Kazakh cuisine: regional variations of national dishes

Food & DrinkNomadic

Each region has its own unique recipies, all of which are worth trying

Before starting off about the Kazakh cuisine there are some facts you should be enlightened about. Obviously the cuisine was hugely influenced by the nomadic lifestyle that developed amidst the changing habitats throughout this vast country. From mountainous regions to the great steppes, from arid deserts to rich ecohabitats with forests, rivers and lakes; all this geographical diversity resulted in the creation of the variety of national dishes in different regions of Kazakhstan. In the more frigid regions, people have been seen to adopt a meat based diet full of protein, fat and nutrients; where as in the more temperate climates people are used to adding a lot of fresh vegetables and cereals to their dishes. In the areas near the Caspian Sea, due to the higher availability of sea food, meat is often substituted by fish and other seafood instead. In the end a lack of restrictions to changes in the recipes and the way it's served makes this cuisine much more interesting. Tasting this cuisine will also allow you to get a better sense of Kazakh national culture and its diversity.

Here are a few dishes from different regions and the ingredients used in cooking them.

Firstly the country's large territory, full of diverse terrain, climate and lifestyle explain some of the differences in the eating patterns of the people of different regions of Kazakhstan. Expect for all the dishes which can go through different iterations of itself, there are some special dishes inherent to the specific regions, about which a lot isn't known by the people of other regions.

South Kazakhstan If you are fond of delicious national meat dishes, of which the local restaurants are experts in preparing, you should definitely pay here a visit as a treat for your tongue.

  • Sirne. It is a widely used dish, especially popular in the southern regions of the country. Meat from a lamb, no older than a month, is soaked in rich cream or horse milk and then stewed on low heat for a generous amount of time. The cooking process softens the meat until it easily comes off the bone, making the meat extremely tender.
  • Kyssekuyrdak. Still remembered as a delicacy in the regions bordering with China, this dish is all about that organ meat. Prepared from freshly butchered beef, pieces of lungs, liver, kidneys, intestines and entrails are all cut up into small pieces and fried in the cauldron with a seasoning of their special spices and a generous amount of garlic to remove the peculiar smell associated with organ meat.
  • Karma.  Not only the west is famous for its fishing, but the south and southeast as well. This side of the country will impress you with this fish dish recipe that goes back five centuries from now. It is pronounced with a characteristic Kazakh accent on the last syllable. The recipe is quite simple. Fish, preferably carp or walleye, is boiled and plated with cut dough flavored with butter and sometimes the leftover fish soup known as Ukha. This is how you get a very healthy and tasty dish, in the oriental way.
  • Jaubuirek. The southeast of Kazakhstan, covered with mountain ranges, is famous for this special dish, which was and still is hunters’ favorite delicacy. The atmosphere itself while preparing this dish will bring out your inner carnivore. Picture this, right after a great hunt for Argali (a mountain sheep), the liver and kidneys of the animal are impaled with sharp sticks, interspersed with fragrant wild onions and fried over a bonfire.
  • Beshbarmak. Well, what can we say? It is our national dish. Prepared with the most freshest of meat, traditionally in the south, this dish is served with the most delicate thin Kespe, which are flat thin sheets of dough. However in the region of Kyzylorda you would stumble upon a very unique and unusual variation of the dish, served with rice instead of the thin sheets of noodle.
  • Baursaks This well known bread is also made different here from other regions; as soft cottage cheese is a key component added to the dough, ending up with crispy skinned tender balls that are juicy, tasty and nourishing.

Central and Eastern Kazakhstan: these regions are famous for their mouth wateringly delicious pastries and owning the original recipe of the beloved Beshbarmak.

  • Beshbarmak. People inhabiting these regions usually prefer meat based dishes, but due to influences from the neighboring country of China and also being the agricultural centre of the country, a lot of vegetables can be seen to make their way into their dishes. However this well renowned dish hasn't seen and form of vandalism to its original recipe. They stay true to their ancestors ways and prefer not to add potatoes or too much onions in the Sorpa, which is the clear stock from the meat. They do, on the other hand, prefer to add a great deal of meat and often several varieties of them at once. Meats such as beef, lamb, horse meat and Kazy (sausages made from the fatty meat around the ribs of horses) are put on top of the whole dish; not as a side snack as seen in other regions.
  • Jappa. This dish is a variation of the dish known as Kuyrdak. Vegetables such as onions and bell peppers are added to the dish and are covered with a layer of unyeasted dough before cooking and serving. It thoroughly steam cooks in the juices of the meat, soaking up all the aromatic spices and other goodies along the process.
  • Shi Baursaks. This fried dough food can be attributed to the traditional bakery items of Eastern Kazakhstan. It is easy to distinguish them, as they are unusually smaller than the regular ones, in the shape of thin straws and tastes amazing. They're prepared from a special kind of dough, which is why they're crispy and sweet. It's, no doubt, extremely tasty and whoever tries once tries to cook it themselves. But as they say, only those who have absorbed the recipe through the mother's milk are able to make the real Shi Baursaks.
  • Barmak. This is a subtype of Baursaks, widespread throughout Central and Eastern Kazakhstan. They are shaped in the form of long and thin sticks, a bit like fingers. You can't imagine the taste if you don't take a bite from one of these dipped into sour cream or dairy cream, to wash it all down with a warm cup of aromatic tea. Now that's a real treat, you can trust me on that!
  • Usaq Baursaks.  Finally, this list would be incomplete if this special subtype of Baursaks wasn't mentioned. Often known as the 'Kazakh Popcorn', these are tiny crispy balls of goodies that you wouldn't be able to stop gorging on as they melt in your mouth; just like actual popcorn, but tastier. Nowadays, the locals are so fond of it, that boxed mini Baursaks can be seen on the shelves of almost any big supermarket.

North Kazakhstan.  The people local to this harsh climatic region are fond of meat in all its glorious forms and do know quite a lot on how to make some of the most delicious meat dishes one could ever think of. So good you'd want to come back for some over and over again.

  • Sogym. This is meat that Kazakhs prepare for winter by slaughtering a horse or a bull. In these northern regions, people take storing food very seriously and this lead to the creation of another dish known as Etystau. The most juicy and tender parts of the animal are smoked on the bark of a young birch tree, also helping in increasing its shelf life. There's nothing like hot smoked meat, I'll tell you that!
  • Shelpek. This is a flatbread, traditionally prepared on Friday's and is eaten in any part of the country. It's a common ritual to remember your ancestors and say some kind words about them, and your family and relatives, and other important people in your life. The preparation of Shelpeks varies from region to region. In the Northern, Central and Eastern regions on every lovely friday Kazakh housewives would roll out seven identical thin sheets of non fermented dough and deep fry them in a lot of oil (sometimes tail fat or any other fat). But in the South yeast is added to the dough, to get them to become thicker and fluffier.
  • Kazy. This is a homemade sausage made from horsemeat, and is cooked in households all over Kazakhstan. But according to a lot of Kazakhs, the ones originating from the Northeastern towns of Semey and Pavlodar, have a significantly special taste to them. The locals have kept the recipe a secret, so if you feel like tasting this distinctive taste, just go straight there.
  • Beshbarmak. In the North this dish is only served on a big traditional plate called 'Astabak' (Astau in other words). The bottom of the Astabak is layered with Kespe (noodles), and large pieces of soft meat are spread on top of it. These will then be cut smaller and to finish the dish off some freshly cut slice of Kazy on top.

Western Kazakhstan. It’s worth paying a visit to these unique places of Marine motifs of Kazakhstan.

Beshbarmak. We know this dish as the quintessence of Nomadic meat cuisine and a crucial and significant part of the Kazakh culture. But few people know that in the Western regions of the country neighboring the Caspian sea, this popular dish has been made out of fish instead of meat for generations already. Most often the fish of choice is Carp, because of its very tender meat. In the past the locals used to cook the fish Beluga, which is part of the Sturgeon family. It is forbidden to fish wild belugas now, as this fish is listed as an endangered species. Other components include Kespe from tasty soft dough, new potatoes and rich and sweet Sorpa with onions added on top. Everyone who has tried this different Beshbarmak is delighted with its exquisite taste and the tender texture of the fish used in it. And moreover, it is much more dietary and doesn't leave you with a heaviness inside your stomach.

So, that was all about dishes that are most often prepared in certain particular areas of the country, as well as the variations in their ways of serving. We'd also like you to know that there are many other amazing recipes other than these few mentioned here, which we wouldn't simply be able to fit in one article.

To travel is to taste

Part of travelling is about tasting food from all around the globe. The affluence of various unusual dishes, attached to particular areas of the country by their history, causes a new format of tourism to appear in Kazakhstan. A gastronomic one. Many well travelling foreign tourists often travel to this country not just to admire the wonders of the local nature; but also to taste this mystifying cuisine of the nomads, to be able to touch their way of life, and to witness their amazing culture and ancient traditions. Even Kazakhs themselves like visiting different regions of the country from time to time to discover something new and interesting about their own kind.
Indeed, Kazakhstan is uniquely diverse and undoubtedly beautiful. A truly original and hospitable country, one you rarely stumble upon. Come visit Kazakhstan, a place you won't forget.