Saturday, October 13, 2012

Culinary Adventures in Kazakhstan

While this is not the Part 2 of the blog I promised -- that is still in the works -- I thought a blog post about food would satiate your appetite for my witty writing.  Because let's be honest: who doesn't love reading about food?

My biggest worry about moving to Kazakhstan -- more than the rough winters in Astana or even where I would live -- was what I would eat.  As a vegetarian, the prospect of moving to a country where the national dishes require several forms of meat, where there is an etiquette in sharing and eating meat at the table, where the language includes 20 different words for parts of the horse, was a daunting one.  True, I had survived in Russia, not exactly the bastion of vegetarianism, for six months, but there I had the good fortune of being placed in a host family where the mom was vegetarian.  While I knew I'd have access to a kitchen here, I worried whether I would find the ingredients I depend on to make good, healthy vegetarian food.  Besides, most of my days would be spent at the university -- and -- let's be honest here -- campus food has the distinct ability to be hit-or-miss even in the most vegetarian-friendly parts of the world. 

It took a few weeks for me to find my bearings, but my fears about food have largely been allayed. The university's cafeteria, which is for both students and the international faculty/staff, has an excellent variety of vegetarian dishes each day.  Seriously, the food puts anything I've ever had at UW's Memorial Union or Northwestern's Norris Student Center to shame (though my fellow Wildcats will agree that Norris isn't exactly the standard bearer of good food).  Though on one occasion I found an extraneous slab of meat in my "vegetarian" soup, in general, I'm not just eating potatoes and bread everyday.  My favorite cafeteria offering -- which can make or break a day at work -- is a stew-like mix of eggplant, squash, carrots and potatoes.  Plus, they offer a spicy chili sauce, a Kazakhstani version of Sriracha, that I pretty much just dump on everything, including pasta, to the amusement and befuddlement of the cafeteria staff.  

Cooking for myself -- or, really, for me and Omar since there's no use in making stuff on my own and not sharing -- became easier once I discovered the wealth of produce at the local bazaars.  At first, our meals were somewhat simple -- kasha with vegetables, vegetable soup and vareniki (Russian dumplings, similar to pierogi) -- but we've become more adventurous in our culinary experiments as we've found more specialized ingredients.  Last weekend, Omar spotted some "plov spice" (plov is the quintessential Central Asian dish -- a mix of rice, meat, veggies and spices that are slow cooked**) at the bazaar, which prompted us to experiment with creating a vegetarian-friendly version of the dish.  We sauteed onions, carrots and potatoes with the spice mix, then added rice and garlic cloves, allowing the mixture to slowly simmer until ready (the trick to plov is that ingredients cook in layers and are only mixed at the end before serving).  The results may not have been authentic by any means, but our "plov" was aromatic and delicious, and I may have eaten far more than my fair share of it.  I think next time I want to add chickpeas and maybe some chopped dried apricots for extra flavor. 

Vegetarian plov!
This week I also managed to do something that I generally struggle with even in the United States: duplicate one of my mother's recipes with some success. It's not that I'm a bad cook; it's just that the dishes never quite turn out the way they do when she makes them, so I typically congratulate myself whenever I make something that vaguely approaches her level.  Obviously, I am giving myself extra points for making any of her recipes while in Kazakhstan, whether or not they turn out the way she'd make them!  Last weekend, while shopping at the bazaar, I was ecstatic to find cilantro (oh glorious cilantro!!!) and a selection of spices, including turmeric.  Once I spotted a vendor selling pumpkin, I knew the food gods were begging me to introduce Kazakhstan to a family staple -- and one of my favorite dishes of all time -- pumpkin masala.  Now I know you're thinking, this sounds amazing but you can't quite recall if you've ever the pleasure of sampling it at your local Indian buffet.  Chances are you never have.  Pumpkin curry (baakar bhaji) is a popular dish in Maharashtra, a state in western India whose cuisine has a unique flavor profile quite unlike anything you find at generic Indian restaurants, and this particular recipe was something my grandmother learned from a Maharashtrian friend.  It's been passed down through the family to my mother and me -- and, now, I've decided that it should be passed onto you, dear reader, because good food is meant to be shared.  You'll find the recipe below the photo, which should whet your appetite!  

Pumpkin masala (baakar bhaji)


3 cups pumpkin or butternut squash (1-2 inch chunks)
1 medium-sized white onion (chopped finely)
1-inch piece of ginger, grated or finely chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp red chili powder/cayenne (add more if you like spice)
1/4 tsp cumin seeds (or more, if you like cumin)
1/2 tsp salt (or more to taste)
1 tbs oil or ghee
1/2 cup water
fresh cilantro (chopped) -- as much as you like

1. Sauté the cumin on the oil/ghee over medium heat in a heavy pan for 1-2 minutes until fragrant.  Add the ginger and onion.  Continue to sauté until the onions are soft.
2. Add the squash and sauté for a few more minutes. 
3. Add the spices and salt.  Add the 1/2 cup of water.  Bring to a steady simmer.  
4. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until the squash is soft -- generally about 15-20 minutes.  Occasionally stir.  The squash should be pretty soft -- almost mushy -- but still holding its general shape.  
5. Before serving, you can add chopped cilantro and salt to taste.  Best served with naan or any kind of flatbread. 
6. Stuff your face. 

Today I had the pleasure of eating some of the best home-cooked food I've had so far in Kazakhstan (to be fair, I haven't had that much home-cooked food beyond my own, but even if I had, this would still rank as the best).  Last week Omar and I contacted Marzhan, our Kazakh language teacher from Madison who had returned to Astana after our first year of graduate school.  Of course, she invited us home for lunch, and, not surprisingly, she prepared a stunning spread of food, including homemade manti (Kazakh dumplings), salads, cabbage latkes, fruit, tea and seven different kinds of cake.  Manti are steamed dumplings that typically have a meat-filling, but Marzhan created a vegetarian version for me with pumpkin and potatoes.  Our lunch lasted several hours, enough time for me to eat about a dozen or so manti at Marzhan's constant insistence that we "eat more," and, of course, have several cups of tea. 

Manti with pumpkin and potato filling!
My plate of food, which was refilled many times. 

Seriously full.  Do you see the 7 kinds of cake??

Me and Marzhan-apai. 
One of the things I love about this part of the world -- and this holds for many Mediterranean and Asian countries as well -- is the deep relationship between food and hosting guests.  The Russian word "gostepriimstvo" (likewise the Kazakh "qonaqzhailyilyiq") is always badly translated into English as "hospitality," but it represents so much more than just that. As a guest in Russia and in Kazakhstan, your host will ply you with food, drinks and entertainment that you begin to think you are somehow the most honored person to walk in through their doors.  I think most Americans would be slightly embarrassed and perhaps a bit suspicious of this attention, but it is customarily expected in Russian and Kazakh homes.  Not having twice the amount of food needed for a small party would certainly be considered rude, so it is hardly surprising that we came away from today's lunch both stuffed to the hilt and with several bags of leftovers.  

My new food goal, other than trying to make chana masala in the near future, is to learn to make manti while I am in Kazakhstan.  Again, my vegetarian version may not be quite as authentic, but I still like to think the best way to experience the culture of another country is through its food.

**Plov is also one of my favorite examples in history of how food transcends borders, and reflects centuries of trade, conquest and intermingling.  Not only is the Central Asian (Uzbek) plov a cousin of the Indian pulao and Turkish pilav, but it also resembles both paella and risotto in the way it is prepared.  Obvious differences exist, but the fact that a simple rice dish is present across cuisines is a reminder of how we are well, for better or for worse, part of a bigger narrative.  


  1. This brings happy memories of Istanbul--the fabulous vegetarian dishes at the cafeteria,menti, the stews.... Food is as you say, taken very seriously and treated not as a utilitarian things that needs to be just shoved down the throat while driving, watching TV or doing something else. Hospitality is spiritual exercise in cultures where food is cooked with such care and love.
    The photos look wonderfully mouth-watering. I must go and make some cabbage latkes!

  2. that beautiful mother of yours recommended your blog and what a delight it is to read you!

  3. Thanks for visiting, Lara -- glad you enjoyed it! I checked out your photo blog. Great stuff!