Notes on Kazakh Culinary Culture
Kâmil Toygar and Nimet Berkok Toygar
The dietary and culinary culture of the Kazakhs have been shaped by their centuries-old nomadic lifestyle, their economic activities based on animal husbandry and agriculture, interaction with neighboring cultures, and most importantly, their customs, traditions and religious beliefs which define their natural culture.
According to the views of many cultural anthropologists and other scholars, food culture is the element of a culture that changes the least. This is even truer of the Kazakhs. In an environment where urban culture is rapidly developing and mass communication is spreading at breakneck speed, the Kazakh dietary culture has to a great extent retained its original elements. The most important reason for this is the way they have claimed their cultural identity; to put it another way, their strong sense of nationality.
Since the old days, one of the most obvious characteristics of the Kazakhs is their hospitality, and this remains true today as well. Visitors to Kazakh settlements are welcomed with much respect, and shown to the place of honor in their felt yurts.
The guests are first served kumiss, şubat or ayran, tea with cream, borsak, kum üzüm, irimşik and kurt.
At feasts, the first things served are appetizers made of mutton and horsemeat. These include kazı, jal, jaya, suryet, karta and kaburga. These are accompanied by flat bread. The Kazakhs’ most popular food is meat cooked Kazakh style. Large pieces of the preferred parts of the animal are boiled, and brought whole to the table. In the south, the host divides the meat into small pieces and serves them to the guest. In the north, this duty falls to the most honored guest at the meal.
Since very ancient times, Kazakh meals have been divided into two classes of food: “home flavor” and “public flavor.” “Home flavor” consists of everyday foods made at home. “Public flavor” consists of the foods that shepherds, farmers and travelers eat together outside the home. In one sense this can be considered as food for mass consumption.
The book “Kazaktın Ulttık Tağamdarı,” written by Sadık Kasimanov and translated into Turkish by Ertuğrul Yaman, devotes much space to the place of milk products in Kazakh food culture.
The Kazakhs make wide use of mare, camel, sheep/goat and cow’s milk both alone and in secondary products. The various products noted by Kasimanov are: fresh milk, yogurt, strained yogurt, ayran, ayran köje, koyırtpak, ayran-şalap, boza, irkit, bırsıma, kaymak (clotted cream), kaspak, ağız (colostrum), göğ süt, kadırğan süt, turniyyaz, ecegey, aşıtkı, akirim, irimşik, akirimşik, mandir (mayek), cheese, fresh cheese, köpük, sıcak peynir, sıkma peynir, marıta, pressed cheese, ak malta, ground cheese, peynir yağ, peynirsorpa, aklak, ak tuşpara, uvız irimşik, köpirşik, süt katılan irimşik, irimşik döğme and cent (kospa).
The oldest national foods of the Kazakhs are animal-based: meat, milk and milk products. When they moved to a settled or semi-settled lifestyle, they added grain products, fruits and vegetables. The most common of these are barley, wheat, millet and rice. Strawberries, apples, pears, raisins, pomegranates, garlic and black pepper are also much consumed.
In the southern inhabited parts of Kazakhstan, watermelon, melon, carrots and beets are much used. The latest items to enter the Kazakh diet were potatoes and tomatoes.
Another classification in Kazakh foods is the division between everyday foods and those reserved for special occasions. Normally meals are taken at dawn, late morning, afternoon and evening.
The most important dish which reflects the Kazakhs’ hospitality is konakaşı, or “guest food.” The custom of accepting a guest who has come for any reason, setting him in the house’s place of honor and serving konakaşı dates back to the 7-10th centuries. The tradition is mentioned in several Kazakh stories and legends.
According to tradition, the konakaşı bowl served to a guest contains the animal’s head and thigh bone, its ribs, and a marrow bone. This tradition has continued uninterrupted, and is practiced in the same way at feasts today.
During a visit to Kazakhstan in 1990, we had the opportunity to witness this tradition carried out in its entirety at a dinner given by the District Governor of Turkistan (Yesi) in honor of our group.
Another important type of special meal are those served at weddings and other festivities.
Just as in all Turkic tribes, the Kazakhs’s weddings and festivities show great variety. Wedding traditions begin with asking for the girl, and end with the bride being taken to the groom’s house. These practices are also interesting in terms of food culture.
Other special occasion meals among the Kazakhs include the “victory celebrations” of old Kazakh life, “road meals” prepared for those setting off on a journey, and “special guest meals” given once a year for important people.
Other specials include “Navrız” (Nevruz, Nowrooz – Spring equinox), the “cheese and butter” meal served when people set off for their winter habitations, as well as meals served to celebrate the harvest and the reaping of hay, and other work celebrations.
In the 18-20th centuries, the Kazakhs’ diet grew richer in every way. But this period, when they lived together with the Russians and other minorities, was also a time of extreme outside influence, and Kazakh food culture lost a number of its original elements.