A Kazakh Nomads’ expression of equine affinity states, “Kazakhs are born in horses”.
Perhaps that’s going a little too far, if taken literally, but there’s undeniably a very close alliance between man and beast in this vast tract of Central Asia.
The present Republic of Kazakhstan was created in 1991 on the dissolution of the USSR and is about the size of Western Europe, with a population of some 15 million people. In the southwest of the country laps the shores of the northeast end of the Caspian Sea; to the east is the Tarim Basin, and the Altai Mountains are to the north. It’s a region traditionally inhabited by nomad herders, but it is now rare to see the traditional gher (felt round-tent) settlements, as most of the nomads were settled under Soviet rule. There is still reputedly some transhumance between summer and winter pastures for some herders, however.
If we take a long stride from nomad life into the present day, we see the survival of horsemeat as a luxurious food in the Republic of Kazakhstan. In September 2004 I found myself there as an OSCE election observer when, as my official work excluded celebratory drinking, I grasped the opportunity to pursue a sober study of this neglected subject. I visited two yamarka (outdoor markets) – one in Almaty, the former capital and largest conurbation; the other 500km north in Stepnogorsk (Russian for ‘town on the Steppes’), a former closed Soviet town with notable levels of uranium, rare metals and gold.
Kumis (fermented mare’s milk) is perhaps the best-known horse product from the Steppes of Central Asia. In a restaurant in Astana I drank repeatedly from a palm-sized bowl of kumis. Once the sickly smell was put aside by application of my mystic sensory controls it tasted better and better, with a tang vaguely reminiscent of some highland malts.
Not satisfied without sight of meat on the hoof, I diverted our driver 10 km into the Steppe at Karabulak early on our return route from Stepnogorsk to Astana, the new capital that boasts unique Stalinist Post-Modernist architecture. The vast and endless Steppe has some forestation of small birch trees near the road and then opens out to rolling pasture and scrub. In the small area that I observed it was not the virgin desolate place of my imagination, but criss-crossed with a bewildering number of tracks and spattered with lakes of unknown radioactivity, linking the odd railway wagon shelter and a variety of bits of concrete, spun off from the ruins of kolkhoz State farms. Soviet civilization had left its mark and passed by.
We befriended Bukpeshev Sahintay Olzhabayuli, the horse-rearer in the village of Karabulak, where he looked after the co-operative’s 700 head of horse. The bad news was that a rustler had stolen 50 the previous night, which doubtless accounted for not a horse to be seen when we drove half an hour into the Steppe. His son-in-law uttered that timeless apology in broken Russian as we gazed sharp-eyed about the distant horizons, making horse noises; ‘The horses were here two days ago’.
There was also no glimpse of the two teams of horse-ranchers, each with three men, who alternated three days and nights on and off. I gave up and returned. Of course, no sooner had we returned to the asphalt when we saw another herd of horses, about 200 strong, by the road. Recalling the Horse Whisperer movie, I leapt out, making horse small talk. I was allowed near but they were reluctant to stay for a close-up photograph.
At the two markets, I met, questioned in Russian, and photographed my informants; all female horse butchers, sausage makers and vendors, and their array of products. In Stepnogorsk I was assisted by Kanat Ibrayev, a local post-graduate who had been our official OSCE interpreter. He was one of 12 Kazakhs who had spent a year in an American University, and now works in planning in the Department of Transport in Astana.
So, what does it taste like?
The extremely lean cuts are rich dark and deep-red meat, slightly sweet, redolent of venison but much more tender. Because the horses are Steppe reared, in what must be an original source of the term ‘free range’, there is little fat. In the great intestinal sausage (below), where two thin strips of meat and fat, cut from the edge of the length of the rib cage, are stuffed with crushed garlic salt and pepper – there the fat tastes like the richest butter. My Caucasian Russian friend, who had survived his Soviet Military service there, thanks to the horsemeat, dared me to ask “Is the large intestine preferable to the small intestine for sausage making”; “Of course (stupid question)” was the Almaty woman sausage-maker’s tart reply.
I was hoping that the Kazakh language had a hundred words for horse as the Inuit, Sami and Nenets all reputedly have for snow, but there are far fewer. Breeding, eating, racing, riding and working horses are all distinct animals. For example a breeding horse is not for eating, and, conversely, a horse destined for the dining table, will not be used for breeding.
Stepnogorsk market words for both breeding and eating horses are:
Meren: A gelding.
Zhabakhý (PRON: zhuh-BA-khuh): Up to one-year-old of both sexes
Tay: One- and two-year-olds of both sexes.
Kuman: A three-year-old male.
Bital: A three-year-old female.
Biye: A three- to four-year-old male and female.
At the rear of the hectare-size market, arranged in rows of wooden stalls, was the covered, refrigerated meat section. Through plastic cold doors there were about 40 stalls in a clean and chilly room. Only one sold horsemeat (and beef). The others sold beef, chicken, and mutton. In Astana market we were told that there are two separate rooms for storing meat; one for horse, beef, mutton and chicken, the other for pork and pork products.
We were helped by a partner of the horse stall, Ainagul Sadvakasova, whose daughter Aigul was studying foreign languages. In English she recommended The Aelita Café, round the corner, for the best horse dishes in Stepnogorsk. Unfortunately it was closed.
On their display table, amongst other meats, were four raw cuts arranged in a square – çürek (heart), baür (liver), kharim (stomach), and öpke (lungs). They also had Khazi (the main rib) and the mane, a beehive-shaped cross-section of meat and fat, both special delicacies. For the most respected guests there is an oval fillet from the chops, called omirtkIa. The oblong rump is called kesekyet, which means ‘meat to be divided’, and is used in bestirmek, the delicious preserved meat which is served sliced cold.
There was various sausages, ready for cooking, called shruzikI and kIarta (the small intestine, stuffed with chopped offal). And, of course, the great intestinal sausage (5-6cm diameter), where two thin strips of meat and fat are cut from the edge of the length of the rib cage and stuffed with crushed garlic salt and pepper. A 60cm length is then tied off, cooked, and eaten cold. When I commented that not all parts of horse were on display, they looked me in the eye and told me “we eat all of the horse!”
Yesil (Green) Bazaar, Almaty. The horsemeat was sold under a sign saying “Konili”, a separate part of the meat section of the market, which was as clean and spotless as Stepnogorsk. Each meat section displayed a small, tin flag, featuring a silhouette of the appropriate animal. I was reminded that Mareshchal Kutusov, after the battle of Borodino, repeatedly intoned that Napoleon’s army would be eating horseflesh in Russia before the winter of 1812 was out. He used the words “loshadinoye miase”, meaning beast-of-burden, as opposed to konili, meaning noble steed.
To crosscheck and add to what we saw and heard, I had the bible of Kazakhstan cooking – The National Cooking of Kazakhs, (Natsional’naya Kukhnya Kazakhov, a generous gift from Mary Springer who was then head of public affairs for Mobil (now Exxon) in Kazakhstan. Inside the book I found a contemporary photograph of a mountain summer encampment of two ghers with about eight horses. The photograph, I learned, had been slipped inside by the Kazakhs, who gave Mary the book in the first place. The first food section is devoted to horsemeat. There are captioned photos of cuts, recipes and serving dishes. Most favourite are cold dishes of horseflesh: kazy, shuzhuk, zhaya, zhal, karta and so on.
The kazy sausage recipe shows that the raw sausage is dried, boiled or smoked. If drying, it is better to dry kazy by warm weather, hanging them out for a week in a sunny, aired place. For smoking, it is best to place kazy in dense smoke at 50-60 degrees C, for 12-18 hours and then dry them for 4-6 hours at 12 degrees C. If boiling, Kazy should be boiled for 2 hours in a broad vessel on slow fire. The kazy should be pricked in several places to avoid bursting during boiling. Kazy are served cut into layers and arranged in a circle on a large plate with onion rings and green peas.
Shuzhuk is made of equal weights of horsemeat and suet. The meat is rubbed with salt and kept for 1-2 days in a cool place at 3-4 degrees C. Guts are washed and kept in salt water. The meat and fat are cut into small pieces and stuffed into the gut with salt, pepper and greens. The ends are then tied and the sausage is hung in a cool place for 3-4 hours. Shuzhuk is then smoked at 50-60 degrees C for 12-18 hours and then dried for 2-3 days at 12 degrees C. Dried or smoked shuzhuk is boiled on a low fire for 2-2 ½ hours and served in thin 1 cm slices on a plate, decorated with onion rings and greens.
Zhaya is made from the horse’s hip. The upper muscular layer with fat is cut off and salted. Then it is dried, smoked and boiled. Zhaya is served in slices decorated with greens.
Zhal is an oblong accumulation of fat in the undercrest part of the horse’s neck. It is cut off with a thin flesh layer, rubbed with dry salting mixture and put in a pan for salting. Then it is dried for 10 hours. Zhal can be smoked and boiled. Before boiling zhal is soaked in cold water; then it is boiled on a slow fire for 2 hours. Zhal is served both hot and cold, cut in slices and decorated with onion rings.
Karta – not for the faint-hearted. The thick part of the rectum is washed, without removing the fat, and then carefully turned inside out so that the fat is inside. It is washed once more and then tied up at both ends. Karta can be dried or smoked. To dry karta it is covered with fine salt and kept in a cool place for 1-2 days, then dried out. Karta needs to be smoked for 24 hours and then dried for 2-3 days. After washing it well karta is boiled for 2 hours on a slow fire. It is served cut into rings and decorated with green pepper or dill.
Sur-yet. Horseflesh is cut from bones, tendons, cartilages, and the fat removed. The meat is cut into rectangular pieces 0.5 to 1 kg each, salted and kept in a cool place for 5-7 days. Then it is dried for 10-12 hours. Sur-yet is smoked like zhaya and zhal and consumed only boiled. Before boiling it is soaked in water. Sur-yet is boiled for 2 hours on a slow fire and served cut into thin slices with onion rings and greens.
For those wishing to rush out to their nearest Kazakh market and stock up on horsemeat; In Stepnogorsk, hot smoked, cold smoked, wind-dried and salted horse all cost 1600 tengis per Kg (250 tengis = £1 sterling), while fresh meat costs 600 tengis per Kg for all meat, where lean and fat were considered as equal. In Almaty the raw Great Sausage costs 500 tengis per Kg; raw meat costs 500 tengis per Kg for lean rump, and it’s 800 tengis per Kg for rib – more expensive because it included fat. Cured meat was more expensive, with salami at 800 tengis per Kg, and bestirmek at 1500 tengis per Kg.
A one- to two-year-old horse of 150 – 160 kg (dead weight) is slightly less expensive than the five-year-old horse 280 kg (dead weight), which is considered the better meat. It Almaty they said that a nine-month colt tasted even better. Like spring lamb or sucking pig, I suppose.
By Robert Chenciner with Kanat Ibrayev