I Went to the Fatherland of All Modern Apples

Nikolai Vavilov, a Soviet-era botanist concluded that the domestic apple had evolved from a species of wild apple endemic to Southern Kazakhstan. Naturally, we followed in his footsteps to the Tien Shan Mountain range in search of wild apple forests.

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Dec 9 2016, 5:00pm

The father of the big apple is a small apple.

To truly understand the cuisine of a culture, one needs to understand the history of its populations and their interactions with their ever-changing surroundings.

Kazakhstan is the world's largest landlocked country. Until 1991, it was part of the USSR; just this year, it opened its borders to a few countries, allowing some outsiders to visit without visas and making the process of getting there infinitely easier.

The population of Kazakhstan is largely comprised of indigenous Kazakhs and immigrant Russians with a small number of other Central Asians. The interactions between these two peoples is now mostly harmonious, but when the Soviet regime forced previously nomadic or smallholder Kazakhs into large collective farms in the early 1930s, the countryside was thrown into complete chaos. The agricultural reform was at least partly to blame for massive famine under which around 38 percent of the Kazakh population died; the impact of mass starvation within recent history resonates eerily, and always makes food studies much more poignant.

Almaty is the country's largest city and former capital. It is an ancient point along the Silk Road, which is evident in its markets. Almaty's central Green Market is divided into a few main sections. In the meat area, horse is the locals' first choice, and mutton comes in second place. The prevalence of Islam here means that pork is out of the question, but the horse meat is sold in large slices by women who allow wealthy customers to choose their own pieces, which they then stuff into intestine sausage casings with plentiful salt and garlic.

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Women at the market selling horsemeat

The dairy section of the market is filled with various fresh cheeses, and small, grape-sized chunks of dried yogurt, called qurt. These are either chewed like salty, acidic bon bons, or boiled in water to make a yogurt-type drink. There is also the ever popular koumis, either mare or camel's milk that has been fermented to make it sour and alcoholic. From either animal, the result is thick and barnyard-tasting, but the more expensive camel variety is slightly less challenging.

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qurt, or cheese balls

Interestingly, a large area of the market is dedicated to Korean food. In 1937, large numbers of Korean deportees were forced to settle in Almaty. They brought their own style of North Korean cuisine with them, and dishes such as lightly fermented carrot salad have been assimilated into Kazakh roadside diners. It's a welcome, well-seasoned, vegetable-based distraction from the ubiquitous boiled horse soup.

Nowhere is the history of Almaty as a major hub on the Silk Road more evident than in the amount of dried fruits and nuts. Stalls are piled high with pyramids of raisins, apricots, dried apples, almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, which are interspersed with bags of Middle Eastern spices. These are brought in from distant Iran, Afganistan, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere in central Asia, as well as from nearby China.

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One interesting manifestation of the broad cultural exchange on the Silk Road is the local pasta dumplings. More often than not, they're stuffed with tasteless meat which has already been used to make broth, but more interestingly, the shape of the stuffed pastas is often identical to Italian forms of tortelloni, showing that pasta culture didn't only travel from China to Italy, but also left their Italian legacy along these ancient paths in between.

The Russian influence can be seen in samovar water boilers, which are used to make tea (as well as instant noodles and packet soups). Although modern water boilers typically replace them now, their prevalence in Kazakhstan is certainly a continuation of the traditional samovars proliferated by Russian culture. Russian-style sauerkraut and pickled dill cucumbers also make frequent appearances alongside processed cheese and horse sausage. These are often eaten with deep fried dough balls, burak, or with various forms of flatbread.

By every roadside, fresh fruit is piled high in buckets with all sorts of autumnal treats; apples and pears are syncopated by men selling freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

Really though, considering that the Kazakh name for Almaty, Alma-ata, means "Father of Apples," it is apples that must be the focus of this trip. So what is it that makes the apple the favourite snack of every Kazakh? What makes this land the fatherland of all apples?

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There is a theory that the "centers of origin" of a species can be found in the places where you find the highest diversity of that species. That idea was developed by Nikolai Vavilov, a remarkable Soviet-era botanist who dedicated his life to finding the biological origins of major food plants in an effort to combat hunger. (It is not without irony that he died of starvation in a gulag). Vavilov studied the origin of the apple, and concluded that the domestic apple (Malus domestica) had evolved from a species of wild apple (Malus siversii), endemic to Southern Kazakhstan. That all domestic apples originate from the mountains in southern Kazakhstan has since been confirmed by modern genetics. While there, I followed in his footsteps, leaving Almaty for the Tien Shan Mountain range, to find wild apple forests.

In these forests, no two trees produce identically flavoured apples. At each tree we came across, we took a cautionary bite of a first fruit to find out if we hit gold or not. Some trees produced apples that were bitter, astringent, and puckering, but others were sweet and juicy. The interesting thing about Malus siverssii is that unlike many other wild trees, the fruits from one tree are completely different from the next—the flavours are remarkably diverse. We found some reminiscent of Sauternes wine, through apricot to bitter lemon or rhubarb. Tastes ranged in intensity through notes of sweet, sour, and bitter. The texture could be anywhere from crunchy to mealy, and the size anywhere between a cherry and a tennis ball.

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In the woods, we are surrounded by edible berries, rosehips, and all sorts of edible weeds; it really is a forager's heaven. Ice Age-era humans would have been quick to recognize this kind of culinary paradise, and they left their marks in the form of seemingly ritualistic petroglyphs on rocks throughout the valleys. One can imagine them sitting under one of these trees feasting on the apples, and where they threw the core or shat after eating the seed, another tree would grow. After generations of always eating the sweetest and biggest fruit and then unintentionally sowing the seeds, the fruit changed, got reliably bigger and sweeter, closer to the apples we are familiar with today.

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Interestingly, another key element in the selection and breeding of apples has been bears. The bears always choose to eat the sweetest apples, and at the time of ripening, gorge themselves on the fruit before a long winter in hibernation. The seeds pass through the bears unharmed, and more apple trees with preferential genes are propagated in spring. How many apples seeds can you spot in this one bear shit?

Horses also love apples and travel longer distances than bears, resulting in apple seeds being dispersed far and wide. Horses—which were first domesticated in Kazakhstan for riding, milk, and meat—facilitated great journeys along the Silk Road, dispersing the seeds all along their way. Bees have also been crucial in their role as pollinators. Travelling beekeepers line every highway, selling many types of honey, pollen, jars of dried bees, and propolis dissolved in vodka for use as medicine. Without this service of pollination, no apple tree would ever fruit.

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With its newly relaxed borders, perhaps Kazakhstan can recognize new wealth brought by tourism, giving them reason to preserve the natural fruit forests which have been so much in decline. Autumn in the region leaves the steppe parched, but a little higher, in protected mountain valleys, wild apricot trees turn spectacular orange and red, while wild apples and other trees turn yellow and brown, painting the hillsides with a warm, bright palette. In the food forests, trees litter the ground with fruit. The smell is one of thousands of apples, in various stages of unripe to rotten, combined with the heady aroma of rich dark soil.

The vastness of Kazakhstan means that its borders and landscape are impossible to control completely and are constantly under threat, both from its neighbours and its population. If deforestation continues at its current rate, these fruit forests will disappear in the next decade. If, on the other hand, the enormous natural resource of these forests is protected, it can continue to serve as a unique biological resource for Kazakhstan and for the world.

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2014.

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