazakhs need not confine their choices and tend to buy other kinds of meat, especially beef, for sogym.
The price for a horse started at approximately 300,000 tenge (US$890), increasing based on the animal’s age and special diet adding to its fat content. Families of four typically bought half a horse and a half to a whole cow, which was enough for the winter. They would then spend the entire day putting meat in a big freezer, sometimes a simple wooden box kept outside which would be ok for the northern colder climates, kept solely for this purpose.
Astana resident Almagul Kalenova, 53, has vast experience in canning and sogym procurement. She acknowledges it is a time-consuming process, but believes the efforts are worth it.
“You do it for your family and what you put in jars is taken from your own garden. Most importantly, it is without additives or GMOs and there is nothing better than eating what you made on your own and being sure what is inside,” she said.
Her family’s favourites are canned berries, cucumbers, tomatoes and lecho, a traditional Hungarian dishof tomatoes, peppers and onions. Lecho was very popular in the Soviet Union and is still enjoyed in Kazakh households.
The canning process consists of several important stages, she added. One of the most essential steps is sterilising by placing empty jars and lids in a pot with cold water and letting it boil for 10-15 minutes.
“This is important because it will prevent the food from spoiling and ensure long-term storage,” noted Kalenova.
Though canning can be considered a legacy of the Soviet Union, where food scarcity was common and women canned to ensure the food supply, as time passed the practice became a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Women learned the technique from their mothers, which may explain why it is still popular in Kazakh families, though less common in big cities.
Despite of variety of options now available, many people still tend to have meat ready at home throughout the cold season. The types vary based on a family’s meal preferences.
Most families, however, still have horsemeat in their freezers to prepare various delicacies, such as kazy and shuzhyk, that are served at almost every Kazakh celebration.
Though the meaning of the entrees differs across regions, as many things do in Kazakhstan, the essence is the same. Kazy is a sausage-like dish that includes the rib meat of a horse and fat stuffed into horse intestines along with garlic and other spices. The mechanism for making shuzhyk is almost the same, but includes not only the rib meat, but other parts of the animal as well. This process usually sounds strange to an outsider, but for a Kazakh it is tradition.
Kazy and shuzhyk are kept in freezers along with other pieces of meat and are usually cooked for beshbarmak, a traditional Kazakh meal.
The process of slaughtering the animal is also very important and the person accomplishing this difficult task must be competent and know the structure of an animal body and the entire procedure.
Tansyk Umbetova, 77, from Aktobe, prefers to buy meat from just one man, adding there are other very crucial factors in the whole process.
“I trust only one person, because there are certain Muslim rules that should be observed when slaughtering an animal, including reading a prayer. That is why when I need sogym, I call him and wait until he prepares the meat,” she said.
The special person assigned to butcher the animal is usually called the kasapshi (Kazakh for cutter). In the countryside, where sogym is mostly prepared, there are few people who practice the art.
Once the meat is slaughtered, men and women start separating and salting it. When the process ends, mostly at the close of day, women cook kuyrdak, a traditional Kazakh meal prepared after sogym that includes stewed liver, heart, lungs, kidneys and onions.
Families invite relatives and neighbours to share the festive meal. Meat preparation evolves into sogym basy, a tradition that brings families and friends together.
“This is our tradition that we inherited from our ancestors. It is also a celebration; we invite guests to share the meal, but this is not as common today as in the past,” said Dosymzhan, 60, who preferred to be called by the first name.
Different generations, however, have different perspectives.
“I do not think that people should make a cult of slaughtering an animal. I am not saying that I am against sogym, but sometimes the whole process is exaggerated,” noted Laura Karibayeva, 26, in an interview for this story.
She also feels canning takes too much time that could be spent with one’s family or on personal issues.
“I do not think that this is necessary. You spend so much time preparing it, that if combined, makes you spend the same amount of money should you buy canned goods from markets,” she said. “Not mentioning that you have to have enormous space to keep it somewhere throughout the winter.”
Despite various opinions and changing trends, winter preparation is undoubtedly a funny, though at some point difficult process that brings families together. And what could be better?