In recent years, vegetarianism has been growing in numbers worldwide. Though reliable data is lacking on the number of vegetarians around the globe, the trend is there with far-reaching impact.
Plant-based diets are also becoming more common in Kazakhstan. In a country where people are predominantly meat-eaters and recently ranked tenth in terms of beef consumption in an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report, however, opting for a vegetarian lifestyle reflects an interesting phenomenon.
For many households, life without meat is difficult to imagine. Meat saved Kazakhs, once nomads traversing the steppes and forced to withstand cold winters with their freezing temperatures. Meat preserved its significance from their wandering past to the present.
EdgeKZ explored the paradox and growing number of Kazakhs choosing to abstain from consuming meat.
Kazakhs opting for a plant-based diet
People become vegetarians for many reasons, including health concerns, religious convictions and ethical reasons.
Some switch to plants in their effort to reduce human impact on the environment, as research reveals the negative effect of the animal industry, causing CO2 emissions, deforestation and climate change. In some countries, people become vegetarians because they cannot afford to eat meat.
Several years ago, meeting a vegetarian in Kazakhstan would hardly be possible, but now at least one person in one’s orbit is a vegetarian or has tried a meatless diet. What was once a small minority is growing in numbers, with vegetarian cafés and other dining options opening in big cities like Astana and Almaty.
Capital resident Kamilya Baltabekova, 32, became a vegetarian four years ago, embarking on the lifestyle after a woman told her about the adverse consequences of meat eating on health.
“Before that, I ate only white meat, chicken and fish, for two years, abstaining from red meat. I became a vegetarian thanks to a woman who told me about the harmful side of meat. I decided to try. Though I was born and grew up in a traditional Kazakh family where they eat a lot of meat, I was never a big meat eater,” she told EdgeKZ.
After excluding red meat from her diet, she opted to ditch chicken.
“I decided to stop eating chicken as well, as I did research and found that chickens are fed many growth hormones,” she noted.
Going vegetarian was not problematic and her parents supported her along the way.
“I am blessed with my friends and most importantly my parents who took it patiently, probably because I was experimenting with a lot with food and at some point in time I was starving. They were positive about me being a vegetarian after that,” she added.
She admits not everyone has a positive attitude towards one’s dietary experiments.
“The thing is when I am invited to other people’s houses, I usually do not tell anyone that I am vegetarian, because people are not always treating it in a positive way,” said Baltabekova.
She believes vegetarianism is on the rise in the country, with people becoming more conscious about their health and lifestyle. Compared to Moscow and St. Petersburg, however, Astana is not abundant in veggie options, she added.
The younger generation is also embracing a plant-based diet.
For 16-year-old Darya from Pavlodar, ethical reasons and compassion for animals are the reasons she changed her lifestyle. She has been a vegetarian for two years and vegan for one and a-half. She also does not buy fur and leather.
“At one point, I started looking at things bluntly and straight. I saw people treating animals so bad, beating them or yelling at them. Then, I started thinking about what I was eating. I researched this topic, watched documentaries and then I could not look at meat and fish and I was feeling bad even from its smell,” she said in an interview for this story.
She believes all creatures are equal.
“I was so sad about animals; society and people do not respect them. We are equal, all created by nature. It is horrible to imagine people that do not want to recognise it and open their eyes,” she noted.
“I decided to switch to veganism. I was afraid I would have nothing to eat. Within several months, I have studied the topic and excluded any animal-based products,” she added.
Vegetarianism, she noted, means “striving towards absolute harmony in the world.”
Lack of food choices and the high price of plant-based products are common stereotypes about vegetarianism, yet the reality turned out to be quite the opposite, said Darya. Preferring to cook on her own, she said the variety of food products is enormous and those who struggle need to do research.
“If you go deeper into vegan food, it has such an incredible variety of products. People think that without animal products nothing could be cooked. It is not like that. I cooked so much of it and everyone liked it. One just needs to learn how to cook it properly,” she said.
“I saw veggie options emerging in Pavlodar and Astana and I am glad for that, because people care about other people who do not eat meat,” she added.
The teen has a blog on Instagram with more than 2,000 followers, where she talks about what it means to be vegan.
“My family, at first, thought I was kidding, but when they realised my serious intentions, they started to be afraid of health consequences. But I explained it to them properly. I presented facts and scientific research. Now that I know it, I could not go back [to my previous lifestyle]. They can see I became more cheerful,” she said.
Azhar Tomanova, 20, of Almaty, who is currently studying culinary art in Switzerland, considered becoming a vegetarian four years ago while completing a school project. She was a vegetarian, and later a vegan, for approximately six months.
“I had a school project about fast food. I watched many videos on YouTube about it, about McDonald’s and KFC and other fast food. I did not like it. You know how YouTube works; you watch one video, then go to another and end up somewhere else. Eventually, I came across a video about meat and American slaughter houses,” she told EdgeKZ.
The impression from these videos made her stop eating meat.
“I was not only vegan, but did not consume products such as salt, sugar and other artificial additives, bread and everything that was processed. I tried to replace [usual] products with vegan options,” she noted.
“I believe there are some good supermarkets where you can find all these products. It was a challenge for me to study and read the content of products,” she added.
After living plant-based abroad, Tomanova started eating meat again upon her return. She believes people in Kazakhstan are not able to enjoy year-round fresh produce, vegetables and fruits.
“Meat is available every time and we can get everything from it,” she added.
Vegetarian lifestyle expands business opportunities
Sergei Gulyakovsky, one of the founders of Green Bean, an Almaty-based store with vegetarian and bio products, also believes the vegetarian community is growing in Kazakhstan.
The company, founded two years ago, was initially an online shop. It opened a store in Almaty in March.
“The demand is very good. People are interested because they are tired of low quality products that have a negative impact on skin and health. The demand is on the rise. If you look at the content [of other products], there is nothing useful and healthy,” he said.
People turn to a vegetarian lifestyle for different reasons.
“One of our clients, for example, suffered from a severe illness. Books that tell about a plant-based diet helped her. Some do it for ethical reasons and compassion for animals; some for environmental reasons, because the meat industry causes harm to the environment. Some are far from spiritual and environmental aspects; they just want to look and feel good. Like in Hollywood, where almost all are vegetarians, as skin, weight and teeth are getting better,” he added.
Nearly 90 percent of Green Bean’s clients are women and Gulyakovsky believes vegetarianism is an effect of globalisation and the West.
“Fast food came to us in a similar way. Now, vegetarianism is coming to us. A healthy lifestyle in general, being close to nature, causing less harm [to the environment]. Our clients do not use plastic bags; they come with cotton reusable bags. There are now more and more such people,” he said.
He admits not all can afford a vegetarian lifestyle. It appeals largely to middle and upper-middle income individuals, yet the products are becoming cheaper.
“We are not yet at the peak, but getting closer,” he said. “Vegetarianism is a big sphere with a big future.”
Gulyakovsky believes business should be useful to people and Ainagul Abdikanova, founder of 108 Squares veggie café in Astana, has a similar vision. She and her husband opened the restaurant two years ago, demonstrating different sides of vegetarian food. The menu offerings from tofu steak with quinoa and brown rice to chocolate cake make vegetarian eyes happy.
Both are vegetarians with experience – she has been plant-based for seven years; he, for 20.
“We opened in May 2016 in Demeu medical centre. We won a tender. The chief doctor there was also a vegetarian and asked us to show all the beauty and benefits of vegetarian food. Then, we moved to another location with flexible hours for visitors and a diverse menu of vegetarian, vegan and raw food,” said Abdikanova.
Interest in the lifestyle is growing.
“Some make this choice consciously; some have to do this [become vegetarian] due to health. But we continue to actively promote and popularise it. We conduct master classes and inspire others by our example. It is important for us so that more people learn about the benefits of a vegetarian diet,” she noted.
The café patrons are a diverse crowd.
“More young creative people, art people, foreigners, people doing yoga and people who simply have a healthy lifestyle,” she added. “No doubt, vegetarianism is now a mainstream trend. Rational people are very enthusiastic and make a conscious choice.”