As much as I’ve waxed poetic about the alluring and intriguing features of Kazakh people, I found the cuisine just as interesting, albeit slightly less appealing. This is only due to the fact that the majority of Central Asian cuisine seems to utilize lamb, and I am not particularly fond of sheep and other sheep/lamb/mutton/goat foodstuffs. I find lamb to be quite gamey; it has a taste that reminds me of dirt and grass (not that I know what dirt or grass taste like, but it evokes those smells), which unfortunately does not fancy my palate. I’ve even been known to describe the flavor of goat cheese like “licking a hamster.” No hamsters have ever been harmed in my gastro-adventures, but having had dwarf hamsters that I’ve lovingly picked up, kissed, and nuzzled with my nose, goat cheese tastes suspiciously like how little hamsters smell.
I’ve done some research online to determine the cause of sheep-meat funk, and there seems to be several explanations. The most common statement is that Americans have a distorted appetite for bland, tasteless, unnatural, mass-bred, corn-fed livestock, whereby we prefer saline-injected chicken breasts and want our lamb to be indistinguishable in taste from beef. The inevitable followup is that when Americans taste “real,” organic meat that has been grass-fed, our plebeian taste buds just cannot appreciate this higher quality; it is lost upon the uncouth masses, like bumbling tourists who prefer the bland comfort of McDonalds over local options while vacationing abroad.
The second explanation comes from an oil that sheep secrete to make their wool waterproof. This oil, lanolin, is also used in cosmetics, to break in baseball gloves, and in lip balm products. Lanolin may be the cause of the gamey flavor of lamb, I could not confirm or debunk this. The last explanation states that the strong flavor comes from lamb fell, which is a paper thin covering of the outer layer of fat. Removal of this fat may or may not help diminish the gaminess. Apparently there are also musk glands by the shoulder and leg joints, which were originally thought to be the offenders that impart the smell into lamb, but this has supposedly been proven untrue.
Now that I know there is some legitimate reason why lamb has a strong odor, I feel slightly less embarrassed by my aversion to lamb…I’ll justify it with my newly acquired knowledge of lanolin and lamb fell tainting lamb meat.
So what did I enjoy in Kazakhstan, if not copious quantities of sheep? I ended up preferring horse meat! I tried it at an Uzbek restaurant; it was served in plov, both diced and fried with the rice, and also presented as a round medallion atop the plov mound. The meat was dark red, like beef, and tasted like a hybrid of beef and lamb. It was less gamey than lamb, but did not taste exactly like beef.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find that Kazakhstan’s Rakhat (rakhat means pleasure in Kazakh) brand of chocolate was quite delicious. The factory is located in Almaty, close to the Green Bazaar. As you walk past the building, wafts of warm, sweet chocolate hang lazily in the air, enveloping you like hot cocoa on a cold day. Many local Kazakhs had recommended the chocolate bars to me, and Baurzhan bought me some to try. The Kazakh flag is printed on the wrapper, the word “Kazakhstan” is emblazoned in gold font. The luscious, melt in your mouth milk chocolate is as good as any high quality chocolatier. Rakhat’s history seems interesting; acording to Rakhat’s website, “First production of the confectioneries had been arranged in 1942 on the areas of alcoholic beverage factory, using the equipments evacuated from Moscow and Kharkov in the wartime.” (sic) I also just read that Korea’s mega-conglomerate confectionery/department store/hospitality/amusement park/etc. Lotte brand announced plans to takeover Rakhat, buying 76% of Rakhat’s shares for an estimated $157 million. I hope that Lotte will keep the recipe the same…Rakhat chocolate bars and I became close friends during lonely nights in Almaty.
Whenever I travel abroad, a visit to the local supermarket is always on my to-do list. I love examining various jars of canned goods, exploring the different flavors of Lays brand chips (seafood flavor in China, salmon caviar in Kazakhstan), and ogling the baked goods section. Kazakhstan was no different; Almaty and Astana’s supermarkets provided me with ample interesting and unique finds. Bagged ketchup was placed in refrigerated sections, as was canned caviar. The dairy section was lined with camel and horse milk, while cow milk ranged from 0.5% fat all the way up to 10% fat (there was a separate section for cream too). The fruits and veggies looked slightly banged up, and I found the produce at the bazaar to be better quality and more variety. Cans of horse and sheep beckoned to be examined with its coloring book like illustration, perhaps as a way to make the meat inside less scary.
I brought home some cans of ikra, or caviar, a can of horse meat, and a can of random beef parts. The depiction of a yurt on a grassland enticed me to buy the can. Among the 3 cans of caviar, the typical salmon roe was extra briny and fishy, whereas the light yellow colored roe was supposedly pretty good (I didn’t try any). My prized possession, the black caviar, was nutty and not briny at all. I dug around on the internet for a while and it turns out it’s because I bought faux-caviar, made from kelp. Guess I should have learned more Russian before purchasing canned goods…
Other interesting food/drink items I had or noticed while in Kazakhstan: there was a place in Almaty that bought huge barrels of beer, hooked them up to a tap, sold bottles to retail customers. They had some interesting brews, including dark Irish beer. Moreover, 1 liter cans of beer are commonly sold. I’m not sure if that’s typical consumption for one person, or what, but one of my classmates bought it. Lastly, I was also able to try Georgian (the country, not the state) food in Astana. I really enjoyed the khachapuri, a thick Georgian bread baked with mozzarella cheese. It’s hot, soft, carb-y, comfort food, like mac and cheese.
When I returned to New York City, I was eager to check out a Uyghur restaurant in Brighton Beach, near Coney Island in Brooklyn (there is also a place called Georgian Bread out there, where I was able to satisfy my khachapuri cravings too). Cafe Kashkar served all the ubiquitous dishes of the region: lagman (derived from Chinese la-mian, or hand-pulled noodles, served fried or as a noodle soup), manti (steamed or fried dumplings filled with either lamb or beef), plov, etc. Stepping into the tiny restaurant brought me back to Kazakhstan; random tchotchkes and ethnic decor, music videos playing on loop on the TV mounted to the ceiling, ethnic Russians snacking while drinking copious amounts of vodka and beer, taking the occasional break to step outside for a cigarette…with no English being spoken among the patrons or Uyghur waitstaff (save for the single Kazakh waiter), it felt like I was in Almaty again, like I could walk back to my dilapidated dorm room when I was done with my meal. I miss Kazakhstan.