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.
While Europe continues to reel from the ever-widening horsemeat-in-the-food-supply scandal that has gripped the continent for the last several weeks, attention is now also being paid to those places in the world where eating the meat is the norm.
Among those places, of course, is Kazakhstan, the world's number two producer of horsemeat and probably one of the few countries whose national dish -- beshparmak -- is made using horsemeat. The topic of Kazakhs' fondness for horsemeat has frequently entered Borat territory, more the butt of jokes than the subject of serious discussion, but a new article published by Steppe magazine offers what is a refreshingly sober and unsqueamish look at this culinary tradition. From the article, by author Robert Chenciner:
So, what does horsemeat taste like? The extremely lean cuts are rich, dark and deep-red, slightly sweet, redolent of venison but much more tender. Because the horses are steppe reared, in what must be an original source of the term ‘free range’, there is little fat. In the great intestinal sausage the fat tastes like the richest butter.
At the rear of the market in Stepnogorsk, arranged in rows of wooden stalls, was the covered, refrigerated meat section. Through plastic cold doors there were about 40 stalls in a clean and chilly room. Only one sold horsemeat (and beef). The others sold beef, chicken, and mutton.
In an effort to place their national cuisine on the world stage, a group of chefs in Kazakhstan is making a run for the Guinness Book of World Records. Their entry? A massive batch of beshparmak, a Central Asian dish traditionally made out of horse meat cooked with noodles and potatoes. According to the Tengri News website, in honor of this Friday's Kazakh Independence Day, the chefs recently cooked enough beshparmak (or beshbarmak, as it is also called) to feed more than 1,000 people, serving the what must have been a mountainous pile from a four-meter diameter plate.
Granted, a horse meat and noodle dish may not ignite the world's appetite for Kazakh food, but in Kazakhstan (as well as Kyrgyzstan) beshparmak is an essential and well-loved part of weddings and other celebrations where, washed down with vodka, it is frequently served to groups that number in the hundreds. To learn a bit more about the dish and its place in Central Asian food culture, I turned to Talant Sultanov, Vice President for Finance at the American
University of Central Asia in Bishkek and a great promoter of Kyrgyz culture (as a student, he helped turn the campus of Columbia University on to the joys of drinking fermented mare's milk (kumis)). Here's our email exchange on the subject of beshparmak:
What's the best way to describe beshbarmak?
Beshbarmak is a traditional dish in Kyrgyzstan that is made of meat (lamb, or horse), pasta, and potatoes. Depending on the region the dish is served in, the meat and noodles are served in chunks or very-finely cut. The name of the dish is translated as “five fingers”. There are a couple of theories for the name: 1) traditionally beshbarmak is eaten with the hands, using the five fingers; 2) an alternative theory is that the best beshbarmak is the one where the meat used for it has fat the height of five-fingers.
Central Asia's Aral Sea used to be a fisherman's paradise. Today the body of water has shriveled up almost completely, with former fishing villages now finding themselves some 20 kilometers from the waterfront. In Kazakhstan, an effort is underway, though, to restock the that country's portion of the with fish and revive the local fishing industry. From an article in The Ecologist:
It is jarring to drive on what was once the Aral Sea. The Ecologist is en route to see the Kok-Aral Dam, some three-hours from Aral City on the border between the North and South Aral Sea and the delta of the Syr Darya River. The desertified sea bed is now home to camels and horses, grazing lazily on bits of grass. A couple of ships lie stranded along the drive, but the fabled ship cemeteries have gone, the victims of looting for scrap metal.
Once the water comes into to view, it isn't the rich wetland ecosystem it once was, but there are now signs of life returning. A few herons, ducks, storks and seagulls can be seen along the shoreline.
Already the Kok-Aral dam has provided a lease on life for the nearby villages. Water levels, which originally were 53 metres above Baltic Sea level, and at the lowest, 38 metres, have now increased to 42 metres above Baltic Sea level. Salinity has decreased 5 times, which has enabled 7 fish species to return, and fish catch has increased 10-12 times.
The Ecologist visits a small fish processing centre near Karaterren village. Along with flounder, there is carp, pike perch, and catfish all caught on the day using small motor boats. Batyrkhan Brekeev, a fisherman and the son and the father of fishermen, recently returned to fishing after years as a 'businessman'.