Kazakhstan – The first real beshbarmak
After the tranquility and greenery of Prague it was particularly surreal to return to Astana. There are many reasons for this. One strange occurrence was the fact that we touched down a little after 4.30am…in what was pretty much daylight. Such are the extremities of this climate that we now rarely see night – a warming contrast to the cold and long winter nights we experienced a few months back. The main reason, however, is that we are now close to the end of our first year at the school, and is it natural to expect one’s mind to drift towards what will happen in the near future.
What you see in the picture is nothing to do with travelling away from Kazakhstan, however. It is in fact the very essence of this country, its national dish which is revered from Aktau to Aktobe and down to Almaty (a lot of cities start with the letter A here, for reasons unknown to me). The dish that is desired at weddings and funerals, by presidents and peasants – beshbarmak is Kazakhstan.
Kazakh fun fact: Beshbarmak is Kazakh for ‘five fingers’, and you are supposed to eat it with your hand. Once the ingredients are explained, you may realise that this isn’t the easiest task to master…
I have had this dish of pasta, potato, onion and meat before on excursions. However, I have been constantly told by the Kazakh department this year that beshbarmak is best when cooked lovingly in the home. It was time to put this to the test.
Obviously modern Kazakhs don’t live in yurts anymore, but you get the point. A small horde of naïve teachers with empty stomachs spent an evening sampling the delights of Kazakhstan. And beyond, as I have no idea where strawberries and cherries (not to mention lettuce that costs us a small fortune) come from in this arid land.
The naivety comes from us thinking that this would be a relatively quiet and short evening. Alas, we discovered that a Kazakh ‘meal’ is in fact many meals and takes many hours. If you are thinking, however, that my tone suggests this is a problem, you are very much mistaken. It is in fact a joy to sit, talk and savour the various courses served. We had salad, beshbarmak, plov, cake, ice-cream, and fruit. Not to mention a glass or two of wine.
We were more than full after beshbarmak. Due to the size of each dish, it is difficult to choose a ‘main’ course like we would for a standard three course meal, but it would probably be this. The meat comes from various animals – horses, cows and sheep to name but three – and is left to simmer and amalgamate with the water that it is cooked in for hours on end until each piece is tender. The horse often comes in the form of a sausage, known locally as kazy.
We spent a lovely evening eating this most delectable of foods, and only left due to a combination of keeping the baby awake and my desire to watch the football. Euro 2012 has started, you see. Many of you are aware that I quite like my football, and this tournament will once again become a priority for me for the next few weeks. Especially as I am writing this from one of the host countries…
But that is for another time. The week after returning from Prague has been all about reaffirming my love for Kazakh life and culture. Should I ever get married, I will happily include beshbarmak on the menu!
Love you all