Astana. All photos by the author, aside from the one of the horse ass.
Before Kazakhstan’s ascent to the global stage as an oil-rich, ambitious, modernizing player, it was one of the world’s most stubborn bastions of nomadism. Today, the country’s newly minted capital, Astana, is home to a plethora of skyscrapers and modern art seemingly designed with a quarter bag and a tub of Legos. But amid the rabid growth, Kazakhstan is eager to preserve its heritage. To that end, designers have cobbled together 500-foot futuristic pleasure domes in the shape of a jauntily tilted nomadic tent; artists have dappled the streets with Technicolor stone camels, topiary yurts, and spindly modernist sculpture of horse archers; and chefs and diners alike have actively curated a taste for the heavy, intricately sourced, and almost excessively meaty nomadic cuisine. One especially popular dish—which was recommended to me by a Kazakh friend before I arrived—is the horse.
A topiary yurt
Much of the country’s culinary tastes are shared across Central Asia. Kazakhstani restaurateurs go heavy on the beshbarmak (boiled mutton in sheep’s head broth with optional flat noodles, potatoes, and/or onions) just like many Kyrgyzstani or Uzbekistani foodies. But unlike most other Central Asian cuisine, the Kazakhs were always a bit heavier on horsemeat. Actually, that’s an understatement—they’re the world’s number one per capita consumers of horsemeat and number three in absolute production behind China and Mexico. So, eager to see what chefs in the gaudy nation’s flagship city would deliver, I found a swanky restaurant downtown and ordered the qazy: an intestine sausage made not of offal, but finest horse rib meat, sliced into thick wafers and served alongside mysterious, off-white fleshy rings.
Qazy and qarta. Image via
The qazy went down fine. A little tough and dry—as one would expect from a draft animal—but still rich, mealy, and slightly smoky. After devouring the main course, I was left with the mysterious flesh-Os. Rather than ask a waiter what was on my plate, or even think through the possibilities, eye it over, or (and, in hindsight, this would have been practical) give it a smell test, I popped a single ringlet into my indiscriminate maw. It tasted exactly how a pasture smells. After about a minute the earthy scent of decomposed hay had crept its way up my nostrils. At first I suspected I might be having a stroke. Then, with the aid of a friend's guidebook containing useful phrases and information, I realized I had unwittingly consumed qarta: boiled and pan-fried horse rectum, served unspiced and unadorned.
Like many nomadic culinary traditions, Kazakh food uses every part of the horse. Also on the menu at many modern Kazakhstani restaurants are zhal (smoked horse neck lard) and quyrdak (a mélange of horse, sheep, and cow heart, liver, kidney, and other various innards). But unadorned rectum is still fairly rare in this world. One of the only well known examples being (thanks to foodie shock-jock Anthony Bourdain) Namibian coal-cooked warthog anus.
Sheep's lung, eaten raw, at the Osh Market.
There’s a popular tendency to view such offal dishes—especially more extreme cases such as this—as the bastard child of necessity. They’re meant to be an exercise in primal efficiency, an expression of frugality, and the result of just a smidgen of poverty. Maybe there’s an occasional grain of truth in that view, but for the most part it’s knee-jerk bullshit deriving from an irrational gut feeling: the gag reflex. The fact is, many in Kazakhstan are one or more generations removed from nomadic circumstances, many are increasingly wealthy, and they’re still noted for their love of offal—qarta especially. Not because they’re muscling through a cultural obligation, but because there is something—I came to understand after my initial shock—special, unique, and appreciable in eating rectum.
Before we get to the effectively redeeming culinary qualities of horse rectum, let’s be painfully clear exactly what we’re talking about. The horse rectum is not the tight, muscular tissue of the anus proper like you’d find in Korean dalkttongjip (stir-fried and spiced chicken sphincters). But it’s not the equivalent of the almost entirely spongy American chitterling (made up of the small intestines) either. Qarta consists of the last few inches of the digestive tract, just before the muscular sphincter. It’s a particularly large and complex segment with a layer of strong tissue on the outside, and gradations of tender mucous membrane tissue and fatty mass on the inside.
The common provenance of qartaand chitterlings from within the intestinal tract does lead to similar problems with fecal smell or taste. Chitterlings often solve this problem through judicious rounds of blanching, followed more often than not by deep-frying (which, as This American Life recently proved, is a great way of hiding the stubborn flavors of pig anus). But in the case of qarta, one simply washes the rectum without removing the fat, turning it inside out to scrub down the interior. Although the chef has the option of smoking the rectum for 24 hours and/or drying it for 48 more, many have turned to simply boiling the tissue on a slow fire for two hours, cutting it into rounds, simmering it in meat bullion for half an hour, and serving it garnished with salt, green pepper, and dill. Believe me when I say that this short cleaning and cooking process hardly dulls the taste issues inherent in a lot of intestinal cooking. But Alma Kunanbaeva, a Kazakh nomadic food anthropologist at Stanford University, expressly cautions against over-stewing the rectum.
Partially explaining the taste issue, Kunanbaeva stresses that qarta was originally meant to be eaten in combination with qazy, the way I first consumed it (although preferably not eaten in isolation at the end of the meal). However, Kunanbaeva explains, “the European influence to have appetizers, especially to follow alcohol [vodka became very popular under Czarist and Soviet rule], turned this qazy and qarta into separate offerings.”
Even outside of its original paired context, qarta retains some power and pull of its own not for its taste, but for its texture when artfully prepared. It’s a dish that takes time and effort, as it should ideally come from a young horse immediately after slaughter and must be idiosyncratically cooked to ensure it doesn’t become overdone. But when executed properly, that structure of rectum, the layering of soft and hard tissues and dense and varied fat, is what Kunanbaeva thinks makes it an irresistible dish: “The combination of a crunchy inside, chewy in the middle, and melting into [the] mouth” just does it for many folks.
Almaty meat market
Appreciating food for its texture as opposed to its taste is not something my palette has been well trained for. But the taste of melting fat and the crunch of crispy, fried muscular tissue, with just a hint of spice and meat drippings, played out against that horse pasture background, forces a concentration and appreciation I don’t often experience in meats. That said, it’s getting harder and harder to find good qarta. In many places restrictions on horsemeat—like California’s 1998 ban on slaughtering, exporting, or selling it for human consumption—have killed horse-based cuisine. Others have health concerns about intestines. But even in countries that have gotten over the squeamishness, Kunanbaeva warns, “the modern obsession with safety of food changes the palette … [Kazakhs] are cooking quarta to death trying to achieve the falling apart protein of over-dried and then overcooked meat that they’re accustomed to.” The result is gloppy and disappointing. Still, whether it seems viscerally off-putting or you’re averse to the specific pasture odor, if you’re looking to move past taste and learn to appreciate the value of mouth feel in food, order the horse rectum.