I remember the precise moment I began a lifelong love of Kazakh food. I was sitting at a dingy plastic table with some friends at a food cart in Karaganda, a rather industrial town in the center of Kazakhstan, and we were grabbing some lunch after a very long morning trying to teach idiomatic English to some college students.
It was the summer of 2003, and Marina, who served as my guide and translator, was explaining what was available. “You can get shashlyk, if you like, which comes with naan, or there’s baursak if you want something sweet.” These foods sound exotic, even dangerous (if one wanted to be dramatic about it). But they are also delicious.
That day, I settled on a small plate of manti: steamed dumplings stuffed with seasoned mutton or horse and bits of pumpkin sprinkled with hot pepper. With it I drank a somewhat non-traditional drink: orange Fanta. This is how things work there: delicious soda (Asian Fanta is made with sugar instead of corn syrup, and tastes better), delicious traditional dumplings. It’s wonderful.
As we ate in silence — good food leaves little room for conversation — the smell of Marina’s shashlyk began to haunt me. Kebabs of lamb, beef, horse or pig interspersed with bits of fat and pieces of bell pepper marinated in vinegar and roasted over coals, shashlyk is a staple fast food in most of the former Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan they usually serve it with a pile of raw onions and freshly cooked naan, or flat bread. Marina and I shared a few balls of baursak, which are doughnut holes. If they’re made flat, they’re called shelpek (both are sprinkled liberally with sugar).
It was tough walking home, I was so full. Kazakhstan’s food is mostly meat, as one would expect from a culture descended from nomads. One of the most popular dishes is a spicy feat of alchemy called beshbarmak. Literally “five fingers” — it is meant to be eaten with the hands — beshbarmak is boiled horse and lamb, served on top of thick noodles and sprinkled with hot pepper. Often, it is served alongside a greasy bowl of mutton stock called sorpo.
Many Americans would balk at the more traditional Kazakh cuisine. The astonishingly fatty preparations of animals and bits of animals we would never think of eating in the United States can turn even the strongest stomach. Even so, I was captivated by it. Perhaps because I did not grow up around horses, the idea of eating them didn’t cause me a moment’s distress. (I felt otherwise when I learned, upon finishing an aromatic soup at a Korean restaurant, that sobaka, the main ingredient, means “dog” in Russian.) While eating huge amounts of fat, whether seared on a mangal grill or floating on top of a dark broth, is not part of my normal diet, it was surprisingly tasty.
I was less sanguine about kumys. There is a whole universe of milk-based products in Kazakh cuisine. Kumys, or fermented mare’s milk, is probably the most famous. I first smelled it on a train from Almaty to Karaganda, as my gruff, middle-aged bunkmate offered me a sip after hearing me complain of an upset stomach. I crinkled my nose and politely declined. Months later, I tried it. If the thought of fizzy, sour yogurt sounds appealing, be my guest.
The ghetto where I stayed in Karaganda — a tangle of Soviet apartment blocks, some of which were literally crumbling into dust, plopped in the middle of a huge grassy field — was surrounded with grizzly old babushkas selling sunflower seeds by the bag and kumys by the liter. You could practically smell the homemade bottles of the kumys (and the camel-derived sister drink, shubat) turning sour as they rotted in the sun. I’d have to try not to stare at them when I waited for the minibus to take me to work. I didn’t always succeed.
Every culture has some ancient dishes that are beloved but need a lot of love to enjoy. Though raised with a thorough appreciation of Italian food, I think baccala (salted cod with olives) is disgusting. I’ve never learned how to love beef jerky. Though many adore pâté, I find the fatty texture totally unpalatable. It doesn’t mean Italian, America or French food is disgusting, just that some of their dishes don’t appeal to my sense of pleasure.
The same is true of Kazakhstan’s food. The super-traditional dishes can be challenging: Horse meat can be a little gamey, though if spiced properly, the constant chewing is actually kind of enjoyable. But the challenge is part of what makes its food so interesting. And tasting the Kazakh spin on imported dishes — shashlyk is particularly delicious — is genuinely delightful. Kazakhs, like everyone else in Central Asia, zealously defend their recipes for plov, which is rice cooked in seasoned broth (basically rice pilaf). The nearest equivalent emotion is Americans guarding their recipes for barbecue sauce or Italians treasure their pasta sauces — theirs is the best, especially if Mom made it, and everything else is horrendous.
Sitting at that food cart, savoring each heady, flavorful bite of manti, watching the old Ladas rumble along the broken pavement as we chatted about what makes each of our countries great — those are the moments that change you. They make you better, teach you to appreciate how others live. And that happens because of, I think, the food we share.
Despite its many pleasures, Kazakh food can sometimes be a bear to make here in the United States, but I’ve been able to work out some shortcuts that make preparing a few dishes much easier. Below is my version of manti, or steamed dumplings. Making the dough for the dumplings is annoying, so I use wonton skins. Because I’m not terribly fond of eating manti plain, I’m also including a spiced yogurt dipping sauce. Not terribly “authentic,” I know. But given the Kazakh love of all things milk, it actually works out really well.
Prepare a steamer of some sort. It can be one of those bamboo contraptions, the steamer basket in a big pot or the folding metal meshes you get in a Dutch oven. Start simmering a couple of inches of water over medium heat. If you’re not using a bamboo steamer, spray the metal with non-stick spray (and if you’re feeling extra adventurous, flavor the water with a pinch of salt and some lemon juice).
In a small bowl, mix together half the ground lamb with half the diced onion and squash. In another small bowl, mix the other half of the ground lamb and diced onion with the pumpkin. If the mixture looks too dry, add a splash of water or stock, but you shouldn’t need it.
Grab a stack of wonton wrappers. Gently pull one off and drop a rounded teaspoonful of either mixture in the middle. Fold over the corners to form a seal, then dip your fingers in cold water and press it tightly closed, leaving no air pockets.
When you’ve made a dozen or so, place them in the steamer basket with a little space between them and steam with the cover on for about 15-20 minutes or until the meat is fully cooked. While they are steaming, prepare your next batch of manti. When the steamed batch is done, remove to a pile to cool slightly, and work in batches until out of meat.
Spiced Yogurt Dipping Sauce
Mix everything together, adding a teaspoon or two of orange juice if it looks too thick.
To serve, arrange the manti in a big circle on a platter, with the yogurt mixture in the middle. Serve the dumplings hot.