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Breaking bread: black tea and beshbarmak in southern Kazakhstan

A family meal in the city of Turkistan proves the perfect time to discuss the country’s three decades of independence, its nomadic customs and the tradition of horse meat.

Zhanbolat — a wood and leather craftsman since childhood — shows me his proudest creations. Among his prized collection is a dombra, one of Kazakhstan’s oldest string instruments.

Photograph by Abigail King
By Jess Vincent
Published 15 Dec 2021, 15:00 GMT, Updated 23 Dec 2021, 10:58 GMT

When I arrive, Gulzira opens the door. Her daughter, maybe two years old, clings to her legs, her sleepy brown eyes scanning me suspiciously. Behind them, two older girls push each other to the door giggling, while a teenage boy — dressed in cargo trousers and a velvet hat with a silver trim — stands to attention. The whole family, it seems, knew I was coming.

“Hello, should I take my shoes off?” I ask, noticing that everyone inside is barefoot. Gulzira nods, so I place my boots in a crowded shoe rack between pink, fluffy slippers and scuffed velcro Reeboks.

Inside, the carpeted floor — deep red and beige, with intricate woven patterns – is deliciously warm, like walking on heated clouds. Red-and-gold painted swirls stretch from floor to ceiling, while silver flecks on the skirting boards shimmer like moonlight on water. As his family look on, Zhanbolat — a wood and leather craftsman since childhood — shows me his proudest creations: a lacquered camel bearing a spear and shield; an antlered deer nailed to the wall; an intricately embroidered leather horse saddle with long, twisted tassels, commissioned, Zhanbolat says, by a top rider in the city.

Among his prized collection is a dombra, one of Kazakhstan’s oldest string instruments. A glance from Zhanbolat, and his son begins to play a nameless Kazak folk song. The dombra only has two strings, but the sound is strangely hypnotic — twangy, but soft and rhythmic; a sound I can imagine hearing at a medieval banquet. As I listen, Gulzira — wearing a floor-length, blue and white tunic and pink headscarf – glides past us, cradling giant-sized noodles like a newborn baby. The rooms fills with the smell of slow-cooked meat and onion broth. Dinner is ready.

Eating in Zhanbolat and Gulzira’s home wasn’t part of the plan. I’d arrived in Turkistan — the newly appointed capital of the sparse Turkistan region, in southern Kazakhstan — two days earlier to visit 14th-century mosques and try modern Kazak cuisine in the ancient city’s newest restaurants. As my guide, Sergei, showed me around the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi — an 800-year-old mosque and resting place of Turkic poet and Sufi mystic, Khoja Ahmed Yasawi — I posed the question: “Can we have dinner with a local family tonight?” He looked at me in silence. This was, he said, an unusual request. “Leave it with me,” he finally added. 

Once the sun had set, a car with tinted windows pulled up outside my hotel. Inside was Zhanbolat, dressed in a midnight-blue velvet coat with embroidered silver cuffs and a white hat. We drove east along Turkistan’s newly built central highway — floodlit like a football stadium and flanked by freshly laid grass — towards Zhanbolat’s neighbourhood. As we turned into a road with no streetlights and only a couple of single-storey cement buildings, Sergei said: “We’re here. And by the way, there’ll be a lot of food.”

Sergei hadn’t been wrong. Before the young player can finish his tune, Gulzira ushers us from the hallway into the dining room. The table, low to the ground and covered in a shimmering silver tablecloth, is dazzling: golden cake stands hold almonds, dried apricots and rocks of yellow sugar that look like giant, uncut diamonds. There’s baursak (doughy bread parcels fried in lamb fat), qurt (tiny balls of dried sour cheese), quark cheese soaked in honey and a tomato and paprika preserve. Mini Snickers bars, dates, candied melon and plates of cucumber and tomato salad are also on display.

“There aren’t many dining rooms like this left in Kazakhstan. During the Soviet era, Kazak traditions were suppressed. But things are changing now.”

Photograph by Abigail King

“Please, sit here,” Zhanbolat says, pointing to the far end of the table. As we take our seats atop plush red cushions laid out on the floor, Sergei explains that, in Kazakhstan, honoured guests always sit furthest away from the door. “This tradition, like sitting low to the ground, comes from our nomadic ancestors,” explains Sergei. “The warmest place in a yurt is far away from the door. It’s safest from any unexpected attacks, too.”

Safely seated, Zhanbolat serves me a salty meat broth in a hand-carved wooden bowl. As we sip the soup like tea, I take a moment to admire the room. There are patterns and shapes of many colours — gold, blue, red and silver — on almost every surface, from the cushions and curtains to the walls and carpets. Kazakhstan’s coat of arms — a pair of golden-winged horses poised for battle set against a turquoise sky — is attached to the ceiling. “There aren’t many dining rooms like this left in Kazakhstan,” Zhanbolat says. “During the Soviet era, Kazak traditions were suppressed. But things are changing now.”

With Kazakhstan preparing to celebrate its 30th year of independence, I ask — between sips of soup — whether Zhanbolat has noticed a return to Kazak values and traditions over the past three decades. “Kazak identity is returning,” he replies. “When I was young, I couldn’t make a living as a craftsman. Now there are workshops to teach Kazak crafts in the city and Turkic festivals like Nauryz have been resurrected.”

As we finish the broth, Gulzira and Zhanbolat serve the main course: a sharing plate of lasagne sheet-sized noodles topped with slow-cooked lamb, kazy (horse-meat sausage) and chyk (onion broth). We’re eating beshbarmak, Kazakhstan’s national dish and a favourite celebratory meal.

“We were the first people to domesticate horses,” says Zhanbolat as he serves me the largest slab of meat, a privilege granted only to the most honoured of guests. “Foreigners find it strange, but horse meat has been part of our diet and culture for centuries.” When I ask Zhanbolat why he likes this dish so much, he smiles. “Horse meat gives you strength,” he says. “Strength gives you love; love gives you children. What else is there?”

I tuck into the beshbarmak, or ‘five fingers’ (the dish is traditionally eaten with the hands). The lamb is tender, while the noodles — smooth and comforting like a warm blanket — are laced with onion, black pepper and strong, meat-broth flavours. The boiled kazy sausage, made with meat and fat from the ribs, is a little harder to stomach; marbled with inch-thick fat, it has an intense, gamey flavour. “We can’t impress someone from Europe with our buildings,” says Zhanbolat as he hands me a bowl of ak serke, another meat broth, this time mixed with lemon and fermented camel’s milk to settle the stomach. “But we can impress you with our food and culture. That’s what makes us special.”

To finish, Gulzira serves tea from a Russian samovar into china cups while we tuck into baklava and dates the size of apples. It’s late and I’m thinking I should probably bid farewell, but conversation quickly turns to the future. “Kazak people are always thinking about what’s next,” says Zhanbolat, with the last sip of his black tea. “But I look at my children, and they’re going to university and have real opportunities here. If they’re the future, then the future is bright."

A sharing plate of lasagne sheet-sized noodles topped with slow-cooked lamb, kazy (horse-meat sausage) and chyk (onion broth).

Photograph by Abigail King

How to do it

Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa operate flights to Kazakhstan via Istanbul and Frankfurt.

Turkistan’s newly opened airport now receives flights from Istanbul and other international destinations, meaning you can visit the city without a layover in Almaty or Nur-Sultan. Double rooms with breakfast at the Rixos Turkistan start at £63 a night.

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