Before coming to Kazakhstan, I read a little bit about Kazakh culture. I had learned about how Kazakhs often drink tea from bowls or “pialas”, that they eat horse meat, and of course, that they are very hospitable. Little did I know that I would be bombarded with all of these things almost immediately after arriving in Almaty!
On my second day in the city, there was a Kazakh engagement party at my host family’s house, and I got to experience real Kazakh cuisine and hospitality for myself. Since my host sister is getting married this summer, they held a sort of “mixing of the families” party at our apartment. The extended family of the groom arrived with much fanfare, carrying tons of gifts for the bride’s whole family–basically a modern-day dowery. The most important gift was the silver earrings for the bride-to-be. After the first course of typical zakuski (fish, salads, baursak or fried dough), the presents were given out. Then the women helped to clean up and reset the tables for the main course, while the men went outside to grill the koktal (grilled fish and vegetables).
During the second course I was bombarded with traditional Kazakh foods. Besides the koktal, we had beshbarmak (meat with noodles and onions), shorpo (fatty broth), kazi (horse sausage… kind of), kumiss (fermented mare’s milk), and even ram’s head and liver. There were definitely some things that I preferred, like the beshbarmak, while others were definitely unusual to say the least.
Things didn’t end there, of course. Kazakh celebrations seem to last forever. After the meal there was lots of dancing and music. Even the grandmothers got up to dance for a few songs! Then it was time for desert and chai. I may have known how Kazakhs drink their tea, but I underestimated how much of it they drink! Even though the rooms were already toasty, everyone had at least three bowls of piping hot tea. Tea is very important here, because that’s when everyone gets to talk and relax.
Finally, after hours of celebration, people started to make their way home. It was definitely a crazy way to be welcomed to my host country, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way!
By: Sasha Gorda
Program: Russian Language & Area Studies, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Term: Summer 2019