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A taste of Kazakhstan

November 16, 2008

16/11/08, Zharkent

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Central Alamty is tastelessly gentrified and tacticfully sanitised from anything remotely ‘Kazakh’; it is only Kazakh in name and geography. It is a sprawling, completely Westernised metropolis, replete with over-priced cafes offering wi-fi internet and dishing up $10 slices of cake, Mercedes/Land Rover/Porsche SUV’s careening down wide avenues, Soviet war memorials, and huge supermarkets where you can purchase anything from French Brie to sushi to Heinz baked beans. It is flanked to the south by towering mountains which boast the Chimbalak ski resort, where the town’s more wealthy (and, more often that not, Russian) inhabitants stretch their legs.

Leave the centre, though, and you are quickly faced with a very different picture. Tree-lined, paved avenues are replaced by uneven, unlit dirt roads; the atrocious architecture of Soviet-style apartment blocks fades into the quaint simplicity of single-story, almost barn-like wooden houses; the upmarket shopping malls filled with designer labels are substituted by the Barak Holka bazaar, an endless maze of haphazard containers and stalls that runs five kilometres along a road to the west of the city.

It is in this bazaar that one begins to get a real taste of the contemporary character of Kazakhstan’s cosmopolitanism. A distant relation of J’s, Mahmut, (his aunt’s partner’s brother) lives in Almaty. Ethnically Kazakh, the brothers and their siblings were born and raised in Istanbul and are now scattered all over the planet, in what reads like the locations of an haute couture label: London, New York, Zürich, Almaty.

Mahmut imports Turkish leather coats from Turkey and sells them in Barak Holka, and invited us to see his shop. The inside of the container was made to feel warm with imitation wood panelling, and we were immediately offered seats and tea. We were joined by the merchants in neighbouring shops: an Kazakh who had lived in Iran, Turkey and Russia, and an Afghani who boasted the same. After we had finished the tea and exchanged some phrases in rudimentary Farsi, Mahmut invited us to lunch. We followed Mahmut and the Afgani through the labyrinth of fox fur coats, goat hair shawls and leather boots to the main road, which we crossed and entered a whole new maze. ‘This is the Chinese bazaar’, Mahmut said.

Indeed! The elaborate clothing had been replaced by mounds of industrial plastic bits and bobs, fairy lights, footballs, toy trucks and sandals.

A few more minutes of wandering, we arrived at our destination: a small white container which was an Afghan restaurant on the inside. We were introduced to Ahmed, the owner, who spoke Arabic because he had spent some time in Saudi Arabia as a cook. Now, he served up what Mahmut called ‘the best shashlyk (lamb kebab) in Almaty’. A grand claim, but when the chunks of meat arrived still sizzling on their metal skewers and we had the opportunity to test its truth, we could not disagree. Sprinkled with a dash of cumin and chilli, the shashlyk was the best I have eaten in my life (i suppose 6 years of vegetarianism puts this statement into perspective).

* * *

Today, in the small village of Zharkent in Eastern Kazakhstan, I learned two interesting things:

– The Kazakhs have a very particular method of making butter. They extract the stomach of a sheep from the slaughtered animal, inflate it, and leave it to dry slightly. Then, they put milk, whey and salt inside the stomach, mix it up, and leave it to ferment. This process doesn’t take long, only a few days, but the stomach prevents the butter from spoiling. It can literally be preserved for years in this way. And despite the seeming grossness of its production, the taste is exquisite: light, fresh, with a slight but pleasant arome de mouton…

– ”The only thing that loves meat more than a Kazakh is a wolf”

-Kazakh saying

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