Food found in Kazakhstan maintains links to the country’s nomadic traditions and also is influenced by food from Russia, Turkey, the Middle East and other Central Asian countries. The staples of the Kazakh diet, and the diets of most of the traditionally nomadic people in Central Asia, are boiled mutton and tea mixed with sheep or horse milk. Kazakhs are very fond of horsemeat and horse sausage. Sour cream, yogurt and sausage are used to flavor dishes. Commonly used spices include black pepper, black cumin, dill, parsley, celery, coriander and sesame seeds.

Pork is easier to get in Kazakhstan than other Muslim countries. Even so mutton and other sheep products are the main sources of meat, followed by chicken and beef. All parts of the sheep, including the eyeballs, brains, head and tail, are eaten. Mutton itself is often fatty. Kazakhs consider horsemeat sausage and sheep’s head to be special treats. Camel meat and goat meat is served in some places.

Restaurant offer things lie “shashlyk” (kebabs), pilaf, dumplings, and noodle soup. Russian dishes such as boiled chicken and Russian Salisbury steak continue to endure in hotel restaurants. European, Turkish, Chinese and Korean restaurants are present. The best Kazakh food is served in homes, not restaurants, and these includes simple, working-class, unpretentious dishes. Homestays and some guesthouses serve these kinds of meals. There is a good selection of fruits, vegetables, dried fruits and nuts in the markets. Kazakhstan is particularly famous for apples, which are believed to have originated from the Kazakhstan mountains.

Traditionally Kazakh cuisine was based on meat and dairy products. Later it was supplemented with vegetables, fruits, fish, seafood, bread-dough foods, Russian-style dishes and sweets. Traditional Kazakh nomadic food had to be simple to prepare. Because the weather and environment was challenging, food had to be nutritious and contained a lot of fat to provide energy. This means that food can sometimes seem too oily, fatty or greasy to some travelers.

According to the Kazakhstan government: 1) Main ingredients in traditional Kazakh cuisine are meat, flour and milk products, though nowadays many other ingredients are common in the cuisine. 2) Kazakh cuisine is usually not spicy. 3) There are many high calorie dishes in the traditional Kazakh cuisine.

Horse penis and sheep head are delicacies. Honored guest are offered a specially prepared the sheep head. Eating sheep’s head has a long history in Kazakhstan. It is often served at special meals, with the venerated guest or and older man carving it up. The ears have traditionally gone to children so they listen better and to young men to they will be careful. The palate is served to teachers to make them gentle with students and young girls to encourage diligence. A bride gets brisket and married women get neck bones. Children get kidneys and heart but not brain as it will make them weak minded. If a young girl is served knuckle it is believe that she will be an old maid.

The world's first pears, apples and apricots evolved from wild plants found in Central Asia. Melons are very popular in Central Asia. They are sweet and delicious and are full of water and act as natural canteens. Melons are often served as a dessert or snack with tea. Markets are often filled with huge piles of them. Melons are often given as a gift and a gesture of welcome and farewell.

Kazakh Eating Customs

Kazakh’s are very hospitable people and enjoy hosting dinners at their homes. When guests come to visit, the host will entertain them with the best foods they can. For highly honored guests or relatives that haven’t met for years, mutton and horse are brought out. Before eating, the host will firstly bring water, kettle and washbasin for the guest to wash their hands, and then serve the plate with sheep head, rear leg and rib meat in front of the guest. The guest should firstly cut out and eat a piece of meat from the sheep cheek and then the left ear, and give the sheep head to the host. Then every one can start eating together. Before slaughtering a sheep, a man gives thanks to Allah. When the prayer ends he wipes his hands down his face to affirm the blessing. [Source: \=/]

There are lots of eating taboos among the Kazakhs. The following are the main taboos. 1) In accordance with Muslim beliefs t is forbidden to eat pork or any animals that has not been slaughtered or had its blood drained; 2) Animals are usually killed by male. 3) Don’t hold and eat the entire Nang (a kind of crusty pancake) when having meals. 4) One should not place food on wooden cabinets or on any daily living goods. The guest should follow the host’s lead. 5) When having meals or drinking milk tea, it is not allowed to stamp on the table cloth or walk over the table. Do not leave until the table is cleaned. 6) When eating or talking with others, it is forbidden to pick noses or ears, spit, or yawn. 7) The guest should not fiddle with dinnerware or food, nor should they open the pot cover. 8) Before and after meals, the host will pour water for the guest to wash his hands. Do not slosh after washing hands; wipe hands dry using towels and politely return it to the host. \=/

Table manners are not terribly formal in Kazakhstan. Food is eaten with a knife and fork. Some foods are meant to be eaten by hand. According to 1) Table manners are Continental — the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating. 2) You will be served tea and bread, even if you are not invited to a meal. Since Kazakhs consider bread to be sacred, serving bread is a sign of respect. 3) It is not imperative that you arrive on time, although you should not arrive more than 30 minutes late without telephoning first. [Source: /]

4) Meals are social events. As such, they may take a great deal of time. 5) Your host or another guest may serve you. 6) In more rural settings, you may sit on the floor. 7) Expect to be served second helpings. 8) Leave something on your plate when you have finished eating. This demonstrates that you have had enough, whereas if you finish everything it means you are still hungry and you will be served more food. Kazakhs often indicate they don’t want more by placing a hand over their bowl or plate. /

The sheep’s head ritual: In rural settings it is a sign of respect to offer the most honoured guest a boiled sheep's head on a beautiful plate. The guest then divides the food among the guests in the following fashion: 1) The ear is given to the smallest child so that he or she will listen to and obey the elders. 2) The eyes are given to the two closest friends so that they will take care of the guest. 3) The upper palate is given to the daughter-in-law and the tongue to the host’s daughter so both women will hold their tongues. 4) The pelvic bones go to the second most respected guest. 5) The brisket is given to the son-in-law. [Source: /]

Kazakh Dishes

Kazakh dishes include horsemeat delicacies and grilled mutton and other mutton dishes. The staples of the Kazakh diet are boiled mutton, round, flat crusty bread called “nan” and tea mixed with sheep or horse milk. Mutton is often eaten in big chunks by hand. Kazakhs also consume yogurt, milk dough, milk skin, cheese, butter and fermented horse’s milk. Hard bread is dipped into tea with goat's milk. to make it edible Kazakh boiled mutton tastes pretty much the same as Mongolian boiled mutton.

Kazakhs make butter and various types of curds and cheese from sheep’s milk. “Kurt”, a kind of dried cheese, made from sour milk, has traditionally been a staple of the Kazakh diet. It is consumed in large amounts in the winter when there is no milk. Other common milk products include yogurt, milk dough, and milk skin.

The favorite dish for many Kazakhs is boiled lamb. It s commonly called “bes barmak” (“five fingers”), because Kazakhs and other Central Asia people like to eat it in large chunks with their hands. Most of the slaughtering takes place in the fall and the meat is cured by smoking it to make it last. Sausage made from horse meat is another important winter food because it keeps well in the winter.

Chinese Kazakhs mainly live on wheat-based food, beef, mutton, horse meat, cream, butter, dried milk, milk tofu and crisp cheese. They like to make flour into fried pastry, pancakes, pastry slices and noodles with soup. Many kinds of food are made of meat, butter, milk, rice and flour. Tea with goat's milk is popular. Kazakhs dip hard bread into it to make it edible. [Source: \=/]

Common Kazakh and Central Asian Dishes

Central Asian Dishes include “shashkyl” (kebabs, often made with mutton and served with ananas and bread), “plov “(pilaf-style rice mixed with meat, onions and carrots and other things), “manti” (steamed lamb dumplings, often served with minted sour cream), “laghman” (Chinese-style noodles), “moshkichiri” (meat soup), “dimlama” (braised meat, potatoes, onions), sheep fat, mutton and various parts of the sheep.

“Besbarmak” (large flat noodles topped by mutton, beef or horsemeat) is eaten in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and is regarded as a national dish in Kazakhstan. Kazakhs often make a sweet plov with raisins, apricots or prunes or with pumpkin. Other dishes include “gretchka” (buckwheat groats, “kazy”, “chuckuk “and “karta “(horsemeat sausage), “zhuta” (pasta with a carrot and pumpkin filling), “shurpa” (chickpea soup), “hunon” (noodle roll filled with meat), “samsa” (deep-fried pastries filled with meat and vegetables) and cabbage or grape leaves stuffed with tomatoes and pears and meat, onion soup, pickled tomatoes, cucumbers .

A typical meal in Central Asia consists of mutton, “nan” (local flat bread), “koreak” salad (shredded vegetables in a spicy dressing), “boursak”, salt, nuts, potatoes and milk. There are a wide variety of breads: leavened and unleavened, and sprinkled with things like sesame, nutmeg, poppy seeds or raisins. Central Asia are particularly fond of eating bread with grapes and plov. A wide variety of milk products from sheep, cows, goats, horses and camels are available. These include cheeses, yoghurt, cottage cheese, “aryan” (yoghurt drink), “curd” (salty dried balls), and “kaimak” (sweet cream skimmed from fresh milk).

Kazakh Feast

Hospitality has always been a main character trait of Kazakh people. Even if you have just a minute to pop in to a Kazakh house, an owner will still ask you to sit down and offer a fragrant tea with sweets. Hospitable owner would offer his guest a seat at a place of honor. Traditionally, a meal is served at a low round table, called dastarkhan. [Source:, Official tourism website of Kazakhstan]

First and foremost, in order to quench thirst of the guest a hostess would treat him with a bowl of yogurt- or milk-based drink. This can be "kumys" - a drink based on fermented mare's milk - or shubat the main ingredient of which is camel milk. Then, table will be filled with baursaks, balls of dough, pre-fried in boiling oil (Asian analogue of donuts); samsa, triangular pastries with meat; kausyrma, a kind of thin pastries or fried doughs filled with meat and onions, raisins, kurt (small, salted cheese balls) and, of course, tea. As for traditional Kazakh first course — sorpa, rich broth completed by seasoned vegetables, spices and herbs — occupies a special place. Sorpa, unlike other first courses, is for drinking, so it is served in bowls.

After a long period of socializing with tea, an assortment of dishes on the festive table will be complemented by meat dishes: kazi, shuzhuk, zhal, zhaya, karta, kabyrga. The above dishes are traditionally prepared from horse meat or lamb. The main dish of Kazakh cuisine, with which owners welcome their guests is besbarmak. Name of this dish is translated from Kazakh as “five fingers” because of a manner to eat the dish by hand. Besbarmak's main ingredients are: meat (lamb or horse meat), pasta (it is cut into small squares), as well as herbs (dill , parsley, cilantro, etc.).

The procedure of cutting meat cooked for besbarmak is a separate special ritual. Typically, this mission is laid on the owner or a highly respected guest. According to traditions, each part of meat has its own meaning and is served in a special way. Thus, meat from the pelvic bone and tibia is given to senior honored guests. Son or daughter-law gets pruning from a sternum. Cervical vertebra is usually served for unmarried girls. Sheep's head is cooked in a special way and is served separately. The right to cut this element of besbarmak is usually given to a guest of the highest rank.

Favorite Kazakh Foods

On foods to try while visitig Kazakhstan, Ersatz Expat wrote in 1) Beshbarmak consists of boiled meat (traditionally horse but nowadays often lamb) and large noodles that look like sheets of lasagne in an onion gravy/broth. There is a lot of tradition surrounding the serving and eating of beshbarmak. A classic recipe of Besbarmak is boiling a broth with several types of meat (horse meat, lamb, beef and/or camel meat) and rectangle-shaped pasta. [Source: Ersatz Expat,]

2) Kazy: a traditional sausage made of fattened horsemeat, the fat is very rich and nourishing. The thick coils of black meat look rather unappetising in the meat chiller cabinets in the supermarket. Kazy is a popular part of any celebratory meal. 3) Shashlik: kebabs cooked over a charcoal fire shashlik is traditionally made from lamb or beef but can also be made from chicken or fish (sturgeon is particularly delicious) and served with flatbread. The meat for a good shashlik is marinated overnight and quite distinctively spiced (the spices work well with roast chicken). Shashlik is a common, indeed necessary, part of any picnic barbeque.

4) Herring in a fur coat: This traditional Russian salad is also popular in Kazakhstan. It is made of herring covered with potatoes, onion, beetroot, apple and mayonnaise. 5) Borsch: another Russian import this deep purple beet soup is extremely popular. It is usually made with beef stock, onion, beetroot, carrots and potatoes. 6) Caviar: Kazakhstan borders the Caspian so caviar, both the cheap red and the more exclusive black is easy to come by in the supermarket.

7) Kurt: a cheese made from dehydrated sour cream. It has to be softened before eating. There is a very touching story about kurt. During the Stalin era there was a Gulag camp for women just outside Astana. One day out at work on the steppe the women and their guards thought that local villagers were pelting them with stones. When the women investigated further they discovered that it was kurt, this extra food helped them survive the terrible conditions and freezing temperatures.

8) Buarsak: these little balls of fried dough are endlessly popular with children. They are similar to a savoury oliebol or doughnut. For optimum flavour they can be cooked in animal fat but most of the offerings found in supermarkets are cooked in vegetable oil. Buarsak are usually round but my nanny will sometimes bring some in that she has made at home and hers look a little like fried won-tons. This is apparently similar to the way they are made in Mongolia.

9) Sour Cream and Tvorog: Extremely popular and available in a bewildering array of fat percentages (up to 40 percent fat), sour cream is served with just about everything. A tasty addition to Borsch and with manti, it does not go so well with chocolate biscuits! Tvorog cottage cheese is a common filling for pastries and pancakes. Little bars of chocolate covered tvorog are a common treat for children.

Pasta, Rice, Dumpling and Noodle Dishes

On pasta dishes favored in Kazakhstan, Ersatz Expat wrote in 1) Laghman: a tasty traditional Uyghur dish of thick noodles served with beef broth, beef and tomatoes, this is popular in local cafes and fast food restaurants. 2) Plov: the Kazakh version of Pilaf rice this dish is popular at large gatherings. It consists of rice served with lamb (sometimes beef), onions and carrots. Plov varies in quality and can be very good indeed but it can be a little oily for western tastes. [Source: Ersatz Expat,]

3) Manti and Pelmeni: Manti are large steamed dumplings filled with ground meat (usually lamb) served with sour cream. Pelmeni are similar but smaller and sometimes filled with vegetables. Both are very popular with children. They are relatively easy, if time-consuming, to make but are also available ready-made. Manti are sold in the delicatessen section of most supermarkets and pelmeni come in large bags from the freezer section. They are available in most Kazakh restaurants and are a good bet for a quick, nourishing snack.

On making Chinese-style Kazakh noodles, cookbook author and traveler, Jeffrey Alford told the Washington Post: “It's dead easy,” The ingredients are just flour, eggs, salt and water. With the help of a food processor, perfect dough is ready in seconds. There are no surprises: “We always come out with noodles and they always taste great,” Alford said.

Walter Nicholls wrote in the Washington Post” Measuring ingredients is not mandatory. He pours a little salt into his hand and throws it into the dough. Over the noodles, we ladle on a sauce of stir-fried lamb and vegetables briefly tossed in a wok. A key ingredient turns out to be a common condiment in northern and western China: dark Jinjiang vinegar, made of black rice, which has a slight caramel flavour. [Source: Walter Nicholls, Washington Post, August 22, 2008]

Horse Meat in Kazakhstan

Unlike other horse people who have refrained from killing horses for food, the Kazakhs have traditionally been fond of horsemeat, particularly “kazy” and “shuzhyk”, horsemeat sausage they make themselves by stuffing meat, fat, garlic and spices into horse intestines. Horse penis, horse fat and horse entrails are considered delicacies. “Besbarmak”, a dish made from boiled horsemeat and dough, is a staple of Kazakh feasts and is usually eaten by hand.

Kazakh farms have special sheds for curing horse meat. Especially in the winter it is sold in large slabs at local bazaars. Even in Almaty and Astana, many of the restaurants serve horse meat dishes such as “sorpa” (a creamy soup with horse meat and spiced dried fermented mare’s milk), “kespe” (unthickened bouillon with noodles, onion and thinly sliced meat), “kuyrdak” (a stew made with pieces of chopped meat, lung, liver, heart and kidney with potatoes and other ingredients) and “karta” (minced and boiled horse stomach served with peppers and herbs).

Horses that are eaten are allowed to run free on the steppe during the spring and summer. In the autumn they are caught and tethered by a feed bucket and fattened up with hay and grain. By early winter the horse in plump and tender and ready to harvest. Some are slaughtered even before they are two years old. December and January have traditionally been the time when animals are slaughtered for winter feasts and so they don’t have to be fed in the winter. When the fatal moment approaches the horses often sense something is up and are led out to the slaughter by an older horse.

Horsemeat is served during important life cycle events such as marriages and funerals. But Kazakhs are not the main consumers of horsemeat. One villager told the New York Times, “Kazakhs occupy the second place in the number of horses killed. First are the wolves, and then the Kazakhs.”

Popularity of Horse Meat in Kazakhstan

Peter Kenyon of NPR wrote: “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. [Source: Peter Kenyon, NPR, March 4, 2013 ||||]

“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 dog 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.” ||||

Russian Food

Russian Dishes include “blinis” (buckwheat crepes, filled with potatoes, mushrooms, herring, red and black caviar, or cabbage, and rolled up and dipped in melted butter or condensed milk); and “pelmeni” (ravioli-like, meat-filled Siberian dumplings, often smothered with sour cream), “golubtsy” (cabbage rolls stuffed with meat), “kasha” (buckwheat porridge, sometimes mixed with mushrooms), “plov “(rice pilaf), and “pizozhki” (fried or baked turnovers stuffed with cabbage, minced meat, mushrooms or potatoes).

Among the common Russian meat dishes are chicken Kiev, (fried boneless chicken stuffed with butter), “chakhabili” (stewed chicken in tomatoes and herbs), “beef stroganoff” (sauteed beef with mushrooms and onions in sour cream sauce, invented in St. Petersburg and named after a merchant family), and “satsivi” (chicken with a sauce made of pounded walnuts, garlic and red and black peppers).

You can also get chicken Tabaka (Caucasian-style grilled chicken), “tziply-onok tabaka” (grilled fried chicken with a sauce made from sour plums, garlic, coriander, and lemon juice), “porzarka” (a fried beef dish), “eskalop” (Russian -style pork chops), “bifsteak” (more like hamburger than steak), “kotlety” (deep-fried meat patties), and “bitki” (fried beef patties with caraway seeds and beets).

“Zaduki” (cold salads, appetizers and side dishes) and “Zakuski” (hors d'oeuvres) are fixtures of hotel buffet lunches, restaurant smorgasbords and party meals at people's houses. These include things like rolls with mushrooms or cabbage; stuffed cabbage; green peppers covered in gravy; sausages; smoked fish and pickles; canned meat; “sklami” (cold meat); smoked fish; herring in mustard or sour cream; smoked salmon; and herring with potatoes.

Among the salad favorites are potato salad; pickled tomatoes, cabbage, carrots and cucumbers; marinated garlic; eggplant salad; mushroom salad; “salat staleechni” (chopped vegetables, potato, eggs with sour cream and mayonnaise); “salat olivier” (chicken potatoes, carrots and peas in dill sour cream sauce);

Soups include “borscht” (cold beet soup, usually with cabbage in beef stock); “shchee” (bland cabbage soup, sometimes with sour cream); “pokhlyobska” (hearty peasant soup made with barely and wild mushrooms); or “solyanka” (spicy stew or soup made with pieces of fish or meat).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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