On being a guest in Central Asia

Tea is a must at every gathering
Tea is a must at every gathering


Hospitality is assumed in Central Asia and being a guest is a big part of what it means to live in Kazakhstan.  If you are planning to visit this part of the world, here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Guests always bring a small gift for the host. For normal occasions, a nice box of chocolates usually suffices.

2. Traditionally, the host gives a small gift to a guest the first time they visit.

3. Honored guests are seated furthest from the door.

4. Coming on time is usually not expected. I made the mistake of coming on time to a holiday feast. I was the only one there for a good forty minutes before the guy who invited me (the host’s son) even arrived. Of course, there was nothing to do but sit and let his mother force me to eat. Even if you do you come late, food might not be quickly forthcoming. For example, if the family butchers a sheep in your honor, it takes some time to clean, prepare and cook it.

5. Eat slowly. No one will be in a hurry and the hostess will push more food at you as part of her role. The phrase “help yourself” does not compute in Kazakh hospitality–it is the job of the hostess to make sure your plate and teacup are full.

6. Alcohol is often a part of dining and celebrations. Be self-disciplined if you do choose to drink because the host may push more alcohol at you. When offered alcohol, I tell the host I don’t drink. If they keep insisting, I say I’m “za rulem / за рулем” (literally “behind the wheel,” i.e. “I have to drive”).

7. Toasts toward the end of the meal are common. People may often make toasts to your health, happiness and prosperity. I’m not one for making toasts because things like health, wealth and fertility are in God’s hands and any toast from me would simply be empty words. But when I do have to give a toast, I usually try to thank the people present and express my hopes for the future.

8. Meals are often eaten while sitting on cushions on the floor. There may be a low table or simply a tablecloth spread on the floor. A tablecloth on the floor is treated like a table and the same rules apply–no feet on the table.

9. Bread is sacred in Central Asia. The flat bread should be placed on the table face up. Central Asians rarely throw bread away. Old bread is left out for the poor or for animals.

10. Kazakhs were nomads, and their diet today is still heavy on red meat–beef, mutton, and, most expensive of all, horse. Vegetarians beware: expect some sort of meat to be the star of the show. As an American, I had never eaten horse before coming to Kazakhstan. It’s still not my favorite meat by far, but it’s worth a try, at the very least for the sake of the hosts who worked hard to prepare the meal.

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