Kazakhstan is not famous as a destination for gourmets, but a few chefs are trying to infuse a bit of excitement into a cuisine often accused of being unremittingly dull.
The country’s first international culinary competition brought together around 100 chefs from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Russia last week in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty. Alexander Tregubenko, president of the Chefs' Association of Kazakhstan, told Tengri News that the gathering gave emerging local talent a chance to experiment with new ideas from abroad.
This being Kazakhstan, where equine culture is a prominent part of the national identity, of course horse meat featured prominently on the menu. On the last day of competition, October 31, Kazakh chefs competed for the “Best Chef of the Year” title on the condition their main course included horse meat. Almaty-based Khalmurat Nurdinov took the prize with his fried horse meat seeped in a secret marinade.
It's not clear how this innovation will go down with traditionalists. Kazakhstan's national dish is known simply as kazaksha et, or “Kazakh meat.” It is also called beshbarmak -- or five fingers, because it was traditionally eaten by hand.
Beshbarmak harks back to a time when ethnic Kazakhs were nomadic and enjoyed a primarily meat-based diet. It comes in limited variations on a theme of meat cooked with sheets of pasta; vegetables (except for the occasional potato) are conspicuously absent. It can be served with any type of meat available, including horse, lamb, chicken, yak, camel, or, especially near the Aral Sea, fish.
Young chefs may be eager to challenge the culinary status quo in Kazakhstan, but few impressed the judges. “There were several interesting dishes, but nothing knocked us dead,” Tregubenko said after the contest. “I told them [the competitors] that they cook delicious and beautiful dishes but they are not at an international-competition level yet.”