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)

Kashgar Naan

Fresh-baked bread.  Three simple words that conjure up a host of wonderful sensations. The aroma of the bread. How it rises and turns first a golden, then a tawny color as it bakes.  The crackle of the crust and the feel of the warm bread on your hands as you tear off a piece.  The soft texture in your mouth . . . and the flavor!  It’s earthy, a bit sour and sweet at the same time, a little savory. . . Nothing beats it (well, almost nothing, anyway).

Now imagine you are in far-western China and you are experiencing all of these sensations, but you are in a small café on a dusty sideroad to the Karakorum Highway.  Welcome to my world.  But, it gets better.  On the table there is a small bowl of black tea brewed to perfection with fragrant rosepetals floating on the surface.  Plates are piled high with a pilaf of rice and lamb joints with julienned carrots or perhaps some lagman noodles with vegetables.  You sit on an ornate wool carpet of crimson and white design around a low, square table and chat with your dining companions or just silently enjoy the wonderful meal in front of you.

Milling with the sounds and sites of this dusty town (Opal, China) is the unmistakable aroma of freshly made bread.  Next to the café, a husband and wife team are busy making the next order of naan to sell at their stall and to sell to nearby restaurants.

Making naan: Rolling out the dough

The woman pounds and rolls out the balls of dough into plate-size flatbreads.  The dough is usually a plain naan like the recipe below, but it could also have lamb fat worked into the dough or minced onions or even ground seeds like fennel for mildly spiced bread.  Most of the time a durham wheat flour is used, but the Uzbekis sometimes use a chickpea flour as well.  After she has formed the naan, she stamps spiral designs on them with her chekish or stamper.  The stamper, although utilitarian, is a work of art unto itself.  It is handmade by the local craftsman of hardwood decorated with marquetry inlay.  The metal teeth are hand-sharpened and easily double as a defensive weapon in close combat.  When she is done, she hands the bread to her husband, or piles them nearby.

Making naan: Topping and Placing bread in the oven.

He puts sesame seeds and a bit of salt on the bread and tamps it down lightly.  The toppings for bread can be diverse, sesame and poppy are probably the most commonly seen, although on the most recent trip to China, I encountered naan with pounded peanuts on top at a vendor near the Turpan train station.  In Uzbekistan they like onions with fennel or anise seed, in Afghanistan the toppings are probably going to be caraway or black cumin or sesame – so the flavor can vary quite a bit.  The husband sizes and shapes the bread by placing it on the outside of a mold or clean pan and then slaps the bread onto the wall of the tandoor-style oven.  The natural moisture of the bread adheres it to the wall.

In a few minutes – given the high temperature of the oven – they are done, he stacks them to cool or sells them hot to eagerly waiting customers.

This is how much of the world eats.  Flatbread and tea with or without some sort of dairy in it (from a cow, sheep, horse or yak), or flatbread with bits of roasted fat-tailed mutton  or other meat or sweetbread wrapped inside.  Simple, delicious and nutritious.

Naan baking in the oven

The recipe below will help you get into the flatbread groove.  Others are available in The Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1 and more will be included in the second volume of the book. (Words, photos and recipe by Laura Kelley).

Kashgar Naan

Similar to many Uzbek recipes, this flatbread is baked in a stone tandoor, the stove of the region, which is sometimes buried in the ground. As with naan and bread recipes from Volume 1 of The Silk Road Gourmet, it is possible to use an all-metal wok turned upside down in the oven as a surface to “slap” dough on. Likewise, one can use the recommended method of baking on ungreased baking sheets for a delicious taste of Kashgar.

1 ½ cups warm water
1 package dry, active yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame and poppy seeds (or other topping)

1. Mix warm water, yeast, and sugar together and set aside to activate for about 10 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of flour to the yeast mixture, mix well, and set aside for another 5 minutes.

2. Add remaining flour to a large mixing bowl, indent the center to form a well, and add the yeast mixture to the flour and mix well. When mixed enough to handle with your hands, knead the dough for about 5 minutes and then place it back in the bowl, cover, and let rest for 1–1 ½ hours. For softer bread, less prone to crackle, let rest an additional 20-25 minutes.

3. Punch down the dough, divide into 8 equal parts, and roll each part into a ball. Shape each ball into a circle about the size of a large dinner plate: about 8 inches in diameter and ½-inch thick. Take a fork and lightly trace lines or crisscrosses (or use a chekish (stamper) if you have one). Sprinkle with sesame and/or poppy seeds and press lightly onto surface. Place on ungreased cookie sheet or slap onto heated, all-metal wok inside a traditional oven preheated to 350°. Cook for 10 minutes and turn for even cooking. Total cooking time about 15 – 20 minutes.