My coworker Djamilya and I had one mission when we set off for Almaty, Kazakhstan a few weeks ago: we were determined to seek out authentic beshbarmak, the country’s most revered ceremonial dish. My online research on the subject had turned up a surprising number of images of sheep’s heads keeping watch despondently over platters brimming with meat and noodles, and I was curious. Our intrepid local colleague Tanya took it upon herself to make sure we didn’t leave disappointed. “Just give me five hours’ notice,” she told us, “and I’ll make it happen.”
The following evening, Tanya flagged down several taxis before she was able to find one that was willing to make the trek across town to the restaurant whose beshbarmak she deemed best. We clambered out at an appropriately cavernous restaurant called Peshchera (Cave), its walls cut to resemble a rock face. (Incidentally, its owner has several other restaurants in town, all of them underground except this one.) We were seated at a table underneath a faux (I hope…) taxidermied bear in mid-roar, its teeth and claws cut to inspire fear. Wolverines and other ferocious woodland mammals prowled along nearby protrusions.
After a round of Belgian blonde ales and an appetizer platter of raw cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, green onions, and various fresh herbs (typical of the Caucasus region and popular throughout the former Soviet Union as a palate cleanser and accompaniment to heavier dishes), the main attraction arrived at our table in all its fleshy glory. Chunks of boiled mutton and horse meat reclined on a bed of broad, tender noodles, mixed and rolled by hand, with the flavorful broth ladled generously over the top. The ripe aroma of mutton rose from the platter—a foot and a half in diameter—as steam. (The sheep’s head was, thankfully, absent.)
Beshbarmak means “five fingers” in Kazakh, a reference to the traditional way to eat it—with your hands. I had a hard time picturing how this would work, especially given the broth still bubbling amidst the boodles. We opted for forks and knives.
Horse meat is enjoyed widely in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where horses played a central role in the people’s traditional nomadic lifestyle for centuries. Tribes used them to travel across the wide expanses of steppe, to carry their homes and food and goods from one place to another, to do battle, and yes, to eat.
Though the nomads have long since moved into apartment buildings and homes, their taste for horse meat has stuck around. It’s not the sort of thing trotted out at every meal, but is served at special occasions to honor guests and celebrate important milestones.
To me, eating horse is really no different from eating cow or pig or any other animal. It’s still a fairly common food in France, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, and Japan, in addition to Central Asia.
So why is it considered taboo in the US and other English-speaking countries? “Horses hold an important place in our nation’s history and culture, treasured by all for their beauty and majesty,” said Rep. Jim Moran, D-VA, in his justification for an amendment he introduced to the 2013 Farm Bill that prohibits funding for USDA inspections of horse slaughter facilities, effectively banning their slaughter on US soil. In other words, they have soulful eyes, and Black Beauty and My Little Pony still tug on our heartstrings. Religious prohibitions may play a role in reinforcing the aversion: The Roman Catholic Church forbade its consumption beginning in the 8th century AD, supposedly to distinguish Christians from German pagans, among whom it was wildly popular. Horse is not kosher.
It is, however, delicious. It tastes similar to beef, though it is generally darker in color. In contrast to most meat served in Central Asia, it’s very lean. I’d eaten a horse burger once before, in Slovenia, and still consider it among the tastiest burgers I’ve ever had. (Granted, the mountain of condiments on top, the crisp fall weather, the cold beer, or the thrill of being alone for the first time in a foreign country where I didn’t know a soul might have heightened the experience).
The most ubiquitous meat in Kazakhstan, and the other found in beshbarmak. is mutton (sheep), which tastes and smells like lamb that’s gone through puberty—stronger, muskier, more barnyard-y. It’s an acquired taste, but for me the effect seems to work backwards: I enjoyed it for the first 4-5 meals, but then its appeal began to fade. Beshbarmak was somewhere around Meal #2, so I wasn’t worn out on the meat’s animal funk yet. It complemented the slight bitterness of the beer nicely.
I fell asleep back at the hotel with a full stomach, dizzy with jet-lag but looking forward to confronting mutton and horse again, in the myriad shapes and forms they appear in this little corner of Earth.