Another early deleted scene from At Home on the Kazakh Steppe. Food is such a large part of a culture: which types of food, how they are prepared, where they come from, the level of cleanliness, how they are eaten … all can vary from culture to culture. Here is a snippet that was cut toward the end of the edits.
We ate our meals at Dina’s from salad-sized plates, and we ate with a tablespoon rather than a fork. We’d done this at Hadija’s and I’d thought at the time it was a family idiosyncrasy. Now, eating with spoons at Dina’s, I realized we’d also eaten with spoons at Soombat’s. We’d, in fact, find only spoons wherever we ate.
I’d see serving forks, but no table forks. And, except for one very sharp butcher knife to cut the meat in bishparmak, I never saw a table knife in any of the houses where we lived or ate.
If we wanted butter, we took it with our spoon, the same spoon with which we ate.
Coarse salt, like kosher salt, was in a small saucer and we used our fingers to sprinkle some on our food.
We always had plenty to eat and, although the meals were heavy in carbohydrates, neither of us put on weight, at least not in the beginning. In fact, between my attack of the killer herring and the absence of good old American temptations, I’d lose twenty-five pounds in the first six months and Woody would lose fifty.
Woody didn’t mind the food in the beginning, though he thought it bland. He saw it as part of the grand adventure that made all new things interesting — at first. But once the novelty wore off, he was disappointed.
Most books on Kazakhstani culture say the food is heavy in meat. And, at a party we attended that first year, Woody heard a Kazakh man agree, saying, “Only the wolf eats more meat than the Kazakh.” But this was not our experience. As Woody would say much later, “Of course they ate mostly meat in the nomad days. Meat transports itself; vegetables don’t.”
But it was more than the lack of the meat that he’d expected; the overall portions at each meal were less than he was used to and he felt constantly hungry.
While Woody noticed the portion sizes, I noticed the colors. Over the five months we lived with Dina, I came to see that her suppers, no matter what she served, all looked the same: a white base, dark center, green garnish, and fresh tomato wedges along one side of the plate. The garnish was either chopped dill or sliced scallions.
The base was often what they called puree, a very distant relation to mashed potatoes. Very distant: the potatoes were mashed in the cooking water, sans butter or milk. And while I didn’t mind puree, pasta was my favorite. But whatever the base, there was always the dark sautéed-meat sauce in the center, green garnish sprinkled on top, and fresh tomato wedges along the side. It was nutritious and healthy and hot.
The food group we saw most was carbohydrates: pasta or potatoes, sometimes both, always deep-fried or boiled; and bread, lots and lots of bread.
Butter was plentiful, though it tasted bland and seemed to have water in it. It wasn’t used in cooking, but spread on bread.
There was no olive oil; no vegetable oil at all that I could see. Fat came from the meat and it was dearly loved.
When Woody was offered shorpa, what some call the “national drink,” following a feast at someone’s home, he drank it, loved it, and then nearly gagged. He said it tasted like the fat that rose to the surface while simmering the meat for bishparmak, which, we discovered months later, was exactly what it was. Kazakhs believe drinking this fat will help them stay warm come the winter.
We never saw a green vegetable, spices other than salt, or meat that hadn’t simmered for hours. We did see parsley, chervil and lots of dill, which showed up as a garnish on the oddest dishes, like pizza. But these were herbs, not vegetables I could steam and top with butter, salt and pepper.
There were carrots, but they were also a garnish only; never steamed with butter and parsley. And there were tomatoes and cucumbers. There were always tomatoes and cucumbers.
Never before had I yearned for kale
or collard greens.
They did sell beets, and I wondered about steaming the tops and slathering them with butter. But no one did, so neither did we.
After four months, I yearned for even a simple dandelion green — pulled from any yard. There were none of those, either.
How about you? Can you imagine yourself craving green vegetables?
It’s interesting to see how different cultures manage their diet and what, of the available produce, they choose to eat. I had similar experiences in Africa, where we sometimes ate the same thing twice daily for two years. Sure, it got monotonous, but when you’re hungry it is most welcome and after a while the monotony ceases to matter.
All the weight you and Woody managed to lose was spectacular. I’m now going to write to the Health Minister and recommend that the NHS prescribe six month visits to the Kazakh steppes for all obese patients. That should save the national health budget a fortune!
Ian, I remember reading about your African diet in one of your books and being struck by how difficult that would have been for me. I LOVE variety. I’m giving you the “hardest adjustment in the food category” prize. Congratulations. And when your write “after a while the monotony ceases to matter,” I’m reminded of something my mother loves to say. “You can get used to anything after a while. Even hanging.” Thanks for dropping by.
This post is delightful, especially your observations about food in this culture and the clever way you display the veggies. Yesterday, I ate a bowl of peas, just because I craved them.
I am noticing more posts about food from blog friends these days and today I published one about milk toast, comfort food. Before too long, I’ll have one on family dinners.
Serving oneself butter with a tablespoon at the Kazakh table – my dear mother would approve!
Oh Marian, a bowl of peas (hot) with butter and salt and pepper. Yum. I think I’d toss in a few minced onion flakes while they cooked. I could definitely pig out on that. And your mother would really like me to take my butter with my spoon? Wow. I can still remember when a guest at our house (when I was growing up) took his butter off the top of the stick; used a knife, but scraped it along the top. Embarrassingly, I will admit I was appalled at the time. Funny what we let bother us when we’re young. Thanks for dropping in.
Fascinating overview of your experience with Kazakh food, and maybe you could say still more. You do mention something about this in your book, but memory fades. How did you cook at home? Obviously you lacked vegetable options, but what did you eat? Why didn’t you do something with those beet greens in your own kitchen? Did you ever cook American style food for your Kazakh friends?
I do say more about it in the book Sharon. Woody did and still does most of our cooking. We found we our best meat option was chicken (do you remember my story about “Bush legs?”) The oven that came with our apartment had two temperatures — very hot and off. So, we found we could do a really good baked chicken by putting it in the oven with all those roote veggies we could get (potatoes, carrots and onions), turning on the oven until it got “very hot” (I imagined it was about 500 degrees), then turning the oven off and just letting it sit for awhile. It worked just fine. We also made MANY American style desserts, especially when we had company. And we had company alot. The locals loved to see what we’d cook them. But they saw chicken as food for the very poor so were often shocked (I think) when we served it.
Thanks for dropping by. I enjoy your energy.
I’m loving these vignettes. And yes I can remember a time when I craved green vegetables … as we crossed the Pacific Ocean we had unlimited varieties and quantities of fruit (papaya, mango, guava, oranges, passion fruit, and of course bananas) and fish, as well as lots of starch (tarot and breadfruit all the time and everywhere). Finding green vegetables other than cabbage was a rarity, so we ate a lot of cole slaw (carrots and onions stored in the bilge, with homemade mayonnaise)
Keep the stories coming.
Yes, Mary. I recall reading a few comments in your book about the diet. I envy you your fresh fish! And fruit. I think I forgot about fruit while I was there. I have another deleted scene I’ll have to find, takes place during our farewell week; I think at Assem’s house, our last night. I say to them, “Our diet in America is much more varied than yours here.” Three of them disagreed, couldn’t imagine a diet more varied than their many salads that go with one of maybe five main dishes. My counterpart, who’d eaten at our apt. many times, agreed with me and the four the THEM began arguing in Kazakh (good naturedly, of course; lots of laughter). Another example of when we don’t know what we don’t know.