Kazakh cuisine is heavily based on the nomadic past of the Kazakh people. It is dominated by meat (especially mutton and horse) and various milk products, many of which have no direct English translation. The techniques of preparation emerged out of the importance of ensuring food preservation: thus, there are many dishes based around smoked meat and soured milk. Meat is an important part of the Kazakh diet, and there are numerous jokes about the legendary capacity of Kazakhs for consuming huge quantities of the stuff (the punch lines tend to be of a ‘right, where’s the main course?’ nature). An invitation to a Kazakh feast provides a great opportunity to try many of the classic dishes of Kazakh cuisine together with the rituals that accompany their apportionment, though most dishes are also available in Kazakh or generic central Asian restaurants.
A Kazakh feast tends to be referred to as a dastarkhan, actually the name of the low table around which Kazakhs traditionally sat, on the floor or propped up against cushions, to eat their meals. In rural areas, this form of dining is still common; in larger towns, chairs and tables have taken over, at least among wealthier Kazakh families. On arrival, you will find the table already laden with things to eat, typically fruits, nuts and a range of salad dishes. Tea is served into handle-less cups called pialas, and will be constantly refilled throughout the meal, even as vodka toasts are called for, and other drinks, such as kumiss, a drink of fermented mare’s milk, are also passed round. Appetisers are brought out, focused heavily on sliced meats. Pride of place here goes to various sliced sausages made from horsemeat of varying degrees of fattiness: among the most important varieties are kazy, karta and shuzhuk. Th ere may also be a range of pastries on offer, such as a meat-filled variety, samsa, found throughout the region. Kurt, little balls of dried curd, is a salty snack which has the effect of draining all moisture from your mouth. At some point during the meal a dish of kuirdak will be served. This is made from the internal organs of a sheep or other freshly slaughtered animal: these are cut into small pieces, together with lumps of fat from the animal, cooked in oil, and served with onion and pepper.
Beshbarmak is a traditional nomad dish of finely chopped boiled meat © Nykonchuk Oleksii, Shutterstock
The focus of the meal, and the signature dish of Kazakh cuisine, is beshbarmak. The name means, literally, ‘five fingers’, a reference to the traditional way of eating the stuff and not, fortunately, to its ingredients. It is generally served in a large dish, placed in the centre of the table. It involves large lumps of horsemeat or mutton, boiled on the bone, which are scattered across a bed of flat layers of pasta that have been boiled up in broth. Onion cut into rings, garlic and a scattering of parsley and fennel, completes the dish. The broth, sorpa, is served up separately, in pialas.
Before the beshbarmak is doled out, one tradition that is often incorporated into such a feast, particularly if there is a distinguished guest to be honoured, is the presentation to that guest of a boiled sheep’s head, or koy bas. Since a foreign visitor may well count as the ‘distinguished guest’, be aware that this could be coming your way. The ritual here is that the guest is given a knife, and cuts off pieces from the head, apportioning them to the others around the table. This is traditionally done by identifying pieces appropriate to individual recipients: thus young people often receive a piece of ear, so they may listen well to their elders. You needn’t worry too much about getting this symbolism right; if you can cut small pieces of meat from the head and apportion them, starting with the eldest person around the table and continuing in approximate age order, you will be considered to have discharged your distinguished guest function well. The lumps of meat on the beshbarmak itself are also distributed on the basis of various traditional customs. Thus, elderly or honoured guests tend to be given meat from around the hip, while it is never done to offer brains to children, for fear that they may become weak-willed, or a knee bone to an unmarried woman, lest she be left on the shelf (given the elbow?). Ak nan, a type of bread flavoured with onion, is often eaten with beshbarmak.
Sweet dishes served after the beshbarmak (though they may have been sitting on the table throughout the meal) include irimshik, which is not actually itself particularly sweet: it’s a dry yellowish/orange dish, made of soured cow’s or sheep’s milk that has been boiled and dried. It is, however, an ingredient of the classic Kazakh sweet, zhent, which also contains millet, sugar, raisins and butter and has a rather powdery consistency. Baursaki, small, spherical, fried doughnuts, have an important place in Kazakhstani culture, and feature in many forms of commemorative and celebratory meals. Fruit will also be served at this time. Do expect the unexpected in a Kazakh feast: the kuirdak is, for example, occasionally served right at the end of the meal, after the sweets.
The multi-ethnic character of Kazakhstan and the centuries of trading and interactions along the Silk Routes mean that the cuisine of modern Kazakhstan incorporates a large number of influences alongside those drawn from the nomadic Kazakhs. You will find here some of the dishes popular throughout the region, such as plov, a rice-based dish served with lumps of meat, and pieces of carrot and onion. In Kazakhstan, it is sometimes made in a sweet form, with the addition of dried raisins and apricots. Manty are also popular. These are dumplings, filled with spiced lamb or beef, sometimes with chopped carrot added, and cooked on a steamer. A range of noodle dishes, in particular lagman, are brought from Uyghur cuisine, while shashlik, skewered lumps of various barbecued meats, cooked over hot coals and served with raw onion, is a south Caucasus speciality popular across the region. Korean-style spicy vegetable salads are also found on many menus. Kazakhstan’s large ethnic Russian community has ensured the presence of numerous classic Russian dishes, including salads such as the chopped vegetable in mayonnaise confection described on menus here as olivye but known in western Europe as Russian salad, the ravioli-like pelmeni, sweet and savoury pancakes, or blini, and soups, such as okroshka, a Russian cold soup based on kvass, a fermented beverage made of rye bread, or the traditional Ukrainian and Russian-favourite borscht. In the regions bordering China, traditional Chinese dishes such as noodles and stir fries are also common.
Fuelled by the increasing wealth and aspirations of many Kazakhstanis, a whole range of newer arrivals from around the globe has supplemented these longer-established dishes. Thus, as the Where to eat and drink sections under individual towns make clear, it is possible in the larger cities to find Italian, Mexican, French or Japanese restaurants. Note that in Kazakhstani restaurants side dishes such as vegetables do not usually come automatically with your main dish, and have to be ordered separately. A 10% service charge is typically added. In some top-range restaurants and bars this may be set at 15%. Tipping beyond this is not expected. Many restaurants in Kazakhstan offer a business lunch: this will usually be a set meal or a buffet. These tend to be good value, and are usually served promptly, though they are often fairly unexciting. Restaurants are usually open every day, typically from noon until the last diner has finished up in the evening, though some close for an hour or two mid afternoon. Stolovayas, or canteens, often stay open 24 hours and offer a buffet with a good choice of local dishes for a budget traveller.
The drink most closely associated with the traditional Kazakh diet is kumiss, prepared from fermented mare’s milk, and believed by Kazakhs to have numerous health-giving properties, from the stabilisation of the nervous system to the treatment of tuberculosis. In parts of the south and west of the country, including Kyzylorda and Mangistau regions, it is supplanted by shubat, prepared from fermented camel’s milk, whose advocates ascribe it an equally impressive range of curative properties, recommending it for the treatment of tuberculosis, diabetes and stomach ulcers. Both kumiss and shubat have a slight fizzy quality and a sour flavour, and are definitely acquired tastes. A foreign delegation greeted on arrival into Kazakhstan by their Kazakh hosts may well be confronted with a girl in traditional dress holding out bowls of kumiss and shubat, accompanied by baursaki. Less frequently encountered, but rather more palatable for most western visitors, is kazhe, which is essentially shubat mixed with grains, which soften the flavour and texture of the drink.
Another important drink for Kazakhs is tea. Green tea is popular, especially in the south of the country, but ‘black’ tea, in other words the standard tea of the English-speaking world, is more prevalent. Ethnic Russians drink this black, sometimes with lemon, but, unusually for the region, Kazakhs traditionally drink their tea with milk. Do not be surprised if your host fills your tea cup only half full: it is an invitation for you to continue speaking. Once your cup is filled, you know it is time to leave. Coffee tends to be hit-and-miss, though there is an increasing range of coffee places offering the cappuccinos and lattes you get back home.
Although some Kazakhstanis refrain from alcohol on religious grounds, the legacy of Tsarist and then Soviet rule has brought with it a tradition of vodka drinking. There are numerous local brands, from expensive varieties such as Snow Queen, which boasts that it has been distilled five times, to cheap and rather unpleasant products. You should avoid the cheapest offerings, particularly from outlets such as kiosks. Kazakhstan also produces a broad range of drinkable if rather sweet brandy, known locally as konyak. There are plenty of Kazakhstani beers: brands to look out for include Beliy Medved, Shymkent and Karaganda. However, in swankier bars and restaurants in Nur-Sultan and Almaty, local beers and spirits do not always feature on the menu, as they have been elbowed out by imported products. Viticulture has also been gaining momentum. Arba Wine have been producing quality wines since 2010 that have regularly won prizes at international fairs. Menus in swankier restaurants in Almaty and Nur-Sultan feature Arba Wine.
Rapid economic growth in Kazakhstan in the early 2000s and increasing interest from foreign investors have transformed the situation with accommodation across the country. In Almaty, Nur-Sultan and the oil-boom towns of the west, smart four- and five-star hotels run by international chains cater to the upper end of the business travel market. Elsewhere, once-shoddy Soviet hotels have been modestly refurbished, and new mid-range ones built, though often in rather bland buildings (frequently faced with silver-coloured metallic-look tiles, for some reason). Middle-class and wealthier Kazakhstanis have also shown interest in smarter accommodation in resort areas, from lakeside hotels around Borovoye to chaletstyle mountain retreats in the Zailysky Alatau. Less fashionable, but equally popular family resort areas, such as Lake Alakol, offer family-run and very reasonably priced bed and breakfasts, while greater numbers of young people and backpackers visiting Kazakhstan, mean that both Almaty and Nur-Sultan now have a good selection of hostels for budget travellers to choose from.
What more authentic Kazakh experience could you have than staying in a yurt? © Maria Oleynik
Another budget option are the very basic dorms or private rooms with shared bathrooms, the so-called ‘retiring rooms’ at most of the major railway stations, though it would simply get too depressing to use these for more than the occasional night. Overnight train journeys themselves offer a good deal for the budget traveller, as you get a night’s ‘accommodation’ thrown in with your transport. And at the time of writing there was still to be found in most regional capitals at least one survivor from the hotel styles of the Soviet Union, with a dizhurnaya (a lady in charge of distributing keys and assisting guests) on every floor, clunking lifts and stucco-covered lobbies. The great merit of these places is that they invariably offer a wide range of prices, with at least some budget-end rooms with worn-out parquet floors and tiny wooden beds. Some have now been surprisingly well renovated and maintained without too much of an upward effect on the prices.
Camping in the wild, including those national parks that do not have strict restrictions in place, is usually allowed, though as ever choose your site with care, taking local advice. There are also some well-organised camping sites, in particular in the Altai area. Otherwise, homestays are a good option, and locals often rent rooms out in rural areas. The range of NGOs providing such homestays has unfortunately declined, but asking around usually works. It is of course important to inspect the room on offer before agreeing to stay. Alternatively, Eco Centre in Almaty can help in finding a suitable homestay accommodation option.