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A fascinating cuisine, renowned for its use of meat and dairy, these Kazakh foods you simply have to try during a visit to Kazakhstan. They are rich in history and offer unique insight into life in this vast, nomadic country.
Kazakhstan is huge! It’s the world’s largest landlocked country, and it covers a greater area than all of the countries of Western Europe combined.
Its vast grasslands have traditionally been home to nomadic herders, so it’s little wonder that traditional Kazakh cuisine relies heavily on the meats and offal of sheep, horses, goats, and occasionally cattle and camels, along with a rich variety of sweet treats, often using variations of milk and dough.
By necessity, this lifestyle has also ensured that Kazakh food is both highly nutritious and can be preserved for long periods of time. The list below is by no means exhaustive but includes many of the timeless Kazakh dishes still popular today.
1 – Быламық (Bylamyk) – Grain Porridge
Traditionally served to new mothers, the sick or the elderly, this hearty grain porridge is made from wheat or millet flour, fried with animal fat to a golden brown, and then simmered in cow’s milk and seasoned with sugar and salt.
This staple of Kazakh breakfasts digests easily, and is packed with a host of nutritious ingredients, including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fibers, B vitamins, and minerals.
Bylamyk was also one of the go-to meals during the Kazakh famine of the early 20th century.
2 – Талқан (Talqan) – Ground Millet
Talgan is traditional porridge dish made from millet or barley flour mixed with Kaymak yoghurt, butter and sugar.
There’s no doubt that the famines of yesteryears in Kazakhstan are the main reason this simple and nourishing dish came into existence, and while some argue it’s a dish for the young or the elderly, Kazakhs of all ages to this day enjoy Talgan.
Rich and comforting, this is a Kazakh treat to be eaten either in the morning or as a sweet afternoon snack.
3 – Бауырсақ (Baursak, Boortsog) – Kazakh-style donut
No Kazakh table would be complete without a Baursak donut! This delicious, doughy treat is a favorite in both Kazakhstan, and other countries with Turkic populations.
Baursak is made from a dough of flour and eggs, which is deep-fried, cut into bite-size pieces, and served with sugar, butter, honey or jam. It is often dipped in tea, and it is one of the country’s most popular treats.
4 – Шелпек (Shelpek) – Flatbread
Many different Turkic nations have their own recipe for this hearty round flatbread, usually made from the same dough as Baursak, but without the yeast.
Shelpek usually has a diameter of roughly 20-25cm, and can be eaten with a wide range of other mains and sides.
An ancient recipe that pre-dates Islam, traditional Kazakh Shelpek is still cooked to this day in the same way, and is often a served at funerals or anniversaries.
5 – Айран (Ayran), Қымыз (Kumis), Шұбат (Shubat), Қаймақ (Kaymak) – Fermented milk products
You will struggle to find a Kazakh who isn’t a fan of these delicious fermented milk drinks.
The first of which is the yoghurt-based cold drink Aryan which, along with fermented horse milk and camel milk, represent purity to Kazakhs, and are considered sacred.
Not only that, but this beverage is a refreshing and healthy way to quench your thirst on a hot day.
Ayran, also known as Kefir, is made from cow, goat, or sheep’s milk, with the addition of yeast. Kumi, on the other hand, is made with horse milk, also fermented with yeast, which can also be turned into an alcoholic drink. Kumis even used to be served to tuberculosis patients.
Shubat is made from camel milk and contains more fat than Kumis, while it also spoils faster.
Lastly, Kaymak is a strained yogurt, often sold in bakeries and served with Baursak and Talqan.
6 – Құрт (Qurt) – Kashk
Gertrude Platais, once a prisoner of the Akmola Camp for Wives and Mothers of Traitors of the Motherland (ALZHIR) under the Soviet era, is renowned for telling a story about this Kazakh food.
She described how local Kazakhs threw what looked like “white rocks” at the prisoners, much to the amusement of the guards.
Upon closer inspection however, these rocks turned out to be Qurt – dried salted Aryan yoghurt – and the locals were actually feeding the prisoners.
Qurt can be added to soups or simply chewed, and its ability to be preserved for long periods of time has made it a staple of the nomadic lifestyle of many Kazakh people.
7 – Қазы (Qazy) – Kazakh-style sausage
Qazy is a smoky, earthy horsemeat sausage, often found on festive tables. It is made from rib meat, which is separated from the bone and seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic, then stuffed into horse intestines, which have been previously washed and brined.
The Qazy are then boiled in water for two hours. During this time, it’s important to poke holes in the intestine, otherwise there’s a strong possibility the stuffed sausage could burst.
Finally, once boiled, the sausages are left to cool before being sliced and served cold, often with onions and seasonal vegetables.
Qazy, historically, is an important food for Kazakh’s during the winter months. This is because it is high in fat and calories, and if dried, can be stored for months on end.
8 – Қарта (Qarta) – Cooked intestines
This dish is what you might call an acquired taste – Qarta is essentially a dish of horse intestine, without the stuffed meat.
It is made from the large intestine, which is washed, turned inside out, salted, and boiled for two hours, before being sliced and served. It can often alongside be served alongside Qazy, where it is called Qazy-Qarta.
9 – Қуырдақ (Kuurdak) – Fried offals
Kuurdak literally means “fried,” and this dish of fried offal consists of a brisket with liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, and intestine, traditionally served with chopped onions and medium-sized potatoes.
Historically, the nomadic communities of Kazakhstan had to be incredibly resourceful, which is why you’ll commonly see all parts of animals used in various dishes.
Recent research also suggests that internal organs are actually healthier than muscle fibers in terms of vitamins, microelements, and other nutrients.
10 – Жал (Zhal) – Smoked fat under horse’s mane
Zhal is a dish of fat taken from below a horse’s mane, smoked with small cuts of meat, salted, and stored in peppered water for two days, then hung overnight to dry.
It is then boiled for 2-3 hours and served cold, together with Zhaya. Zhal is another example of how many Kazakh dishes utilize as much of the animal as possible.
11 – Жая (Zhaya) – Smoked horse rump
Zhaya is a rich dish of salted horse rump, which is stored in spiced cold water for a couple of days.
The meat is then boiled in water at a low heat for 2-3 hours. Zhal-Zhaya can be served both as a main dish or as an appetizer.
12 – Бешбармақ (Beshbarmak) – Kazakh-style meat
Besbarmak is one of Kazakhstan’s most popular national dishes. It literally means “five fingers” as you are supposed to eat it with your hands.
Older generations of Kazakhs would simply call it “meat,” but today Beshbarmak is a far more commonly used name. Its popularity derives from both its simplicity to prepare, and the fact that it is rich in fats and proteins. It is often served at formal events, but is also eaten as a regular lunch.
Any type of meat can be used for Beshbarmak, and even fish, where it is nicknamed Fishbarmak. However, the classic Beshbarmak is either made from mutton, which is fatty, or horsemeat, which is dry.
The meat, bone-in, is boiled on a low heat to make a broth to which onions, peppers, carrots and potatoes are added, and the foam removed while cooking. The meat and vegetables are then removed and served with a rich gravy made from the broth.
Serving Beshbarmak is quite a show, generally performed by the head of the household, who cuts and distributes different parts of the animal to specific guests; head or pelvis to the elderly as a sign of respect, ears to the children so that they listen to their elders, and ribs and neck bones to women in reference to Adam’s rib.
13 – Сорпа (Sorpa) – Broth
Sopra is a wholesome broth, and an essential part of Kazakh cuisine. It is served with or after Beshbarmak as a drink, as a soup with meat and vegetables, or used as the base for a gravy.
14 – Өрметөс (Ormetos) – Rolled lamb breast with intestines
Although Ormetos may look like an appetizer, this is actually a formal festive dish of lamb rolled in intestines, often served to a new acquaintance or guest, such as a son-in-law.
It is a dish of lamb breast, seasoned with salt and pepper, and stuffed with carrots, tomatoes, potatoes and onions, then rolled into a washed intestine previously marinated in Aryan yoghurt.
Finally, the small intestine is weaved into the dish, and the mixture is boiled in water for two hours, under tender and ready to eat.
15 – Үлпершек (Ulpershek) – Stuffed heart
Ulpershek is a celebratory dish, traditionally prepared by parents for their married daughter when visiting her parental home, and is a symbol of maternal love.
Ulpershek is a dish of jerked horse meat, a small amount of mutton fat, and some Qazy or other meat, cut into small pieces and stuffed into an empty horse or cow’s heart, which is then sown shut and boiled for three hours, under tender.
The heart is served upside down with thinly rolled unleavened dough and seasonal vegetables, and it’s a Kazakh dish with cultural importance and significance.
16 – Жаужүрек (Zhauzhurek) – Liver with caul fat
Zhauzhurek is a dish of liver wrapped in fat mesh, the membrane that surrounds the internal organs of animals such as sheep or cows.
Zhauzhurek means “Braveheart”, and this highly nutritious dish was traditionally prepared to give courage to young soldiers leaving for battle.
The dish is first prepared by cutting liver into rectangular pieces, and then marinating it in salted milk.
Each piece is then wrapped in fat mesh and fixed with a toothpick. Then, it is pan-fried on a high heat until it begins to brown and left to stew on a low heat, before being served.
17 – Жент (Zhent) – Sweet ground millet
Zhent is a classic Kazakh dessert of sweet ground millet, and it is very easy to make. It is served cold and pairs wonderfully well with a hot drink.
This dish is made by mixing ground millet with condensed milk, powdered sugar, and melted butter. Nuts, raisins, coconut, or honey can be added to add a little more sweetness.
The mixture is then poured into a baking tray, and is left to refrigerate for at least thirty minutes. It is wholesome, creamy, and a true Kazakh favorite.
18 – Балқаймақ (Balkaymak) – Kazakh-style mousse
Balkaymak is a Kazakh-style mousse, which only takes about half an hour to prepare, and can be served alone, or enjoyed as a rich, creamy spread on crackers.
The dish is made by placing a bowl of Kaymak (strained yogurt) into a hot bath, and first mixing the yoghurt with sweet honey or chocolate.
While the yoghurt sits, a bowl of flour and milk is mixed separately and then slowly poured into the bowl of Kaymak.
Finally, the entire mixture is whisked vigorously, until a thick consistency is achieved, and the Balkamymak is ready to be served.
19 – Ірімшік (Irimshik) – Quark
Irimshik is a dried sour cheese, made from sheep or goat’s milk, curdled with rennet. The curd is boiled and dried, turning a hue of orange color, and it has a tender flavor.
Irimshik can be stored for long periods of time, making it ideal for nomadic Kazakhs to both travel with and consume through the long winters.
20 – Сарысу (Sarysu) – Whey
Sarysu is the remaining whey taken from the curds of an Irimshik, mixed together with sugar, honey or chocolate, and boiled until thick and delicious.
It can be both dried, or served fresh. The dish is also sometimes referred to as Kazakh-style chocolate, due to its color. While its taste is very different to conventional chocolate, it still brings a rich and unique flavor to the table, and it is a beloved Kazakh treat.
Kazakh Foods Summary
The foods of Kazakhstan offer a truly rich and captivating insight into the culture, history, and everyday life of Kazakh people.
When you visit Kazakhstan, seek out as many of these traditional dishes as you can. If you’re lucky enough to stay with locals, there’s a strong chance you’ll be able to try many of these foods, cooked with love, warmth, and precision from your host.
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Author: Aibar Temirbekuly is a Kazakh medical translator and researcher from Nur-Sultan, who loves to cook authentic Kazakh dishes at home and is deeply passionate about his native cuisine.
Images licensed via Shutterstock