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In Kazakhstan, No Horror At Horse Meat

Mar 4, 2013
Originally published on March 4, 2013 6:24 pm

Though the thought of horse meat in British lasagna or Ikea meatballs may be stomach-churning to some people, in some cultures the practice of eating horse meat is not just acceptable, it's a treat. NPR's Peter Kenyon just returned from the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan and checked out the meat market at the Green Bazaar in Almaty. He sent back this postcard.

In a cavernous hall, I found a long counter dripping with steaks, chops and ribs. A sign at the end of each aisle advertised the animal on display: lamb, cow, goat and, toward the back, horse.

Those aisles were attracting plenty of customers, despite the fact that horse meat costs more than beef. That's a far different situation than in Europe, where scandal erupted over cheaper horse meat substituted for more expensive beef.

In the Green Baazar, horse breast and ribs are very popular, as is a fatty part of the neck, according to Farida, one of the knife-wielding women working there.

But the ultimate delicacy is kazy, a boiled horse sausage served on special occasions and to honored guests. It's so essential to Kazah cuisine that the country's Olympic team begged to be allowed to bring it to London for the 2012 games.

When I asked Farida about the horse meat scandal in Europe, she made it clear that she's far too polite to make fun of another country's gastronomic foibles.

"The British people honor the horse, and they don't eat it. They haven't got the tradition," she said. "Here in Kazakhstan, our ancestors ate horses, and it is deeply connected to our identity."

Those connections are centuries deep. The Kazakhs' forebears rode across the steppes with Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The army moved with alarming speed, thanks to its sturdy horses, with three or four per warrior. Those horses also provided milk, blood and eventually meat to fuel the army.

In the market, 60-year-old Nurseit watched as fistfuls of crushed garlic were mixed with horse breast and salt, and stuffed into sausage casings to make kazy. Nurseit laughed as he remembered bringing some kazy to the United States for his son, a diplomat. At the airport, the sniffer tog twitched and turned his way, but he managed to deliver the prize safely.

After the market, I decided to try it myself, at the Seven Treasures restaurant. I found it delicious, not unlike very tender venison.

But that's not the only horse product on the menu. My translator, Aibar, dared me to try fermented mare's milk, which is known to back quite a kick.

"It's very good, actually," Aibar said. "There shouldn't be that much alcohol in it, probably about 10, nine degrees."

The milk is sour, smoky and gamy all at once.

Actually, through, I feel a sudden urge to conquer the steppes. Maybe after one more bite of this delicious sausage. What is it again?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

You've likely heard by now the news that horsemeat has been found in some European beef burgers and meatballs. It's a story that's caused many American palates to twitch in revulsion. But in a number of cultures, horsemeat is not only accepted, it is favored.

For example, NPR's Peter Kenyon brings us this report from Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Almaty is a booming city these days, with shopping malls and supermarkets to provide the frills and necessities of modern life. But some still prefer markets like the green bazaar, where they do things the old way. The meat department is upstairs.

In a cavernous hall, long counters are dripping with steaks, chops, ribs, and a few cuts not immediately recognizable to a Western eye. A sign at the end of each aisle advertises the animal on display - be it lamb, cow, or goat. Toward the back, several aisles with a picture of a horse are attracting good business.

A few simple facts quickly emerge. First, no self-respecting carnivore here would think of adulterating a perfectly good horse burger with cow flesh - unless money is an issue. That's right. Here it's beef that's the low-cost alternative to the gourmet's preferred meat, horse. Knife-wielding women in red aprons and white cloth caps deftly trim, shape, and chop while customers hover.

FARIDA: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: One of the workers, Farida, sets down her knife and says the horse breast and ribs are very popular. And there's a fatty part in the neck that's also delicious. But the ultimate delicacy is kazy, the boiled horse sausage served on special occasions and to honored guests.

I ask her about the horsemeat scandal in Britain, the panic over finding traces of horsemeat in their food. I was expecting a laugh, or at least a smile. But Farida makes another thing quite clear: Kazakhs are far too polite a people to make fun of another country's gastronomic foibles.

FARIDA: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: The British people honor the horse and they don't eat it. They haven't got the tradition, she says. Here in Kazakhstan, our ancestors ate horses and it's deeply connected to our identity.

Any Kazakh student can tell you about the exploits of Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors, who swept across the steppes in the 13th century. The army moved with alarming speed, thanks to its sturdy horses; three or four to a warrior, which provided milk, blood, and eventually meat to sustain the conquest. When fermented, by the way, mare's milk also packs an alcoholic kick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCORDION MUSIC)

KENYON: A blind accordionist makes his way through the market aisles, easing past Nurseit, a 6o-year-old Almaty resident watching closely as fistfuls of crushed garlic and large pinches of salt are stuffed into sausage casings, along with chunks of horse breast. This is the prized kazy.

(LAUGHTER)

NURSEIT: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Nurseit laughs as he recalls bringing some kazy into the U.S. for his son, a diplomat at the embassy in Washington. He says at the airport, the sniffer dog twitched and turned his way as he passed, but he managed to deliver the prize safely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENYON: At the Seven Treasures Restaurant, the table is set with kazy, which is indeed excellent, not unlike very tender venison. There is also, however, a bowl of fermented mare's milk; which my translator Aibar is daring me to try.

Now here goes. Ah, hmm. It's very good actually.

AIBAR: There shouldn't be that much alcohol in it. About - probably about 10, nine degrees.

So this is very light.

KENYON: The milk is smoky, sour and gamey all at once. Actually, though, I feel a sudden urge to conquer the steppes. Maybe after one more bite of this delicious sausage. What is it again?

Peter Kenyon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.