Kazakhstan’s national identity is deeply connected to its food culture

Popular meals eaten in Kazakhstan. Photo by Daniyar Mussirov. Used with permission.

This article was written by Nazerke Kurmangazinova for Vlast.kz. An edited version is published on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement. 

After studying Kazakhstan’s food culture and national cuisine, historian Aliya Bolatkhan is creating a gastronomic map of the country. Vlast interviewed her to discuss the nodes of contention regarding the national cuisine and its contemporary rethinking.

The interview with Bolatkhan started at the Tastak Bazaar in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city in the south. She led the Vlast journalists to a shashlik restaurant, serving their speciality shish kebab.

Aliya Bolatkhan. Photo by Daniyar Mussirov. Used with permission.

With little room to sit, the place becomes crowded by noon as customers form a line outside. The shashlik has always been a protagonist of the region’s food culture.

“Since the late 1940s, during extensive ethnographic research, textbooks listing the ‘national dishes of Kazakhstan’ included meat, lagman, plov (pilaf), and shashlik,” Bolatkhan said.

According to her, Kazakhstan is not only formed by ethnic Kazakhs, but also includes members of other ethnic groups born and living here. Therefore, what is commonly known as “national cuisine” consists of dishes that are regularly prepared and consumed by all residents of Kazakhstan.

Of course, most of the dishes that Kazakhs have consumed for centuries are included in our national cuisine. But not all. For example, have you ever tried ‘bürme qaryn’? Coarsely chopped meat, potatoes, and other vegetables and boiled in water with tripe. Nobody cooks this at home, sometimes you can order it in restaurants as ‘authentic food’. Many of us have not tried this dish. Previously, it existed in traditional Kazakh cuisine, but for various reasons it disappeared from mass consumption.

Whose authenticity?

Bolatkhan said unequivocally that “any dish found on any menu in the country should be called ‘national cuisine.’”

We cook plov, lagman, borscht, and eat kuyrdaq. In some places they make “nan kuyrdaq,” which was very practical in the 20th century and was possibly created under the influence of the Germans who came here. This dish immediately became popular in food culture because its recipe was easy and everyone loved the taste

Between the 1930s and 1950s, when Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, the country became a destination point for millions of Gulag prisoners and deportees from different parts of the Soviet Union. Among them were Koreans, Finns, Germans, Poles, Kurds, Iranians, Jews, Chechen, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, and Ukrainians. The legacy of these policies is the fact that Kazakhstan is now home to 124 nationalities.

Kazakhstan's modern cuisine has been significantly influenced by the eating habits of the peoples who were deported or moved to Kazakhstan. As an example, Bolatkhan mentioned that the Korean morkovcha (a carrot salad) has turned into an integral part of the local cuisine.

Many of those who were deported to Kazakhstan remained in the country. There were also those who lived here for 15 years, but then left. Still, if you live with someone for 15 years, you will learn a lot from them. Plus, because the Soviet system tried to create a uniform culture, Kazakhstan formed its own cuisine, independent of ethnicity.

Within the country, regional characteristics have had an influence on food.

Kazakhs did not live on their own. Fruits and vegetables that they could not produce due to regional characteristics were obtained through exchange and trade. The north and east traded with Russia and China, the south and southeast with other Central Asian countries.

By building a menu, through scientific and cultural research, it’s possible to fit a range of different dishes within our country’s traditions. Because we all grew up eating those dishes and we still eat them today. In the end, it’s all about the flavors that evoke emotions and have cultural significance.

National identity and food

Within the thriving conversation about decolonization, Bolatkhan said that research on food culture has become even more relevant today.

Many people argue that language is the main measure of national identity. Yet, in some situations, national identity is determined by other factors as well. Food culture, for example, can be a powerful indicator of your cultural identity.

She said that people in Kazakhstan still need to come to terms with the transition from a nomadic to a semi-sedentary and then a fully sedentary way of life, which happened alongside periods of colonization, forced collectivization, and famine. These events had a devastating impact on their eating habits.

I collected memories about the ‘taste of childhood’ from people who lived in the post-war decade. They often said that ‘food made from flour, salt and water’ reminded them of their childhood, and for them nothing tastes better. We ate this not because it was tasty or healthy, but because at that time there was nothing else. Only over time, this became an integral part of our national identity and traditions.

Food habits followed the relationship with the colonial power, as seen at the time of the Russian Empire. The use of the name “beshbarmak” (a meal made of chopped meat, dough, and onions) is an image of colonial consciousness that endures today. In earlier times, in fact, Kazakhs called the dish just “et” (Kazakh for “meat”), that is “meat for eating.”

“In 2015, when we cooked the largest beshbarmak, in an effort to enter into the Guinness Book of Records, we publicized it with the name “beshbarmak.” Historically, however, the name came from a Tatar-Bashkir translation of the first food exchanges once parts of today’s Kazakhstan were annexed to the Russian Empire.

Representatives of the empire were ordered to eat with their hands. Thus the dish became known as ‘bish barmak’ (‘five fingers’ in the Tatar and Bashkir languages). And so Russians called this dish ‘bishbarmak’ for half a century.

Russian speakers only used the word “beshparmak” after a study by the imperial official Alexei Levshin, who described it as a festive food specific to the west of Kazakhstan. With time, people who liked it began to use it as a blanket term.

The name ‘beshbarmak’ spread with the Russification during the late Soviet period. In Kazakh, in fact, the correct spelling would be ‘bes barmak’ [and so it was spelled until the 1970s].

Kazakh-speaking academics voiced their opposition to this misrepresentation, but their complaints fell on deaf ears.

The aftertaste of colonization

Central Asian societies are still suffering from the effects of colonization on their food culture and habits.

“Every country builds its identity from a Soviet point of view. Because we were taught to think that way and we were used to being defined by others according to their standards,” Bolatkhan said, adding that this now turned into petty fights about the “true” origin of beshbarmak or other dishes.

Kazakhstan’s national cuisine now includes a range of dishes, but is still considered as one unchanging culture, failing to take into account the emergence of new food habits and changes in consumption methods.

Maybe it just should not be called ‘national cuisine’. Better say ‘signature’ or ‘regional’, because we definitely have not tried all of our national dishes.

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