Kazakhstan is not famous as a destination for gourmets, but a few chefs are trying to infuse a bit of excitement into a cuisine often accused of being unremittingly dull.
The country’s first international culinary competition brought together around 100 chefs from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Russia last week in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty. Alexander Tregubenko, president of the Chefs' Association of Kazakhstan, told Tengri News that the gathering gave emerging local talent a chance to experiment with new ideas from abroad.
This being Kazakhstan, where equine culture is a prominent part of the national identity, of course horse meat featured prominently on the menu. On the last day of competition, October 31, Kazakh chefs competed for the “Best Chef of the Year” title on the condition their main course included horse meat. Almaty-based Khalmurat Nurdinov took the prize with his fried horse meat seeped in a secret marinade.
It's not clear how this innovation will go down with traditionalists. Kazakhstan's national dish is known simply as kazaksha et, or “Kazakh meat.” It is also called beshbarmak -- or five fingers, because it was traditionally eaten by hand.
Horse-mad Kazakhstan will soon be bathing in mare’s milk if a group of researchers at an Almaty university get their way.
Students at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University have invented a new soap containing one of Kazakhstan’s favorite tipples: fermented mare’s milk. The drink, called kumis in Kazakh, is one of the ingredients in a new line of natural soaps developed at the university, reports Tengri News.
“Right now a lot of cosmetics cause allergic reactions,” researcher Lyudmila Ignatova told the agency. “That’s because they contain various chemical components. We tried to find natural components that would benefit the skin of the hands, face and body.”
The students aren’t the first in the world to cotton on to the commercial value of kumis cosmetics: One online Canadian company is flogging its soap made from a “secret ingredient [discovered] on Mongolia's wild steppes” – you guessed it, mare’s milk – for over $10 a bar. The Kazakh version is a bargain by comparison, retailing for $2-5 a bar – and the researchers hope to drive prices down by buying ingredients wholesale.
A rider demonstrates his skill at tiin ilmei (catching the corn).
You can’t travel too long through the Kyrgyz heartlands without coming across some horse games. Recently the eastern Tajikistan town of Murgab, a region dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz, hosted a festival to celebrate the games.
The two-day event featured four traditional horseback standards: tiin ilmei (catching the corn), in which riders attempt to snag balls of cloth off the ground while riding at top speeds; kyz kuumai (catching the bride), where men on horseback chase female riders hoping for a kiss (if the male fails, the woman gets to chase and whip him); an all-out long-distance horse race; and er odarysh (flip the saddle), a wrestling match in which two riders each attempt to pull his opponent off his horse.
Although organizers had hoped to have the traditional goat polo game of ulak tartysh, only seven horses were available and thus it was cancelled. Still, the crowd of more than one hundred onlookers -- Kyrgyz fans, foreign travelers, and expat aid workers -- at the internationally sponsored festival last month, remained enthusiastic throughout the event.
Well, mostly. One local Kyrgyz man carefully eyed the horses like a connoisseur, noting that the riders were good but the horses needed more experience. As he spoke, the crowd was cheering on a few competitors galloping to the finish of a long race around a nearby hill. One of the horses came to an exhausted standstill about 50 meters before the finish and refused to continue.
The man continued, “You see? Ha! He can’t even finish. Good for him to stop!”
While light rain and sand blew through an awards ceremony concluding the weekend, the crowd applauded as young victors received prizes such as mobile phones, DVD players, and televisions.
When Genghis Khan’s army emerged from the Mongolian steppe back in the 13th century, one of the keys to his success was an equine postal system that enabled messages to travel across his vast and growing empire in a matter of days. He oversaw the establishment of a network of horse stations that allowed riders to exchange their exhausted steeds for fresh mounts and keep on moving.
Now, following in the hoof steps of the Khan’s hordes comes a modern-day take on the 13th-century's information superhighway – the Mongol Derby. Billed as the world's longest horse race, this grueling 1,000-kilometer marathon will retrace ancient routes across the rolling steppe with 25 horse stations set up at 40-kilometer intervals.
This year, the race, which has been held annually since 2009, gets underway on August 10. Competitors aim to complete the course on semi-wild mounts in an exhausting seven to ten days. The event aims to raise money for economic development charity work in Mongolia. It’s the brainchild of The Adventurists, the group that is also behind the annual Mongol Rally, a race from London to Ulaanbaatar in a vehicle with an engine size of one liter or less.
For the riders in this extreme equine test, the keyword is “adventure.” There's no route as such: It's up to participants to make their way between the horse stations as quickly as they can. At the stations each must pick up fresh horses. Accommodation is basic: Competitors either share a ger, a round felt tent, with a nomadic family or sleep under the stars in the wilderness.
New evidence annuls Kazakhstan's claim to be the place where horses were first domesticated. Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia have uncovered evidence that pushes back the date of horse-taming by some 3,500 years.
A 2009 dig in Kazakhstan unearthed proof that horses had been tamed in the area some 5,500 years ago. The discoveries suggested that the horses were ridden and milked by the people living in the area at that time, around 1,000 years earlier than humans previously were believed to have used horses.
But now, DNA and carbon dating tests have revealed finds at Al-Maqar in Saudi Arabia to be 9,000-years old. Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, says these discoveries prove Saudi Arabia is the true birthplace of horse husbandry.
The once-nomadic, horse-loving Kazakhs might be outraged that the Saudi's have usurped their position. A cradle of Kazakh national identity, horse-related sports and food products are widespread in Kazakhstan. Kokpar, a furious version of polo played with a headless goat carcass, is popular in rural areas. Kumys -- fermented mares' milk -- remains a favorite springtime tipple and no Kazakh feast is complete without thick slices of kazy (horsemeat sausage) liberally adorning the table.
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