Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Abay Restaurant - Almaty, Kazakhstan

One of my favorite meals of our trip to Central Asia took place at Abay Restaurant in Almaty, a city in southeastern, Kazakhstan.
Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan, with over 1.7 million people, about 9% of the country's population. Almaty was the capital from 1929 to 1997 when the capital was moved to Astana, in north-central, Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, by area. Kazakhs, a Turkic people, descendants of the Turkic and medieval Mongol tribes, are 63% of the population and the Kazakh people have a tradition of eating horse meat. I knew this before-hand and was thrilled when our tour group was treated to a traditional meal that included horse meat. 

Almaty is a beautiful city located near the foothills of the Zailiyskiy Alatau  Mountains near the border with Kyrgyzstan. Our group took a cable car from downtown up to one of the small foothills that included a small amusement park (primarily a Ferris wheel), a restaurant, some shops and a large communication tower. 
The Ferris wheel is visible to the left and the rounded building to the right is the restaurant. 
A cable car starting the descent.
A view in the opposite direction. 
The restaurant is a round-domed building perched on the edge of the hill and has great views of the city, although we were not sitting near any of the windows. It obviously is designed as a tourist destination as historical scenes are depicted on the walls around the restaurant. But unlike many tourist destinations, this place delivers. 
Abay, perched on the edge of the hill, included outside seating. We ate inside. 

The dining room inside the circular dome.
A mural with a traditional Kazakh motif.
A mural featuring a Kazakh meal.
Beautiful tiles on an entry way wall.
We were treated to three beautiful young women playing local instruments and singing and it was probably the second best music we heard on the trip (bested by an orchestra using traditional instruments in Tashkent, Uzbekistan), and we heard lots of different groups singing and playing traditional music. 
We were sitting at large rectangular tables and were first served by an array of salads, including wonderful vegetables marinated in a teriyaki type sauce (variously colored peppers, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and eggplant), one of the best salads we had on our trip; a green lettuce salad with chicken and a Caesar-type dressing which most people ate, throwing caution to the wind (most people were avoiding lettuce, because of the possibility of getting sick - but this looked so good it was hard to pass up); and marinated purple cabbage; some green scallions; etc. 

My favorite appetizer, and one of my favorite food items of the trip, was shuzhuk, a horse sausage made of horse rib meat and fat, cut into round slices about a quart inch thick. It was on a plate with a sweet and spicy mustard that complimented it perfectly. This sausage was smooth to the taste and quite pleasing. The fat had a low-melting point and gave a different texture and taste than the rest of the sausage. I was impressed that most of the people in our tour group ate the horse meat knowingly. 
Shuzhuk covered with mustard and some of the other salads.
The main dish was besbarmak, a traditional Kazakh dish made from horse hind quarters, shuzhuk, kazy (another horse sausage that is less fatty than shuzhuk) and lamb chops, along with wheat noodles and boiled potatoes, served with some spooned on onion soup. The kazy is less fatty than the shuzhuk, and not as tasty either. The boiled horse flank was quite dry and not particularly good. The lamb chops were nicely cooked and wonderful. Some people were a little more alarmed when this came around, and they learned it had more horse meat. Several people motioned our waitress to hold-down their serving sizes or to avoid giving them any at all. 
Many were also served broth that the besbarmak flesh was cooked in, but unfortunately it never made it to our table. Dessert was kind of an ordinary hard noodle candy held together by honey and sprinkled with powdered sugar. 
For me, this was by far the best group meal of our trip. I would love to go back to Kazakhstan and try more of their traditional horse-centric meals. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Snow Leopard

The snow leopard is an iconic animal species that I have loved from my youth. There was one on exhibit at Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, in my youth, and the thought of seeing one in the wild, or even being where they are found, was beyond my dreams.
I was thrilled on our recent trip into Central Asia to be in the mountains where they live and to see statues and other evidences of their relevance to local culture. 

In Almaty, Kazakhstan we stayed in a hotel in the foothills of the Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains,  part of the Tian Shan Mountain Range. They were white with recent snow.
Photo taken from the Royal Tulip Hotel in Almaty.
We took a bus into the mountains to see the Medeo ice skating rink and saw a number of statues of snow leopards along the route.

Canyon just below the Medeo ice skating rink. 
I asked our guide if she'd ever seen a snow leopard. She responded that she had, a number of years ago. She was up in these same mountains and looked down into a valley and saw a mother snow leopard and her two cubs. 

In downtown Almaty we visited Republic Square and stood at the base of the Golden Warrior Monument which features a golden warrior standing on the back of a winged snow leopard. It celebrates the independence of Kazakhstan.  
Golden Warrior Monument

The seal of Almaty, the 10,000 Tenge Kazakh note and a Kazakhstan stamp all feature the snow leopard.  
Seal of Almaty
Back of Tenge note
Kazakhstan stamp
In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan we took a bus 40 kms south into the Ala-Too mountains in Ala Archa National Park and there found a statue of a snow leopard just beyond the end of the road, covered in snow like the trees and mountains around it. Snow leopards are inhabitants of this park. 
The Ala-Too Mountains
The Ala-Archa River.
Statue of a snow leopard covered by snow at the end of a road into the park.
The city of Bishkek seal includes a stylized snow leopard.
City seal of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
It was fun to read that there was a Bishkek Declaration signed in Bishkek in 2013 by the leaders of the 12 countries that comprise the snow leopard's range (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) agreeing that the snow leopard and the high mountain habitat it lives in need trans-boundary support to ensure a viable future for the snow leopard. A goal was developed to find and secure 20 healthy populations of snow leopards across its range by 2020 (many of these populations will cross international boundaries).  

Finally, the city seal of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, also includes the snow leopard.
City seal of Samarkand
This trip has raised my hopes that one day I may be able to see one of these magnificent animals in the wild. I loved our visit to the mountains of Central Asia and would love to spend more time there. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Besbarmak - Kazakh Horse and Lamb Dish

Besbarmak, or beshbarmak, is a traditional and favorite Kazakh dish which means "five fingers" because it was eaten by the nomads with their hands. It traditionally includes a piece of horse rump meat (the hind quarters), kazy (horse meat sausage made from horse rib meat), shuzhuk (also horse meat sausage with more fat in it than kazy) and rack of lamb, all boiled, then mixed with boiled noodles, and spiced with onion sauce. It is usually served with a mutton broth called sorpa. 
This wooden bowl of besbarmak was served to us at Abay Restaurant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. 
One traditional recipe calls for stock to be made from bone-in-lamb, two peeled and sliced onions and ground pepper. Pastry is made from two eggs, flour and salt. The meat is placed in a deep dish and covered with cold water. Bring the meat to a boil, skimming off the foam, and reduce the heat and cover it to simmer. Skim off the fat and keep it in a separate cup. The meat will cook for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. In the interim, the pasty is made by mixing the eggs, sifted flour, salt and water. The dough is kneaded, wrapped in cling film and left to sit for 20 to 30 minutes. The pastry is divided into balls about the size of apples and then rolled into thin strips, sprinkling it with flour. The pastry is cut into 4 x 4 inch squares and left to sit and dry. When the meat is ready, remove it from the stock to dry. Make a sauce by pouring the skimmed fat over the onions and pepper and salt in a separate dish and boil it on low heat for 7 or 8 minutes. Cook the pastry in the same stock in batches for 7 or 8 minutes each. Then pull it out, sieve off the water, and place it in circles around the dish. Add the meat in the center of the dish, chopped into the desired size. Sprinkle the sauce, called sorpa (or shorpo), over the meat. Then sprinkle it with greens, if desired. 

This Youtube video shows besbarmak being made and eaten five finger style (not in English). It looks quite a bit different than what we had, but looks very good (stop watching the video when it shows the turtle getting its head chopped off  - that is apparently a different segment!).

We had it at a restaurant in Almaty, Kazakhstan called Abay. As Judy pointed out on one of my earlier posts, people on our tour who were horrified by my buying and eating horse meat were happily eating the horse meat served in the besbarmak at the restaurant.
Shuzhuk - horse sausage. We had this as a separate appetizer, but it was also in the besbarmak. 
Kazy, horse sausage, also in the besbarmak. It is less fatty than the shuzhuk.
Boiled horse flank.
Boiled lamb.
In the besbarmak we had, the lamb and the shuzhuk were the most tender ingredients which I enjoyed the most. The horse flank was a little dry. Rather than have us attack the dish ourselves, the server dished up a serving for each of us, one at a time. She gave each of us a little bit of each kind of meat, gave each of us some noodles  (which were long and thin, unlike the squared) and boiled potato (which does not appear to be a part of traditional besbarmak) and then spooned the onion broth on top of it. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Kazy - Kazakh Horse Sausage

I did a previous post on shuzhuk, a Kazakh horse sausage. This post is on another Kazakh horse sausage called kazy, and how the two types of Kazakh horse sausages differ.

Not surprisingly, I find discrepancies in their differences, but this article which goes into detail in the preparation of both, seems to provide the best contrast.

Kazy is made of horse rib meat, just as shuzhuk usually is, but starts with the bone-in ribs, which includes the fat. Shuzhuk is de-boned horse rib meat, but then adds suet (horse fat) to the mixture. Shuzhuk can also include added greens to taste. I understand that the amount of fat in shuzhuk can differ, but the given recipe calls for an equal amount of fat to rib meat, a significant difference. So Shuzhuk contains more fat.

This kazy recipe indicates that the un-salted horse ribs are hung and air-dried for 5 to 7 hours. Another comparison I looked at said the un-salted horse ribs were hung in a sunny well-aired place for a week, a huge difference. By comparison, shuzhuk is rubbed with salt and kept at a (cooler) temperature of 37 to 39 degrees for one to two days. This variation means that the kazy retains less moisture than shuzhuk and has a drier texture.

For kazy, the dried rib meat is cut into strips along the ribs. Inter-rib tissue is cut with a sharp knife to remove cartilage and without crumbling the fat. The stripped rib meat is salted, peppered and garlic is added and it is wrapped in a napkin and left to sit for 2 to 3 hours.  In shuzhuk, the meat and fat are cut into small pieces and mixed, then the same amount of pepper, salt and garlic that are added to the kazy are added to the shuzhuk and mixed again. The shuzhuk is in much smaller pieces and is mixed with more fat. The kazy is in long pieces.

Both kazy and shuzhuk are then stuffed into horse intestine (which have been washed and kept in salt water) as a casing and the ends are tied up with string.

At this point this recipe loses definition. It states that the kazy can then be dried, boiled and smoked. The Wiki article on kazy says that it can either be smoked at 122 to 140 degrees for 12 to 18 hours, or hung to dry for a week in a sunlit and windy place (which may be a confusion in articles on kazy between the initial drying of the meat and the drying of the sausage casings after they've been stuffed). It is then cooked in boiling water for two hours and sliced into quarter-inch thick slices. For the shuzhuk, it says is is smoked over dense smoke at 122 to 140 degrees for 12 to 18 hours, then dried for two to three days at 53 degrees. This recipe does not mention the final step of slow boiling for 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

By comparison, they are both presented in round disks a quarter-inch thick. The shuzhuk is fatter and more tender.
Shuzhuk on a platter at Abay Restaurant in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The kazy is more coarse.  Kazy is said to be used more by rich people. 
Kazy in a dish of besmarmak at Abay Restaurant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The kazy is the dark brown disks. 
Kazy (the dark brown disks)
I'm sure that is because it is all rib meat and no added fat, so more expensive to prepare. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Shuzhuk - Horse Sausage

A popular Kazakh dish is shuzhuk, which is horse sausage. The casing for the sausage is the small intestine, and the filling is horse rib meat, fat and seasoning. The proportion of rib meat to fat is a matter of personal taste - it can be virtually all meat or all fat. Once the filling is stuffed into the casing, the resulting sausage is tied at both ends and boiled. 

A recipe for shuzhuk is found here. The recipe calls for equal parts horse meat and fat (suet), salt, pepper and garlic. The meat is rubbed with salt and kept one or two days at a temperature of 37 to 39 degrees. The intestines are washed in and kept in salt water. The meat and fat are cut into small pieces and mixed. The garlic, pepper and salt are combined and then mixed into the mixture of meat and fat. The mixture is then stuffed into intestines, both ends are tied with a string, and they are hung in a cool place for three or four hours. It is then smoked 12 to 18 hours over dense smoke at a temperature of 122 to 140 degrees and then dried at 53 degrees for two to three days. It is then boiled over a slow fire for two to two and a half hours. It is then cut into slices one-quarter inch thick and it is ready to eat. 

I found some shuzhuk in a market in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. I had no way to store it or eat it and asked the proprietor of the sausage stall if I could buy it and have him cut it into slices for me. He did not understand English and I was trying to communicate using hand signals. I think he thought I only wanted to buy a few slices, instead of buy the whole sausage and have him slice it, so he refused. The sausage cost about $8.00. 
Shuzhuk, center, stored in a refrigerated unit in a market in Samarkand.
Judy holding a shuzhuk, fatty side up. Note how long and thick it is. 
We did taste shuzhuk at Restaurant Abay in Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was served with a semi-sweet mustard that was really good. The horse fat had a low melt point and melted in your mouth. The horse meat was soft, a little sweet, and had plenty of spice. I really enjoyed it. It had no unpleasant taste. 
Slices of shuzhuk at Abay Restaurant in Almaty.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Packaged Horse Meat - Urumqi, China

I was looking forward to visiting Urumqi, located far out in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of northwestern China, near Mongolia and Kazakhstan. 
Map of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. 
There are lots of Kazakh people there who like to eat horse meat and I had a goal to find and eat some while we were there. The Wuyi Night Market there is known for its gourmet street food, but unfortunately, we were not spending the night in Urumqi. We had a three hour bus ride from Turpan to Urumqi that morning, then were flying out of Urumqi to Almaty, Kazakhstan late that afternoon. My only opportunity would be a 45 minute visit to a different market in downtown Urumqi in the afternoon. 

I talked to our guide, A.J., who agreed to take me to where I could find some horse meat in the market. He led us into a large warehouse type building, mostly selling scarves and jewelry, then down several layers of escalator to a Carrefour of all places, a large French grocery store chain. After walking up and down several aisles he finally located a refrigerated section and pointed to two packages with horses on the front - horse meat, although the writing on the packages was all in Chinese. This was not what I'd been hoping for, I'd envisioned a nice warm meal of cooked horse meat. But this had to do. When I questioned A.J. about the warmed version, he said it was in another part of town and we did not have time to get there. 

So I bought both packages, it was cheap. Along with a Coke Zero, the total came to about $7.00. 

I opened the first package on our bus trip to the airport. 
The meat was pinkish red and fatty. It had the texture and taste of corned beef, although a little sweeter. 

It was pretty good for packaged meat. Judy had a taste and agreed on the corned beef comparison, and I polished off the rest. 

I waited a couple of days to eat the other package. 
It was on our train and Judy was concerned it had not been refrigerated. We had found it in a refrigerated section, but the package was similar to foods that often do not need to be refrigerated. The opened product was much darker and did not look very appetizing. 

It probably was suffering from lack of refrigeration. However, I couldn't let it pass, so I ate a couple of pieces. It was stiffer and did not have as nice a flavor. After a couple of bites, I disposed of the rest. The question is whether it would have been much better if I'd eaten it the day I bought it. I suspect that is the case. 

I note a recent article in The Atlantic, "The Troubled History of Horse Meat in America", dated June 8, 2017, by Susanna Forrest. She notes that President Trump wants to cut the budget of the Bureau of Land Management used to care for wild horses. For 2017 the BLM has budgeted $80.6 million to care for 73,000 wild horses. In 2008 the budget was $36 million. Wild horses used to be slaughtered and the meat was shipped to Europe and Asia where it was consumed. However, animal rights activists got the practice stopped and the horses now sit in fenced areas and have to be fed by the BLM, a very expensive practice. The horse population has skyrocketed and those that are not penned are over-grazing the western deserts. I am not a fan of President Trump, but this proposed change makes sense. Bring back the slaughter houses for horses and ship the meat abroad. As long as we are still eating cows, sheep and chickens, the cultural taboo of eating horses in the U.S. should not prevent the slaughter of the excess horses so that the meat can be shipped to countries that will eat it.