When you are visiting a Kazakh home for a meal for the first time, you might be greeted by an unexpected sight: a sheep’s head perched atop a massive pile of meat and flat noodles.
But don’t let this alarm you. This delicious display, known as beshbarmak, is considered Kazakhstan’s national dish, and it’s the favored meal to cook for honored guests and relatives during times of celebration. It is warm, hearty and steeped with enough traditional lore that eating it with a friendly family is enough to keep the conversation going.
Most important, the dish is a reminder of Kazakhstan’s nomadic pastoralist roots. Its cities — like the neo-futuristic capital, Astana, and Almaty with its sprawling urban architecture — may signal to the outside world that this Central Asian nation is evolving to a more modern lifestyle. But beshbarmak, through all the variations that it is served across the country, will offer guests a peek into Kazakhstan’s past.
In its most basic essence, beshbarmak consists of boiled meat sautéed with onions and potatoes, served with doughy flat noodles. Horse meat is the most extravagant version, and it is sometimes stuffed in an intestine tube like a sausage. But it can also be made with sheep, beef, lamb or even camel and fish. Displayed on a wide metal plate, the dish is usually eaten with bare hands — beshbarmak translates to “five fingers” — in Kazakh homes, though it can also be ordered at places like the popular Almaty restaurant Tyubeteika for about $8.
Since people would often travel with their cattle, different regions of Kazakhstan would feature different types of meat in the dish, explains Indira Alibayeva, a Kazakh social anthropologist based in Halle-Zurich’s Center for Anthropological Studies on Central Asia. “In the east, the people have more cattle, so they put more meat in the dish,” she says. “But in the southern regions, where people rely more on agriculture, they put less meat.”
The most important part of beshbarmak lies in what the Kazakhs would like to communicate to their guests.
There is also symbolic meaning tied to each part of the dish. For example, children will often get served parts of the animal’s brain (to make them more clever) or the tongue (to help them grow up to become great orators). Those who eat an animal’s ears are expected to become better listeners.
But the most important part of beshbarmak lies in what the Kazakhs would like to communicate to their guests, Alibayeva says. Cooking it with horse, which is expensive and very difficult to slaughter, is the highest form of respect, she says, and shows “your hospitality, your welfare, your economic status.”
When I stayed in February with a family of fishermen and camel herders in the southern Kazakh town of Tastubek, they offered me an impressive meal on my final night: beshbarmak made with camel meat, served with a side of seared fish freshly caught from the Aral Sea. As we dug into the communal dish with our hands, using our fingers to tear apart the hunks of meat, it was easy to see why this is a national favorite. The meat was tender, and the oil-slicked noodles went well with it — a hearty meal welcomed on a cold winter day.
My host, a burly 45-year-old man who had personally fished and cleaned the meal on the table, chatted about his life and gossiped about his relatives. In that moment, I also learned another Kazakh platitude to be true: The best beshbarmak is made not in the restaurants of modern Almaty but in the homes of newfound friends.
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