Kazakhstan & Horse Meat

Having just passed our first ABC of World History milestone, we move to central Asia to take you to an incredible place: Kazakhstan. As much as I love to think that you are aware of this country because of the significant role that it has played in history since time immemorial…Let’s face it, you probably know this country and word for one reason only: Borat. (Yes, it is ok. At least you know it exists…and you are about to find out more). But first, here are some basic facts about Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, and it shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (which will feature later on in our project). It is currently run by the same guy that has been in charge of the country since the fall of the USSR (an authoritarian regime, in case you did not get that from THAT Context…). Furthermore, it is home to 131 ethnicities and a key hub for the ancient Silk Road.

And before I get to share a bit of cultural history (it is what today is all about), I want to share a little bit of my personal history. The first time I ever met someone from central Asia back in Spain was a dear classmate of mine who is from Kazakhstan when I was in college. At the sweet age of 16, he explained how to build a Kalashnikov in the middle of class recess. Fascinated by this, he told me of the severe political issues of his homeland and the fact that this type of education was still being imparted in school when he was living there (late 1990s-early 2000s). I became a little obsessed back then with any bit of culture that I could get from my pal about this land which sounded so exotic in my mind (I had never left Europe and back then still haven’t moved far from Western Europe indeed). Admittedly, my classmate’s family was of Russian descent, and I did not get to know a lot about Kazakh culture itself. However, one thing always stuck with me: everyone loved horses – and ate them without such a scandalous fear of whatever meat it may be they were consuming. And for once, I felt normal: we eat horses where I come from (though not in the same quantity), and I Love It. 

Horse meat is not that different from cattle such as cows. For Anglophone people, eating horses is a sacrilege, even though they were eaten regularly, just like many other European cultures. Often, I encounter people and attitudes towards this subject that defend the fact that horse meat should not be eaten out of respect for the horses’ noble nature and service to humanity. But, you see, I can guarantee you the Kazakhs like many other ethnic groups that populate central Asia have such high regard if not higher for horses. Yet, in their culture eating the animal is not a grievance: it is paying your respects and appreciating the creature. And that is why I am talking to you today about some Kazakh dishes full of horses. 😊

The abundance of horse meat meals in Kazakhstan has to do with the nomadic culture of its inhabitants. It is kind of in the name: Kazakh derives from a Turkic word qaz meaning to roam or wander, thus referring to the nomads of these lands like many Turkic groups from central Asia. Stan as you may know comes from Farsi, or Persian, and it means the land/country of. Because of this, the herders of the Kazakhs relied on their cattle for supplies of all forms, including meat. And horses were a part of this. There are several horse meat dishes in Kazakhstan that are also eaten in other countries of the central plains. These days, horse meat (alongside camel meat) is often used for celebrations, special occasions, and festivals while sheep and cow meat are more ordinary. These include different types of meat cuts, preparation, cooking techniques. For example, simple things such as horse neck fat are smoked and made into lard known as zhal (or jal). Zhal is supposed to be a delicacy.

Shuzhuk: or Sujuk as it is more commonly known elsewhere is a type of fermented, dry meat and fat sausage widely available from the Balkans to Central Asia. In these places, sujuk is often made with beef or lamb. However, in Kazakhstan horse meat is a very popular option for this type of food. Shuzhuk is similar to Spanish chorizo (which is made of pork). And this is no coincidence. These sausages all descend from the Persian zīcak that made its way across to all these places, Spain (Al-Andalus) included, during the Umayyad Caliphate that spread Persian cuisine through half of the planet.

Qazi (qazy/kazi/kazy): is another sausage-like dish typical of Kazakhstan made of meat with horse ribs. After it is smoked and boiled, it is usually served as an appetizer or a cold meat platter. This type of meat is often used to make a soup called naryn, which contains chunks of horse qazi, chyk (a kind of onion sauce), and noodles. This dish has become more prominent under the name beshbarmak. It became popular during Soviet rule as a national dish across many of the countries that formed the USSR, including Kazakhstan.

Some of these dishes, particularly the qazi and beshbarmak are often surrounded by hosting rituals. These are special foods likely to be served for guests, honourable people, and foreigners as a sign of respect and kind hospitality in Kazakh culture. So perhaps you may understand now that this is an utter sign of privilege and that eating horse meat is an honour, at least from their point of view. If you are still unconvinced, I recommend that is a very interesting article from Ryan Bell, written for National Geographic “Kazakhstan: Where Horses are Revered and Eaten”. He discusses the treatment and breeding of horses in Kazakhstan as well as the consumption of horse meat. He also contextualises it within the framework of the horsemeat scandal of 2013 and the prospect of sustainable foods.

For now, I shall leave you thinking (and perhaps hungry), and we shall meet you again next week when I will be taking you on a trip to Luxembourg.

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