Cooking with the Kazakhs

Home Sweet Yurt
Home Sweet Yurt
While still in Uzbekistan, I had a yurt homestay with an extended family of Kazakhs. Ever since I was a child, dreaming of Central Asia and Mongolia, I have wanted to stay in a yurt. A wooden frame wrapped in skins and decorated with colorful fabrics. The sometimes elaborate carved or painted wooden doors. Simple on the outside and dark and mysterious within. All of the life is within. People talking, sharing stories, singing, or playing instruments for each other to pass the time. It was all that and more. So, I am happy to report another childhood dream realized.

The camp was perched on a mesa next to the ruins of an ancient fortress called Ayaz Kala that was inhabited between the 4th Century BCE and the 7th Century ACE. In its heyday, Ayaz Kala stood guard over an oasis and a fertile farming plain that existed in the first millennium BCE. It also provided refuge for the inhabitants when the countryside was under attack by invaders. Today, the seemingly endless Kizylkum Desert lies below the fortress, with its shifting sand, scrub vegetation and dried salt lakes. Even with the unusually wet rainy season that just passed, the Kyzylkum is a hot, dry and foreboding place.

Ayaz Kala from the Yurt Camp
Ayaz Kala from the Yurt Camp


When I arrived, I was welcomed by the enthusiastic matriarch of the family. It was afternoon and blazingly hot in the desert, with no shelter except for the yurt – so I hunkered down for a nap to await the cooler weather that comes with the setting of the sun. Inside the yurt was indeed dark, but it was a lot less hot than outside. As I drifted off to sleep, I gazed at the beautiful woven and printed fabrics that hung from the roof or were draped around the yurt shutting out the harsh climate and decorating the inside all at the same time.

Some of the designs on the woven yurt straps had clear Scythian roots, while the printed fabrics were still geometrics, but were more modern looking. I fell asleep with visions of Scythian warriors, roaming the steppes on horseback, and hordes of their hidden gold filling my head.

Yurt textiles
Yurt Inside


When I woke up I could already smell the wood fires burning, someone was beginning to prepare dinner. I headed out to find the cook. I found a pair of women, sisters-in-law, getting ready to make bread. The older woman was stirring and stoking the tandyr oven to warm it up, and the younger woman, putting the finishing touches on the form and size of the bread and getting ready to stamp designs on it with a checkish bread stamp.

Kazakh Woman Stoking the Tandyr
Kazakh Woman Stoking the Tandyr


Now, most people in Uzbekistan, regardless of their ethnicity, use two different types of tandyr oven. One that is vertical for samsas – small meat-or-potato-stuffed pastries, and one that is tilted as you can see in the photograph, for the ubiquitous Asian flatbread, called “non” or “naan”.

The sisters-in-law were laughing and joking and generally having a good time and allowed me to join in. We all had enough Russian to communicate, so it worked out fine.

They allowed me to help with the tandyr, which I must say is a hot job. It was probably still in low 90s or high 80s F, and standing in front of the oven and feeding the fire is tough, with the flames sometimes blazing up outside the mouth of the stove. When the fire was ready, the older of the pair covered the hole you see in the oven on the bottom left with stones, to help the fire settle and keep the heat inside. When the oven was ready, the older of the pair excused herself to go get something.

Kazakh Woman Stamping Bread
Kazakh Woman Stamping Bread


The younger sister-in-law started to stamp the bread with the checkish using very quick strokes so that the bread didn’t stick to the tines of the tool. When she was done with each bread, she simply started to pile them on top of some bread forms she had. She allowed me to try my hand at a few breads with the checkish and having watched her carefully, I did just fine. The designs were in good form and no sticky mistakes, and ready for the oven.

Stamping the Bread - Closeup
Stamping the Bread – Closeup


The older sister-in law reappeared with a sweater and a heavy jacket on and a re-wrapped headscarf that also covered her lower face – looking something like a wild bandit. She placed oven mitts on her hands and was ready to bake some bread. One by one, she took up the breads that we had stamped and sprinkled water on them to help them adhere to the side of the oven. One-by-one, she slapped them – by hand – on the side of the oven. No tools were used, just protected hands. SLAP, another bread in the oven, SLAP another, and so on.

What surprised me most about the process was that, 1.) she didn’t turn the bread, and 2.) total baking time didn’t exceed 4-5 minutes, maybe less.

When the bread was done, she grabbed it with, again with her hands, and tossed it on a bread mold to cool. They offered me a piece of bread when it was just a minute or two out of the oven and it was hot and slightly crisp on the outside, but soft and airy on the inside. In other words, it was perfect. Our evening meal was simple but delicious. A salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, plov and and of course “non”.

After dinner, a went out to one of the areas laid with carpets on the edge of the mesa to watch the sun set and the stars emerge from the firmament. One by one they came . . . so many stars. I laid down just to get a better look at the sky and heard a strange vibrating sound from a distance. In all honesty, I thought it was someone’s ring tone when I first heard it, but it kept on going.

Jaws Harp - A Tradtional Khorezem Instrument
Jaws Harp – A Tradtional Khorezem Instrument


I went into the main tent to find a man playing what I would have called a, “Jews Harp”. He held the main part of the instrument between his teeth and in large, gorgeously graceful strokes, caressed the tongue of the instrument to produce its characteristic twang. It was magical to hear out there in the middle of desert.

What I learned that night is that the, “Jews Harp” is actually a traditional musical instrument in the Khorezem area of Uzbekistan where we were. The player hypothesized that perhaps, the term, “Jews Harp”, and been confused with the more descriptive term, “Jaws Harp”. Another Silk Road legacy reclaimed.

I stopped to look at the stars again before making my yurt – so many stars – and could still hear the sound of the jaws-harp as I drifted off to rest. (All Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

Games of the Great Silk Road – Mancala

Most parents will be quick to agree that they learn a lot from their kids. When you have kids, you cease to be the center of your own life and the lessons range from the mundane to the profound. When they are little, you realize how little they know when they come into the world and how much you, as an adult, have come to take for granted. When they are older, you begin to see fragments of yourself or of your spouse or partner who helped raise them. But these characteristics are not a direct reflection. Rather, they are more like a mosaic. From mother to daughter or father to son the tesserae can be the same, but the patterns that they are arranged in can be very different.

Ethiopian Mancala Board, 6th or 7th C.

I am beginning to pass into a new stage, with a teen and a tween in the house, they are beginning to introduce me to things I have never heard of before. By exploring their interests with them, I am learning things about the world that I never knew. This is quite humbling to someone like me who has always considered herself something of a well-traveled brainiac.

A couple of weeks ago we were at the National Geographic Society to see the latest treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings and religious items (The Staffordshire Horde) that have recently been uncovered in England. Rich, finely worked 24-carat gold with sparkling garnet inlay filled the display cases. Videos to explain the details of the craftsmanship accompanied the exhibition, along with recordings and quiz games of Old English helped to bring the exhibit alive and make it a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Endodoi Board – Tanzania

On the way out, we did the obligatory pass through the gift shop on the way to the exit. While we were browsing, my daughter came flying at me – begging for a mancala set, telling me how fun it was and explaining how it was played. We got the set and later that evening she taught me how to play. That night, I learned that the game is played all over the world and has been for the better part of the last couple of millennia.

Pallankhuzi Board – Sri Lanka and S. India

What my further research has shown, is that the Silk Road trade of goods, ideas and cultural elements was probably responsible for its spread – at least across the Old World. From Vietnam and Mongolia, through Central and Western Asia, across Central and Northern Africa and into Europe through Andalusia, the Old World plays this game. It passed into the New World with the slave trade and is played from Louisiana and Haiti to the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Toguz Kumalak Board – Kazakhstan

If you’ve never seen or played mancala, count and capture or any other variety of the game, it is often played on a board containing at least two rows of cup-shaped depressions or holes in which the pieces are arranged and moved. The number of cups varies across cultures and over time, but the game remains the remarkably the same. The goal is to move all of your pieces off the board before your opponent, and there are strategies, societies and in some nations, major competitions in which people play mancala. Our board is a nicely carved wooden set with small, irregularly shaped stones as pieces, but some mancala boards consist simply of holes dug in the ground or bored into stone into which other stones or objects are moved.

Girls Playing Oquan in Vietnam

There are 19th and 20th Century claims that the game is arose in ancient Egypt, Jordan or even Mesopotamia – but none of these are accepted by modern game scholars (did you know there was such a thing?) or archaeologists specializing in these areas. The oldest definitive set comes from Axum (Ethiopia) and date from the 6th or 7th century ACE, but an earlier set may come from a 4th Century Roman-era fort in Egypt along the banks Red Sea. The earliest European set is found in Spain’s the Museo de Burgos. It belonged to a daughter of Abd-al-Rahman III, the emir (912-929) and first caliph (929-961) of Cordoba. The scholar Murray, writing in the mid 20th Century, concluded that the game spread from east to west across Africa and from west to east across Asia – which again points to an Eastern African or Levantine origin.

Importantly, Arab and Muslim traders were probably an important force in moving the game around the Old World. The very name, “mancala” comes from the Arabic verb “naqala” meaning, “to move”. It is not mentioned in the Koran by this name, but must have been known to the Arabs in the Middle Ages, as it is referred to in the commentary to the Kitab al Aghani, the “Book of Songs,” which speaks of a “game like mancala.”

Ornate Congkak Board – Malaysia

Today, the game is played competitively in many Central Asian nations, with Kazakhstan having a national association for their version of the game, Toguz Kumalak, whereas in most of Africa, it is a game to be played while relaxing after the day’s work.  Interestingly, in the New World it is sometimes played as part of mortuary or funerary practices – to amuse the spirits of the dead.  This suggests that this might have been a practice among the Africans who carried the game with them to the New World, although this practice seems to have vanished in modern-day Africa.

I’ve played a few games with my daughter and can attest to the game being both fun and a great way to teach strategy and the consideration of future consequences when deciding current moves. Thanks to my daughter, to whom I dedicate this post, I’ve found an unexpected echo of the Silk Road found in an ordinary board game. (Words by Laura Kelley. All photos from Mancala Wiki).

N.B. I will be in China for the next couple of weeks and will blog if I can. Hopefully, I will return with loads of tales and photos.