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Discovery Central Asia #29
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The Main Dish in Kazakh Cuisine


Text by Elena Kaminskaya

For many centuries the favourite dish of Kazakh cuisine has been Besbarmak: well-boiled large pieces of meat (horse-flesh or mutton) served with thin layers of rolled out slices of dough which has been boiled in a rich bouillon, and drinking the bouillon, (called “sorpa”), afterwards. Surprisingly, although a Kazakh dish, the modern name (“besbarmak”) has the Russian roots.  Russian settlers, were astonished by the fact that it is eaten with the hands and so they called it “five fingers”, which translated into the Kazakh language is “bes barmak”. Over the course of time this name has supplanted the original Kazakh name, “yet”, which meant simply “meat”.

Traditionally, for cooking besbarmak horse-flesh must be used, though nowadays, because of the high price of horsemeat, mutton is used instead. This has the added advantage that it is easier to prepare.  Every self-respecting Kazakh certainly has a ram as “plat du jour” for entertainning honoured guests.  So, if an unexpected guest comes, even if the head of the family is absent, his children will be able to kill the ram and give the guest some tea beforehand.
If while during your travels through the boundless land of Kazakhstan you come across the pasture where a shepherd kills a ram for you, as for dear guests, there is a particular way in which you should eat this delicious course, not only so that you will not only be able to appreciate the taste of the meal, but also be able to imbue your mind with the original culture of the Kazakh people.

The process of eating “besbarmak” is really a ritual.  It should certainly be eaten using the hands only. Actually, there is a saying that besbarmak is eaten by the ears (hearing), then by nose (smelling), after that by hands (tactile), and only in last turn by mouth.
A special importance is given to cutting the meat. The head of the family cuts it into big pieces and treats each guest the best pieces according to their status and authority.  Hip-bones and the shins are given to the honourable old men, cervical vertebra  to the young girls, fillet, “djanbas”, - to the fathers-in-law, and fat brisket must be picked by daughter-in-law or son-in-law.  Every part of the carcass is assigned in this way.
The head of the ram is served to the most honourable guest. So, if a father of a guest is alive, he will never be given the head and can't accept it as he couldn't be considered more honourable than his father. The guest, who was given the honour cutting the head defines what piece should be given to everyone  ear, tongue, eye, or the most delicious part, the brain.
But what does the proper eating of besbarmak mean?
First comes the anticipation: waiting whilst the tasty, succulent, meat is cooked. Waiting for the course to be served is brightened by tea with sweats, but don't eat them too much, or you won't be able to appreciate the delicate taste of the meat. When the besbarmak is almost ready, its odour begins purifying your smell and your stomach demands tasty meal immediately.  It is forbidden to nip off some pieces of the almost-ready meat, trying to satisfy one's curiosity.
Second, besbarmak should be eaten without any hurry. You shouldn't fall upon the meat as a hungry wolf trying to eat everything which has just been cut, because a little bit later the other parts will be served and you ought to pay your attention to them also. At the same time you needn't wait too long as the meat (especially if it is mutton) can get cold.
Third, after the main process of eatingthe meat course, comes the turn of the golden bouillon, sorpa. You mustn't refuse the bouillon offered after besbarmak. This is not because of the etiquette, but of gastronomy expediency. You should drink at least half a litre, even if it seems that you are completely full.
And fourth, drink the traditional Kazakh tea with cream after besbarmak. It should be drunk for the proper completion of the meal.
It also necessary to understand beforehand that you will spend at least five hours at the set table (dostarkhon), because you will offend the host, who can think that you didn't like the meal. So, rate your strength in advance!
We hope that you enjoy this simple, but incredibly delicious and savory dish, and wish you “Bon Appetite!”

Discovery Central Asia #23

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