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Kazak Food Culture
Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods
Winter Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(4) page(s): 15, 16, and 21
To really know China and its food, it is important to understand and look at the fifty-five China-designated minority populations. One of these, known as Qazaq, are commonly known as the Kazak people. Some also spell their name Kazakh. Formerly nomadic, the lifestyle of these people was and for some still is based upon breeding and raising camels, sheep, goats, and horses and driving them to market. Their very symbol is the horse, about which they sing many songs and tell many tales. Their culinary fame, according to horticultural experts, is the wild apple, first cultivated by them and in this area. Their travels may be responsible for its movement and increased availability. A particular variety unique to the region, the aport, is still found there.
Kazak people's origins began with a confederation of groups before and since Chinggis Khan, whom you may know as Chingis or Gengis Khan. Their ancestors traveled across Asia and Western China, many living in or near Dunhuang. Others were in groups or tribes at least twenty-five hundred years ago, and they were always with their own leader or khan. Recently, some of them have settled and created towns and cities in China and the Asian steppes. Others, as their ancestors before them, still roam this entire region and that of central Asia. About a dozen years ago, in 1991, tribes outside of China were united and became the independent country known as Kazakhstan. Some think this country and its people a new entity, but Kazaks were politically active by that name in the 16th century. Before that, they were known by other names. Their goups merged, then divided themselves into three groups: The Great Horde or Ulujuz, The Central Horde or Ortajuz, and The Lesser Horde or Kishijuz.
Those Kazak people still in China are mostly peoples of the Central or Middle Horde. They are believed to be ancestors of tribes from the State of Wusun that existed during Western Han dynasty times (206 BCE - 24 CE). Now and earlier, they lived with other minority groups on what was about sixty percent of China's land. It was sparsely populated and is in northern and western regions. It is less so now because many Han have been and are being resettled in their autonomous provinces and prefectures. With intermarriage and proximity to others, dilution of Kazak people’s culture in China is of concern, as it is for other minority population groups.
All Kazak people are believed descendants of Turkic and other tribes, and Persians, and Mongol groups. In China, these Chinese people live mainly in the Yili Kazak Autonomous prefecture and in Mulei and Balikun Kazak Autonomous counties. We met some who lived in Xinjiang, Qinghai, and the Gansu provinces, even some residing in Beijing and Shanghai. Their food and national dress and their eating styles reflect their heritage. Most were Muslims that favored the Suni sect. They spoke a Turkic dialect which is a branch of the Altaic language family. Most of them wrote using the same Latin alphabet that westerners use, though a few did write in Arabic. Typical of Kazaks throughout China, they could recite their own genealogy seven or more generations back and did so when asked where they were from. They told of people, places, and tales of their ancestors; all are fascinating.
Most of their ancestors lived all along the so called 'Silk Road' mostly in Central Asian countries. They traveled with ancient caravans that linked China with the near east. It was from there that they had an impact as far away as Europe. There were three main routes east to west and visa versa in use from about the 3rd century BCE to about the 19th century in this, the Christian era (CE). Those we spoke to had traveled north to Mongolia and west to what was Russia.
Their horsemanship and the need to trade animals and other goods explains why their ancestors lived in many countries before, and why they traveled and traded so extensively. In those early days, earlier generations of those we met had traveled from western Persia and Turkey as far as Chang-an, the city now called Xian. Only a few had made it to Guangdong and the China Sea. They and their Kazak brethren were descendants of Saks, Indo-Scythes, Wusan, Kang-ju, Alani, Hun, and other ancient groups including the Saka, Wusun, Hun, and Yuezhi people that meandered throughout the northwest of China and then seemed to, but did not disappear. Since 1992, some seven to eight million of them now live in and are citizens of Kazakhstan. Another one and one-fifth million live in China. Many more live in the other countries in this part of the world and elsewhere.
As a culture, they disdain planting seeds, but did plant the seeds of other cultures. They transplanted foods, theirs and others, wherever they went. They brought Persian food to China and Chinese food to Persia. They moved Russian and Chinese food back and forth. And, they moved the foods and beverages of their own and other cultures as they traversed on the Silk Road from one end to the other and back again.
The word Kazak has many translations. Some include: 'Tent on wheels' or 'Nomad' while others mean 'White Swan' or 'Refugee.' Settled or roaming, almost every Kazak family is patriarchal and has strong close family ties. Up to twenty extended family members can live together in one yurt, their traditional movable home. They eat together, work together, and play together. Somewhat unique is the way they pass down real property. Everything goes to the youngest son who inherits it all. He also inherits the responsibility of tending not only to the flocks, but also to his parents.
As herders, meat is their main food. They also hunt and like fox which they call tulki, hare which they refer to as qoyan, wolves they call qasqir, and deer which they refer to as aq boken. They consume many parts of all of these and other animals except for the animal's blood. At their main or dinner meals, they wash the huge amount of meat that they eat down with lots of kumiss, which they also spell as qumiz. This beverage is fermented mare's milk high in alcohol content. It gets higher the longer it is kept. They also drink milk tea made from mare's or camel's milk, even sheep milk. If it is made from horses or sheep, they may call this milk ayran, that from camel is called shubat. They drink lots of these fermented drinks during the day and at almost every meal. Their milk tea is made with fermented milk mixed with tea, salt, cloves, pepper, and butter. Only during Ramadan do they limit their intake, and then it is early in the morning and late in the evening. They drink it all day long during their New Year festival called Ni Nau Riz, and they drink many cups full during Molid Nabawi, Bairam, and Corban, their holidays.
When they have the choice, horsemeat is their favorite. An honored guest, however, is served a freshly blessed and slaughtered sheep, preferably one with yellow hair that is about two years old. Once, as that honored guest, I was so feted. I needed to sit cross-legged near their fake fireplace. They called it a dastarqan or hearth. I sat at the edge of a solid colored cloth that had been spread atop a multi-colored rug. Everyone was seated with thought to importance, those of greater stature and elders sat near this hearth, the others were not seated as close.
This experience was in an apartment in Beijing. Nonetheless, I was told that it was traditional. I was handed a sharp knife and told to make the first cut in the roasted animal. My host grabbed the knife, finished my timid job, served each of us a hunk of meat about two pounds worth. He returned the knife to me, along with the animal's head. Following instructions, I was given before getting to that apartment, I cut many small pieces giving one to each guest and to each family member. Everyone was then given their own knife, the only utensils available, and we all ate with our right hand. No one took a piece of food and then bit a piece off it, rather, the correct thing was to cut a piece the size that one could pop into the mouth. Biting off pieces of food is not appreciated, chewing it is, if done with teeth and lips closed. Afterwards, we learned that to bite off pieces in plain view is considered rude.
Before coming to this apartment, my friend educated me and my party not to lick the back of our hands and never to complement the kids. To say they are cute, bright, even that they have good manners, is to place a curse upon them. So when the kids ate their qurt or dried cheese curds, we said nothing. When they were served irimshiq or dried cheese the size of tennis balls, we refrained from querying how they were made or why they bit into them. Our hosts were Muslims so we knew there would be no pork at this meal, we learned they do not eat donkey or dog either.
With our meat, we were served pieces from a huge melon that was dark green on the outside, light greenish-orange within. They called it farlana. We were also served vegetables, some roasted tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, each on its own plate, several steamed meats, and a boiled one called et. It was soupy and salty and came with a sweetish and soft onion-like topping and pieces of dough called qamir mixed in. It would have been rude to ask if the veges were only served when they had guests, so we did not, and we forgot to ask our guide thereafter.
One of the meat dishes, called naren, was a mixture of mutton, onion, and spices made into thick patties before being steamed. Another was called kinta, also mutton, but chopped very fine and mixed with cream. This was stuffed into a piece of large intestine from a horse and also steamed. We washed everything down with fermented mare's milk, milk tea, or sorpa, a mutton broth; most of us had all three. The host and their family and invited friends mostly drank the fermented mare's milk, and it was potent!
When we entered the virtually furniture-less room, there was a cloth near that fake fireplace. On it, were flat cakes of fried dough called shelpek and some nang. The latter looked like small baked breads but we suspect they were probably made in a pan and not an oven. Not wanting to be rude, we did try to not ask about every little thing. Twenty of us sat around that cloth-eating-area. All the food was there when we came in and we saw no oven when taken on a tour of the kitchen and the public areas of the house. While we ate, the Kazak host family recited what were called poems, sang songs, and played string instruments to entertain us. The lady of the house said they do so for themselves whenever they feel in a holiday mood. Throughout the meal, our milk tea was dispensed from a tin-lined copper samovar that resembled one my mother had. But theirs sat on a tall trunk up-ended the narrow way. They always poured from it with a flourish raising the cup up and down some twelve to fifteen inches. The tea came out the spigot descending into the cup with a splash. It and all food and drink were delicious. On leaving, we were given candies to assure a sweet life.
Because the Kazak people consider livestock the pillar of their life and because they believe that fishermen and planters will die paupers, they did not serve any fish. We were surprised by the vegetables and had thought they only use onions and put them in their steamed meat. They told us that they rarely fish or plant, but do some gathering. When we asked about the grains for the breads, they seemed a little embarrassed and announced that they do not grow any and that they purchased these items.
We did ask what they did before stores, and they shared a story about years ago. It was about a white goose who turns into a beautiful maiden. She marries a leader and bears him a son named Kaz. They went on to say that they were all his descendents. We learned later that this is but one of two tales about their origins. Also learned later that 'Kaz' means goose and that 'Akh' means white.
Another story they told us was about a three-day wedding celebration which included lots of horsemanship. The mother of the bride was given several young sheep by the groom's family. These were in appreciation for having suckled the little lady as a baby. They called this the 'door-finding ritual.' Never did understand that or any of these connections. If you do, educate us all!
This family and other Kazak people tout health effects of many of their foods. They say that their fermented camel's milk is of value to diabetics, and that mare's milk is anti-tubercular. At the meal just mentioned, they thought this sixty-plus lady, that's me, should have more kumiss to keep her youth. When someone coughed, they recommended qurt to cure the cold. For young kids, they serve sheep's ears to help them listen better and to ten and eleven year olds they feed them sheep tongue so that they will speak more clearly. At twelve years of age, a Kazak is considered an adult. When leaving, our guide was given an empty glass and a bottle of kumiss and told to leave it in our hotel room. He told us it was because they hoped we would age well and return soon. He also told us that they appreciated all the questions we asked because it was a sign of caring about them and their way of life.
Since returning, we have learned of two books that show and tell a lot about the Kazak people. We recommend them to you, and in alphabetic order by title. They are: China's Last Nomads by Linda Benson and Ingvar Svanberg; published by M.E. Sharpe, Armonk New York, © 1998 (They can be reached at 80 Business Park Drive); and The Soul of Kazakhstan with essays by Alma Kunanbay. that book is published by Easton Press in New York © 2001. For information about it, contact the photographer, Wayne Eastep, at 1-800-397-2154 or reach him via the web at: www.the soulofkazakshatn.com
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