Top 10 Kazakhstan food secrets

Shopping for our Christmas meal, I began compiling a mental list of some secrets to success when it comes to food in Almaty.

I knew my husband was thinking along similar lines when he snapped a quick photo of canned horsemeat.

So without further ado, here is a top 10 list that my fellow expats will get a kick out of and will leave the rest of you thinking we have all truly gone nuts.

Number Ten. Anything, I mean anything, is a potential pizza topping. Shredded carrot? Yep. Canned corn. Oh yeah. Uncooked bacon. Definitely. And while we are on the subject, what is up with Russians and uncooked pig fat? Anyone tried it? On bread like I’ve been told is the best?

Number Nine. Pickles and cucumbers are really interchangeable. At least that is how I realized Central Asian had changed me when I served my children sliced cucumbers to put on their sandwiches today. For the record, they didn’t bat an eye.

Number Eight. While we are talking about cucumbers, did you know that “cucumber” is code for having a baby boy? And “tomato” is code for a baby girl? You only would have to live here a few months to understand why. A cucumber and tomato salad is served at almost every meal.

Number Seven. Contrary to what I grew up being taught and is still being told to us by nutritionists in the West, chicken is not actually meat. Oh no. Neither is duck, turkey, goose or any other fowl. Anything that includes such a protein is not a true meal, but merely a snack. Don’t know how I survived most of my life on snacks….

Number Six. And speaking of meat, let me assure you that it is the most important part of eating. I once watched my students polish off dessert only to head back for more MEAT. Which they polished off in true Kazakh fashion. Then they told me that the three secrets to Kazakh cooking are meat, meat and meat!

Number Five. Since meat is so important, it would be foolish to omit a reference to the most hallowed (and expensive) meat: konina (or horse meat). Not to say that Kazakhs don’t love horses. They do. It’s just that as nomads, they were far too practical to let any meat go to waste. And then it became a delicacy. In fact, Kazakhstan even petitioned the Olympic Committee to be allowed to import horsemeat into EU territory so their athletes would feel prepared to compete.

Number Four. And as far as not wasting any meat, let me warn any quasi vegetarian to not even think about walking into the meat section of a Central Asian bazaar. I’ve seen heads, tongues, intestines, you name it. Not for the faint of heart. Or for anyone who doesn’t want to cringe every time they handle local currency. Those who live here know exactly what I mean.

Number Three. When in doubt, plov. It took me awhile to understand that almost every person I met eats from a list of about 20 main dishes that is shared by the majority of the population. These entrees are served at every local restaurant, with only slight variations. Once you master these 20, you are practically local Funny thing is, I had never heard of any of them before coming here. And unless they’ve lived overseas, my students can’t comprehend of life without them. The entree pulled out for every holiday or joyous occasion is …. drum roll please … Plov. Rice with plenty of oil, meat (please see above), onions and carrots. It’s a fearsome dish to master, but no worries. As stated above, you can order it to-go by the kilo practically everywhere.

Number Two. My students might think that meat is the secret to Kazakh cuisine, but judging by the amount of space it takes up at the supermarket, mayonnaise takes a close second. It is used all the time. In fruit salads. In vegetable salads. In soup. Fajitas. And, for starving students, on bread. The French would be proud. Americans would be jealous. Because for all that mayonnaise-eating, people just don’t seem to gain a lot of weight.

Number One. You can know how important on occasion is just by looking at the display of fruit on a table. The biggest parties have it all. We are talking apples, pears, persimmons (which I now love), pomegranates, kiwis, bananas, pineapples, dates, figs, oranges, melons (including varieties they don’t have back home). And as an aside, did you know that most children Bible books illustrate the forbidden fruit in Genesis as a pomegranate? While I realize that a pomegranate could look a little foreign to an American child, my kids now say that God told Adam not to eat the pomegranate…

I could continue, but I’ll stop there. And lest this post make you wary of visiting, I should add that I’ve never enjoyed eating as much as during my time here. While shocking at times, I’ve learned to try new things and appreciate replicating foods from home made from scratch. It’s truly been an experience I’ll never forget.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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