Borat, the fictitious, mustachioed, mankini-wearing media personality played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the eponymous cult film, put Kazakhstan on the world map. But Kazakhstan is anything the movie showed it to be. Historically, Kazakhstan was inhabited by nomadic Turkic tribes. The word ‘Kazakh’ comes from the Turkic word ‘Qaz’ meaning “to wander”, while stan means “land” or “place of”, so Kazakhstan means “land of the wanderers”. Since nomadism has been an important element of Kazaki culture and identity, traditional Kazakh cuisine has evolved to suit this wandering lifestyle. And, Almaty is where you can explore Kazakhstan’s cuisine.
The common style is to keep the food durable so that it can last for long, and a heavy reliance on lean meat and soured milk products. Food had to endure extended periods on the road, necessitating the preservation of meat through salting and drying. Milk underwent souring to enhance its longevity, and boiling emerged as the most pragmatic and widely employed cooking method.
In this blog, I have listed some of the main kazaki cuisines.
Kurt: Kurt is one of many fermented dairy products Central Asian herders have been preparing since the Middle Ages, to create a source of sustenance that can withstand many seasons on the road. To prepare Kurt, milk is soured and strained into soft curds and then shaped into small balls or disks before being left to harden in the sun. This turns it into a high-calcium snack, that can be used for many months.
Beshbarmak – the five-finger dish: No food blog on Kazakhstan will be complete without the mention of Beshbarmak, the official national dish. This culinary masterpiece is a lavish feast, featuring boiled vegetables, a flavorful stock, a chyk onion broth, and robust chunks of meat—typically horse, sheep, or lamb. The name “Beshbarmak” translates to ‘five fingers,’ reflecting the traditional eating style. The nomadic life of Kazakhstan couldn’t afford to have heavy indulgence in materialism, and hence the use of cutlery and seats was minimal. In the traditional setup, individuals gather around a low table, seated on the ground, savoring the food with their hands.
Khachapuri – the cheese bread: Honestly, Khachapuri is more of a Georgian cuisine than Kazakhi. Imagine a delectable creation – a golden-brown crust cradling a luscious filling of cheese that melts in every bite. Khachapuri, has indeed emerged as a beloved ambassador of Georgian flavors across the world.
Palau (Kazakh Pilaf) – Palau, a cherished gem of Kazakh cuisine, holds a special place in the hearts of food enthusiasts. Fragrant rice forms the heart of Palau, complemented by an exquisite blend of onions, carrots, and aromatic spices, and crowned with succulent meat. And the best part is that you can savor this symphony of flavors in every nook and cranny of Almaty.
Kuurdak – Originating from Kyrgyzstan, this savory masterpiece has gracefully taken root in the heart of Kazakhstan. Kuurdak weaves together the essence of roasted meat, perfectly mingling with tender potatoes and aromatic onions.
Laghman noodles – Imagine a steaming bowl of broth embracing a bed of noodles, crowned with a harmonious medley of vibrant vegetables and succulent meats – that’s Laghman. This culinary marvel weaves a perfect blend of Chinese flavors with the nomadic essence of Kazakh lifestyle.
Manti – This is a steamed dumpling served with sour cream, and onion or garlic sauce. Lovingly steamed to perfection, Manti is a treasure trove of flavors with each bite.
Shelpek – It is a Central Asian flatbread made with dough consisting of sour cream, flour, milk, salt, sugar, and butter. It is a deep fried in oil just like Indian poori. Adding a layer of intrigue, Shelpeks hold a sacred place in the weekly ritual. Fridays come alive with the aroma of sizzling Shelpeks, a tribute to ancestors’ spirits.
Irimshik – Irimshik, is a culinary masterpiece and the pride of Kazakhstan’s dessert repertoire. Irimshik holds a profound cultural significance and symbolizes the embodiment of joy, abundance, and togetherness.
Where to have authentic Kazakhi cuisine in Almaty?
One of the best places to try kazakhi or Central Asian cuisine is at Navat. While the interior décor might carry a touch of gimmickry, the real magic unfolds on your plate. Navat offers a genuine and immersive experience, where the flavors of Central Asia come alive.
Claiming a well-deserved spot on your list is Shashlik Dvor. Though the place is more Caucasian (Armenian to be specific) than Central Asian, but Shashlik Dvor specializing in Shashlik (skewers or kebabs) has firmly established itself as a go-to destination for authentic Kazakh dining. The restaurant sits in the Dostyk Avenue, it beckons lovers of grilled delights with an irresistible allure.
Another restaurant dishing out some authentic Kazakhi cuisines is the Kishlak. The atmosphere is set with low tea-house-styled tables, creating a cozy ambiance where guests can immerse themselves in the rich and multi-layered flavors of Central Asia. Do try their delectable Manti, and thick and hearty Shorba, a lamb and vegetable broth.
If you are on a budget and still want to explore the gastronomic spectrum of Central Asia, head to the Green Bazaar. This bustling marketplace serves as a melting pot of culinary experiences, where you can find every cuisine mentioned, all at pocket-friendly rates. Take a seat at some shop, unwind, and let the local ladies guide you through the menu in their sing-song English. The place is humble, but the true magic lies in the flavors that grace each dish, and the heartfelt servings of tea, make up for the humble set-up.