With its wide wooden tables and pastel yellow walls, the Tarih restaurant in Almaty looks like any other urban restaurant in the globalised world. But open the menu and you’ll find food with a distinctly Kazakh touch: camel milk ice cream and horse heart with a side of quinoa and caramelised bananas. For most Kazakhstanis, seeing ancient Kazakh food mixed with newly-arrived international ingredients is a surreal experience.
By blending traditional foodstuffs with global techniques and garnishes, local chefs are also mixing two of the trends that have come to define Kazakhstan over the past decade: rapid globalisation and the revival of Kazakh identity.
Traditional Kazakh cuisine first grew from a society based around nomadic herding. Nomads’ diets consisted of meat and dairy from the animals they bred, like sheep, horses, camels, and cows. They ate irimshik, a textured soft sweet cheese, and kurt, a hard salty-sour milk product. Common drinks were camel milk, called shubat, and mare milk, or kumis. Horse meat was also widely consumed.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Kazakh territory was annexed by the Russian empire. In 1920, Kazakhstan became one of the Soviet Republics. Soviet officials cracked down on herders’ nomadic lifestyles, forcing them to settle in towns or on collective farms. Russian food and dishes from other socialist states began to appear on Kazakh tables. But this new, outside influence on Kazakhstani food was restricted in other ways. The Iron Curtain restricted access to global culture in the USSR, including on people’s plates. Food from Europe or the Far East was largely unavailable to the public.
When the Soviet Union ended in 1991, its backlash saw both these trends rapidly reverse. After years of isolation from the world, people longed for the fruit that had once been forbidden. New European and Asian cuisines flooded cities alongside global music, books, and films. At the same time, Kazakhstani national and cultural identity began to strengthen after decades of Russian dominion. Chefs became interested once more in traditional Kazakh ingredients.
The country’s new foray into Kazakh-infused global offerings is merely the latest step in both of these trends — the two distinct and even contradictory ideas finally coming together to become a dish all of their own.
The earliest attempt to give Kazakh cuisine a global twist was probably the horse meat steak, which appeared in Almaty’s Crudo steakhouse some nine years ago. “We wanted to combine steak culture with Kazakh tradition,” says Crudo chef, Dilshad Nizamov. “Our ancestors ate horse meat for its health benefits. They used a variety of cooking methods, but now we prepare it in a Josper [charcoal grill]. I also use a secret family meat oxidation technique which gives the meat its unique aroma.” Since then, many restaurants in Kazakhstan have added horse steaks to their menus. This dish is in high demand among locals and foreigners alike, with tourists keen to sample a dish that is uniquely Kazakh. For chefs like Nizamov, their love of the dish goes even deeper. “The special flavour of horse steak brings me back to my childhood when we cooked horse meat on the fire,” Nizamov says.
In the years that followed, other restaurants have followed suit by dabbling in Kazakh fusion dishes, often for very practical reasons. Another Almaty restaurant, JamBull, serves tagliatelle with kurt and horse meat in Worcestershire Sauce. This dish is an embodiment of the culinary philosophy practised among top chefs worldwide: favouring local produce over imported goods, says chef Asiya Fatkulina. “Certain varieties of kurt recall parmesan in their texture and flavor, so why not use a local product of good quality?” she asks. “As a result, the dish looks like Italian pasta, and tastes like Kazakh beshbarmak.”
Vietnamese eatery Coffee Saigon also serves horse meat, but this time with oyster sauce and aubergine. “Vietnamese cuisine widely uses pork, but we decided not to serve any [in our restaurant],” explains the restaurant’s managing director, Marina Nurpeissova. Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim country and eating pork is forbidden in Islam. “Our chef was challenged to replace pork in traditional Vietnamese dishes. Horse meat was the best fit, as its unique flavour was perfectly accentuated by the astringent oyster sauce.”
Such culinary experiments with food are still relatively new to the Kazakhstani public. Neither tagliatelle with kurt in Jambull, nor horse in oyster sauce at Coffee Saigon, are top sellers. “People prefer the familiar taste of traditional pastas,” Fatkulina explains. “After years of being restricted to Soviet gastronomy, people first need to go through a stage where they get acquainted with foreign cuisine. Then, we can turn back to our roots for inspiration.”
In the past 12 months, however, chefs and restaurateurs have become bolder in their approach. In 2020, four restaurants took the radical step of embracing almost entire menus made from Kazakh fusion dishes: Qazaq Gourmet in Nur-Sultan, Qurt & Wine in Oskemen, Sandyk in Shymkent, and Tarih in Almaty. “The spheres of music or cinema have been developing rapidly in our country. But culinary arts remained stagnant, so we wanted to change that,” says Tarih co-owner Symbat Kenessova.
Ironically, in a bid to better recreate their historical Kazakh dishes, Tarih invited Maksim Kononykin, a chef from Ukraine, to join their team. “We hired a foreigner on purpose. A local chef might have fossilised ideas of what Kazakh dishes are supposed to look like, while a foreigner could offer a fresh perspective,” Kenessova explains. Their gamble paid off, with Kononykin digging deep into the history of Kazakh gastronomy. “When he prepared dishes for us to try, I didn’t know what they were. I called my mom, who said she didn’t know either. I called my grandma, and she said that these dishes were something they ate when she was five.”
One of Tarih’s top sellers is horse heart with a side of red quinoa and caramelised bananas. The average Kazakh wouldn’t know that such a dish existed. But in the past, horse heart was prepared specifically for a bride by her mother. It symbolised love and care for a daughter who was to leave forever for her husband’s house. “While our ancestors prepared the meat by boiling it, we cook ancient dishes using modern technologies,” Kenessova says. “We cook the horse heart sous vide for 42 hours to make it juicy and soft.” Quinoa, meanwhile, is a newly-arrived product for Kazakhstan, but just so happens to play well with horse heart, and is rapidly gaining popularity.
In the bar adjacent to the main restaurant, there are 12 cocktails which each symbolise a different town in Kazakhstan, all marked on a large map on the wall. Like the waiters, bar staff are encouraged to share interesting facts about the city that each drink is connected to as they serve them. “In one evening at our place, you will acquire a wealth of knowledge,” says Kenessova.
If you dig a little further to the restaurant’s Western ambiance, you’ll find that even the decor is highly symbolic. “We collaborate with local creatives who share our vision,” explains Kenessova. In the bar, you can see modernist paintings by Adilzhan Mussa depicting historical Kazakhstani figures. Armchairs are adorned with pillows with traditional prints created by the model and designer Aya Shalkar.
On the walls, patterns represent the different historical phenomena that shaped Kazakhstani cuisine. A vertical striped pattern symbolises the Silk Road, which allowed Kazakh people to acquire spices from abroad. Another pattern is reminiscent of concrete building blocks, alluding to the sombre architecture of the Soviet period. Another wall displays the symbols of roughly 30 tribes Kazakhs originated from. The symbols are repeated on the menu cover as well. “It is a lot of fun for our guests to poke around and find the one they belong to,” said Kenessova. The Tarih logo embodies the Kazakh hospitality the people pride themselves on, including a kerege, or the framework of the yurt that served as a home for Kazakh nomads. “People who come to us are more than just clients, they are guests in our home,” Kenessova says.
On a broader level, chefs are finding that embracing new, Kazakh fusion dishes are helping Kazakhstanis understand their identity in the modern era. In many ways, it is about capturing the best of two worlds and trend: an upswing in patriotism, and a global outlook ready for experimentation and change. As JamBull chef Asiya Fatkulina explains: “People are open-minded. They welcome new flavours.”