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Kazakhstan: A Group of Record-Breaking Chefs Who Aren't Horsing Around

In an effort to place their national cuisine on the world stage, a group of chefs in Kazakhstan is making a run for the Guinness Book of World Records. Their entry? A massive batch of beshparmak, a Central Asian dish traditionally made out of horse meat cooked with noodles and potatoes. According to the Tengri News website, in honor of this Friday's Kazakh Independence Day, the chefs recently cooked enough beshparmak (or beshbarmak, as it is also called) to feed more than 1,000 people, serving the what must have been a mountainous pile from a four-meter diameter plate.

Granted, a horse meat and noodle dish may not ignite the world's appetite for Kazakh food, but in Kazakhstan (as well as Kyrgyzstan) beshparmak is an essential and well-loved part of weddings and other celebrations where, washed down with vodka, it is frequently served to groups that number in the hundreds. To learn a bit more about the dish and its place in Central Asian food culture, I turned to Talant Sultanov, Vice President for Finance at the American
University of Central Asia in Bishkek and a great promoter of Kyrgyz culture (as a student, he helped turn the campus of Columbia University on to the joys of drinking fermented mare's milk (kumis)). Here's our email exchange on the subject of beshparmak:

What's the best way to describe beshbarmak?
Beshbarmak is a traditional dish in Kyrgyzstan that is made of meat (lamb, or horse), pasta, and potatoes. Depending on the region the dish is served in, the meat and noodles are served in chunks or very-finely cut. The name of the dish is translated as “five fingers”. There are a couple of theories for the name: 1) traditionally beshbarmak is eaten with the hands, using the five fingers; 2) an alternative theory is that the best beshbarmak is the one where the meat used for it has fat the height of five-fingers.

Where does the fit fit into Central Asian cuisine? Is it an everyday sort of thing or a special event dish?
Beshbarmak is a festive dish that is prepared for special occasions or for important guests. It is prepared from meat taken from a sacrificial lamb or horse, depending on a size of the party. If it is a smaller occasion (for 20-50), beshbarmak is made with meat from a lamb or two.
If the celebration is for 100-200, usually a horse is sacrificed. When beshbarmak is made from a lamb, the most important guest receives the head of the sheep (including eyes, tongue, brains, etc.). Kyrgyz feasts last over 6 hours, where different courses of food are served, and beshbarmak comes last as a concluding dish. It is usually around midnight when it is served.

Where does the horse meat for the dish come from? Are there horses specially raised as meat horses?
Special horses are bred for consumption as meat. Usually young horses are used as the meat of older horses becomes tough and less tasty. The cost of a horse starts at $1000 and can easily reach $2000 and beyond.
Slaughtering a horse is a very complex process. It takes 5-10 fit men to take care of this process. Not only the meat of the horse is consumed, but also the intestines and other internal organs, served as delicacies and turned into sausages.

Where do you believe the best beshbarmak is made?
As someone, who comes from the Talas region, I believe that the best beshbarmak is made in Talas – the meat is served in big chunks and the pasta in big flat forms (like leaves). People in Naryn pride themselves on being “pure” Kyrgyz, thus they might claim that their beshbarmak is best.
In parts of Chui and Issyk-Kul regions, the meat and pasta in beshbarmark is thinly sliced. I suspect the tradition came about to accommodate elders, who have few teeth to chew on meat.

Do you have any special beshbarmak memories you can share?
Beshbarmak is a traditional dish in Kyrgyzstan that is made of meat
Plov (pilaf, a rice dish), instead of beshbarmak, can be used as a concluding meal in festivities, after which guests leave the house. My mother, being a southerner, usually serves pilaf instead of beshbarmak. One time, we had a big celebration at our house, and it was well over midnight, and the guests were served pilaf, so it was expected the party would wind down. But the guests would not leave, which led to an awkward situations. And at last, one of the guests proclaimed: “So when are you going to serve beshbarmak? It is late and we would like to leave.” So, we had to scramble to make beshbarmak. In the end, only after 2am in the morning, were the guests able to leave.

For a horse-friendly beshparmak recipe (one using lamb), take a look here. Alex White, a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, has made a good video of beshparmak being made, which can be found here. And below, a random video from YouTube's beshparmak collection:

 

Kazakhstan: A Group of Record-Breaking Chefs Who Aren't Horsing Around

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