Hierarchy of Needs: Food

Hearty, healthy, wholesome and meaty.

“The only creatures that eat more meat than Kazakhs, are wolves.”

The bottom of the Kazakh food pyramid would be meat. When I recently asked a Kazakh person if there is a traditional Kazakh salad, like chichuk- the lovely tomato, onion and chili Uzbek salad, he paused and answered: “meat”.

The restaurant I went to last night had ‘Horsemeat Salad’ on the menu. And yes, I have eaten horse.

I ate it at a wedding, in the national dish Beshbarmak. Unlike other dishes, which are more regional, Beshbarmak is strictly Kazakh.

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Beshbarmak can be made different ways and is not really served at restaurants. It’s more like each family has a recipe that varies. It consists mainly of noodles and horsemeat. The kind I ate had thick buttery noodles, horsemeat and a sparse bit of carrot, pepper, squash and parsley. Traditionally a meat broth is served separately.

Kazakhstan is also influenced by Russia, Uyghur people from China, and Uzbekistan. It shares characteristics with its other neighbors and can be called ‘Central Asian’ cuisine. ‘Manty’ is reminiscent of Chinese dumplings and can be served as a pasta dish, or in soup. ‘Plov’ reminds me of Iranian pilaf, or Pakistani biryani, while ‘shashlik’ is any meat grilled on a stick, like Arabic kebabs. Rice and meat, potatoes and meat, noodles and meat, these types of dishes, with a sprinkling of vegetables, dominate lunch and dinner.

Central Asian food

A tasty Russian breakfast influence is in the thin, crepe like pancakes made with buckwheat and served with a dollop of sour cream, as well as ‘kasha’, which can be different kinds of porridge. Borscht soup, caviar and cabbage rolls are popular too.

My favorite regional food to order at restaurants has been ‘lagman’(pictured above). It is a Uyghur food, with noodles, bell peppers and beef, in a nice, spicy, peppery broth. Also, everywhere I have had it, has had homemade noodles, which makes it extra delicious.

There is a lot of good just-baked bread and savory pastries, called samsa. The traditional bread is like a thick wheel. Their Fried bread is irresistible.

bread!

Despite being very heavy on the meat, the grocery stores and open-air bazaars have an excellent variety of fruits and vegetables. I have been told by locals that the produce is so tasty, because it is without chemicals. It really is super fresh and delicious.

You can get some Western food at more expensive restaurants. It will never taste exactly like what you want, but it can provide some satisfaction. Sometimes I miss the ease of Dubai and variety of food, being able to easily order anything to my door.

One thing I love: There is no McDonald’s in the entire country. In Shymkent, there is no KFC. No Burger King, Popeye’s, Hardee’s, Arby’s, Wendy’s etc. This won’t last. They are building a McDonald’s in the country’s capital, Astana.

Currently, I’m experimenting with the variety of pickles. Spicy, pickled garlic and wild cucumbers. Yes please.

Pickles!

No Rest for the Good

Last year I wrote a post, Kierkegaard and Eid Mubarek, about Eid-Al-Adha, here called Kurban Bairam. It is a holiday celebrating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, which is a true test of faith, also called Feast of Sacrifice. Animals are typically sacrificed to represent God’s literal Deus Ex Machina, which at the last minute replaced Abraham’s son with a ram.

I realized the other day that I have lived in three different Asian regions: the Far East, the Middle East and now Central Asia. Each with its own flavor.

Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, has Eastern borders with Mongolia and China, and a Western border that partially rests on the Caspian Sea, which is shared with a few countries, including Iran.

The Silk Road brought Islam here in the 8th century. It was the most important commodity route of the ancient world, responsible for a vast cultural diffusion; sharing, spreading and modifying languages, clothing, technologies, religions and foods, long before the internet.

Islam arrived here when Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba flourished as centers of learning and tolerance. Yes tolerance. While Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, science, philosophy, math and art were thriving in the Muslim world.

As Islam spread in Kazakhstan, it incorporated Tengrism, the country’s shamanistic animism and ancestor worship, seen in cultures of the Far East. Islam here has not changed much since that Golden Era and considers itself very moderate and modern.

It is a majority Muslim country, but very secular, with a tolerant attitude towards other religions. To help keep the peace, proselytizing is not allowed, unless you are here on a missionary VISA.

Kazakhstan is a country with multiple ethnic groups and religions, peacefully coexisting. This has made it the most prosperous and stable Stan ‘of the post-Soviet era ‘Stans’.

On the Ancient Silk road, it now sits between two powerful neighbors, Russia and China, while cultivating a close relationship with the West, in order to bring about its capitalist revolution.

I’m finding this place is both a mix ancient and modern influences, and yet wholly unique. It possibly hosts the crash site of Noah’s Ark, has an Islamic holy site in Turkistan, boasts a navel of the world rock, loved by the New Age, which was probably part of Tengrism. There are petroglyphs that denote sun worship, mausoleums dedicated to great Khans, and Scythian burial mounds full of treasure. To top of this sacred blend, Kazakhstan’s President had the Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation built, as a gathering place for leaders of the world’s major religions to come together.

Every night, I hear the call to prayer, which reminds me of Dubai, but every day at work, it reminds me of Korea. There are few holidays; for local  teachers school is 6 sometimes 7, days a week, working late is the norm and taking sick leave is very frowned upon.

For Eid, Kurban Bairam, we only had only one day off. In Dubai, I had a whole week. My fellow local teachers said we only had one day off because this is not a Muslim country, unlike the Gulf Coast countries. I’m more inclined to think this is a Korean style, Asian trait, where sacrifice to work is valued more than leisure.

But maybe limiting this holiday to one day is just its secular, moderate modern, nature.

To not give favor to one group, to keep the peace, we must work.

Steppes into the Unknown

Apples

“Was Marilyn Monroe Kazakh?”      

Christopher Robbins, Apples are from Kazakhstan

This quote comes towards the beginning of the book, which I have been using to educate myself about the 9th biggest country in the world. I began looking for it over the summer and finding it out of print, finally ordered it from Amazon. I prefer bookstores and eventually, after I had waited weeks for Amazon, I stopped into a Half Price Book location and found their last, single copy. So now I will have two copies, which is wonderful, because it’s an absolutely fantastic travel read.

Last spring, strange doubts about my move had begun to creep in. I liked Dubai: the beautiful beaches, futuristic buildings, ease of communication and the ability to order anything and everything to my apartment door. I had friends and routines. At the same time, I wanted more adventure, more new experiences, more challenge.

I wanted to read unreadable signs and communicate with pointing. But a fear was there too and all summer I had conflicting feelings. I got Apples are from Kazakhstan just days before flying with my life packed up to this unknown place, where I didn’t know anything or anyone.

The book made me believe in my choice again. It made me excited for the journey, hopeful and energized. From the moment I opened it, Robbins pulled me in and made me want to go.

A couple years ago I read, The Botany of Desire, about apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes. Plants humans have cultivated for sweetness, beauty, altered states of consciousness and control. That book fascinated me too, especially the bit about tulips. It changed forever how I looked at this cliché spring blooms. I’d thought them bland. Pedestrian pastel things. The book enlightened me to the history of tulipomani of the Dutch Golden Age, when tulips were exotic, highly desired, and ridiculously expensive.

The Botany of Desire begged the question: Do we cultivate the plants or do they cultivate us? Apples, it said, were bitter and tiny when they originated in Kazakhstan.

I had this idea of the wild, bitter apples and finding the first apple trees when I ordered Apples are from Kazakhstan. Robbins wants to find these origin trees too and many Kazakhs are skeptical. They wonder why he isn’t looking for tulips.

It turns out tulips are from Kazakhstan too.

When the guide brings him to Shymkent National Park to look for apples, she talks about bringing people from around the world to these fields of wild, blooming tulips, poppies and other wildflowers.

I was moving to Shymkent! This seemed like a fortuitous sign.

As Robbins meets Kazakhs historians, guides and intellectuals they share more of the fabulous history of this mysterious place.

Even before the Iron Curtain of the U.S.S.R., the Czars closed Kazakhstan to outsiders. The subtitle to Apples are Kazakhstan, is The Land that Disappeared. Robbins discusses the world amnesia towards this place. It is a collective, massive blank spot.

King Arthur may have been a Kazakh. This is the premise of the quote about Marilyn Monroe, where after Robbins learns of all these marvelous things born from the Asian Steppes, he jokes about the blond icons birth place.

I have taught Middle School Social Studies, which includes history of the Greeks, Romans and Egypt. Textbooks and courses have added the Kingdoms of Ghana, China, Japan and India into the mix, but I had never heard of the Golden Man. The Golden treasures of Issyk Kurgan. Intricately carved relics, with complex designs and incredible craftsmanship, sharply contradict the concept of unsophisticated nomads. I want to see these treasures.

The more recent history caught my imagination too. Here in Kazakhstan I’m in the land of the exiled. Leon Trotsky, Revolution outcast, had a pleasant exile, while authors Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered in forced labor camps.

This is a huge country, with a long and rich history, unique traditions, and beautiful landscapes.

I’ve been here almost a month, learned a lot from Apples are from Kazakhstan and I still have a couple chapters to go. So far, Shymkent is a charming city, not too small, not too big; bursting with parks and tree lined boulevards full of cafes. Random, roadside roses.