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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Kazakhstan

Historic Diet

Kazakh Food - Sheep soup
Sheep soup

Kazakhstan is a large landmass with cold winters, meaning the plant life that can grow in this somewhat inhospitable land is limited by the short growing season. The landscape and changing seasons have forever led the people to become nomadic, moving to where the foods were freshest and where the grass was enough for their animals to eat. Also due to this climate the animal life is limited, but the land has a great tradition of horses.

Due to the short growing season the fruits and vegetables found tend to be hardier root vegetables of small fruits, which include berries, mushrooms, carrots, onions, and wheat among others. The animal life is also limited in scope, but some larger mammals are present and have been used for food for thousands of years. These animals include goats, sheep, and horses, all of which were and still are used for their milk as well as meat. Fish and other seafood are almost completely absent in the Kazakh diet since the country is landlocked, but does border the Caspian Sea.

Culinary Influences

Kazakh Food - Manti
Manti

Kazakhstan has had relatively few culinary changes in its history. The earliest people lived much as the people lived 100 years ago, as nomads who used animals and local foods to make up the diet. These people also tended to boil most of their foods or make sausages with numerous meats and vegetables, two traits that still partially define Kazakh cooking today.

The next great influence came from the people that slowly arrived to and settled in the region prior to, during, and after the Silk Road became a major highway; these people were primarily other Turkic people and they brought new ingredients, but also created new dishes that remain popular in the country today. Pasta, plov, kebabs, and pastries all rose in popularity among the people due to this influence.

Kazakhstan was on the periphery of the Silk Trade for much of history and the influence from this trade also changed the cuisine of the people. As traders came and went they brought with them foods from their homes and altered the cuisine in multiple ways. Perhaps the greatest changes came in the form of rice, which arrived from the east and spices, most particularly from modern day Iran and the south.

The next influence, which made a much stronger impact, was the arrival of the Soviets in the early 1900s. With the Soviets came Russians and numerous Russian foods remain popular today in Kazakhstan. Foods like pelmani (meat dumplings), peroshki (rice, meat, or vegetables cooked in dough), borsch (beet soup), and more became popular dishes, which can still be found in the country today. The Russians also raised the interest in fish, although the poor access to seafood means its popularity is still relatively low today. The Soviets also forced the Kazakhs to settle, leaving their nomadic lifestyle behind and hence making the people less depended on a heavy dairy and meat diet.

In more recent times the foods in Kazakhstan have gained a more international flavor as the major cities, but only the major cities, have adopted some "ethnic" restaurants. Today in Astana or Almaty it is easy to find pizza and hamburgers along with a few Korean, Chinese, and German restaurants.

Staple Foods

Bread: the local bread is generally flatbread called nan and is served with nearly every meal

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Beshkarmak/Besbarmak: the national dish, which means "five fingers" is boiled horse meat or sausage with noodles and broth traditionally eaten by hand
Kazy: one type of horse meat sausage, although there are various types of horse meat sausage that go by numerous names
Mypalau: sheep brain mixed with broth and garlic
Plov/Pilaf: rice fried with meat, carrots, and onions
Shashlyk/Zhauburek: grilled mutton, pork, or chicken sometimes served with raw onions, parsley, and/or a vinegar sauce
Ulpershek: dish of horse heart, fat, and aorta, traditionally eaten by women

Dining Etiquette

If you are fortunate enough to be invited to eat in the home of a Kazakh, be sure to bring a gift of sweets or, if you know your host drinks alcohol, a bottle of vodka. Being invited to a local's home, especially in rural areas, is more common in Kazakhstan than it is in many countries. Once you arrive for dinner at a local's house, remove your shoes and leave them at the door, then your host will show you a seat at a short table, called a dastarkhan. Before the food is served you may be offered a glass of vodka and appetizers; if your host drinks, your presence is considered an event of hospitality and before eating you will likely be offered a glass of vodka and a toast, an offer you should accept.

After you're seated the foods offered and the dining etiquette are fairly relaxed. Some meals begin with appetizers, while others go straight into the main course. Once the main course comes out, generally this consists of meat when a guest is present; the host will serve everyone based on their importance. Be warned, as the guest of honor you may find a sheep head on your plate. You'll probably also be served kumys, which is mare's milk, especially if you visit in the summer months. One thing to remember if dining out with Kazakhs is that most Kazakhs don't eat pork since they are Muslim. If eating out be sure to avoid ordering any pork products; if dining at a local's home they won't serve pork if they don't eat it and few Kazakhs do, although it is available.

Once you have food in front of you, you may be expected to dine with either utensils (cutlery) or only with your hands; be sure to only use your right hand to eat. You'll also be served bread with your meal, which must be eaten in its entirety and placed directly on the table when not eating it; again use your right hand to eat your bread.

When the food is finished, you will most likely be served either kumys and/or tea. Be sure to join in on these drinks and socialize to close the meal. If dining out at a restaurant, check your bill to see if a "service charge" has been added. If not be sure to leave the server a tip of about 10%.

Celebrations & Events

When it comes to celebrations in Kazakhstan, the largest festival is most certainly nauryz, which is a New Year festival that is celebrated each year on the spring equinox. This event celebrates new life as the historically nomadic people have survived the long winter. During this event the people generally join together to celebrate by eating a number of traditional dishes including lamb or horse and bread among other foods.

Drinks

When it comes to drinks in Kazakhstan it begins and ends with dairy products, including milk from camels, cattle, and sheep, although it is the mare's milk that is the most traditional and generally only available during the summer; this is called kumys, but be careful as sometimes this is fermented and alcoholic. Tea is a common non-alcoholic beverage and has taken over as more popular, but less cultural than milk. Other commonly available beverages include juices, soft drinks, and coffee although none are as popular as tea.

Alcohol is popular in Kazakhstan, despite the fact that the people are primarily Muslim, a religion that outlaws alcohol, however due to the people's long history under Soviet rule there is little taboo with drinking alcohol today. Even for locals who don't drink they rarely take offense when others drink. Although all alcoholic drinks are available in Kazakhstan, only beer is truly popular with vodka a distant second. Kumys can also be fermented and hence be a more traditional alcoholic beverage, but like the non-alcoholic version, kumys is less popular than beer is today. If seeking out other drinks like wine or other hard liquors you will be able to find them, although you may be the only person ordering them.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Kazakhstan, but in some of the larger cities it might be safe. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013