Sunday, January 28, 2007

Explore Kazakh Music Online

Somebody somewhere has created this nifty little Shockwave Flash jukebox, loaded with 32 random selections of Kazakh music. Some of it is more traditional, some of it is contemporary pop. I'm not quite sure who the author of the site it; clues make me think it might be a project of a Kazakh-language student (learning Kazakh is on the to-do list for my next lifetime) In any case, check it out (click on the image for the link).

Below are links to more, including music videos on YouTube, articles and mp3 files. Explore!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Kazakh Cooking Experiment #1 : Manti

It seems that few of the dishes that I consider to be traditionally Kazakh aren’t also claimed as national dishes of other Central Asian peoples; the only one I can think of is beshbarmak. Something about the other ‘Stans has grabbed global imagination more so than Kazakhstan has -- there's plenty on oil, politics, and adoption, but comparatively little depth of research and information available on Kazakh culture, as opposed to the music, history and lore of Uzbekistan, for instance.

My hypothesis is that three factors are in play here -- 1) Kazakh culture was nomadic and orally transmitted (the old “moving target” research problem, with no ancient texts or libraries to consult); 2) most of the Kazakh territory is north of the traditional Silk Road routes, not directly involved in the cultural exchanges related to trade of that time, and mostly overlooked in contemporary “Silk Road revival” events; and 3) fully one-fourth of the ethnic Kazakh population died of starvation in the middle of the 20th century, thanks to poorly executed Soviet agricultural collectivization programs. With them perished a quarter of the cultural memory of the people.

All this to say that when I went to make manti this evening, the recipe (in Please to the Table, p. 409) is titled “Uzbek Steamed Lamb Dumplings.” (I’ve also seem them described as Turkish, Tatar, and Caucasian.) This was a pretty successful attempt, more or less resembling the manti the kids and I remember eating in KZ, so I’ll pass what I did and what I Iearned.

Since I don’t like lamb (neither does Gulnara, so I don’t feel terribly inauthentic here), I substituted ground beef. It works just as well. You need some sort of steamer basket arrangement -- I used the fan-folding veggie steamer basket in a soup/dutch oven pot. It cooked about 9-10 at a time.

Making manti wasn’t as hard as I thought, so it will definitely get a second go. Gulnara spent New Year’s Eve with other KZ friends who were making manti, and that Yuri is some kind of cook! Next time I hope to benefit from from his expertise.

(makes 24; takes about an hour to get at least 1 batch ready to eat)

Whiz 2 cups unbleached flour and 1/2 tsp salt in the bowl of a food processor. With the motor running, add 2 egg yolks and 1 TBS. oil through the feed tube, then pour in approx. 1/2 cup water in a slow steady stream, until the dough clumps up around the blade. Plop the dough ball onto a floured surface (I use the Formica-topped counter cutout from when I got a got a new sink as my breadboard) and knead until smooth ( a couple of minutes at most). Cover with a smooth dishcloth and let rest for 30 minutes.

Meat Filling
Mix 1 to 1.5 lb.. very coarsely ground meat (hand chopped lamb is specified, ground sirloin worked for me) with 2 finely chopped onions, 1/3 cup stock (lamb or beef), black pepper & salt to taste. The recipe also calls for cilantro, but it just seems too “southern” (remember the cumin in the Uzbek plov?) and I didn’t remember it anyway, so I left it out.

On the floured surface with a floured rolling pin, roll 1/2 the dough into a thin sheet about 1/16” thick (I think I got close). Cut 4” rounds with a cookie cutter (if you have one. I don’t do rolled dough, and haven’t used my rolling pin in years until I started these Central Asian/Caucasus cooking experiments. I used the 3.5” top to an old peanut butter jar for size, and finished the job with a knife). Cut as many as possible (I got 8 the first try) then roll out the dough scraps again and make as many more as you can. Then do it all over again with the other half of the dough. If you go thin enough, you will get 24.

Get your steaming contraption ready, with 1-2 inches of water or as high as the basket will allow (you’ll need enough to last for 15-20 minutes of steaming). I didn’t grease the steamer basket, and the manti survived, but I think it would have worked better had I followed the recipe and greased it somehow. A few did stick enough to tear.

Mound 1-2 TBS. of the filling in the middle of each dough round (the recipe says to top each mound with a piece of butter, but I couldn’t do it. The fat thing, you know. Maybe next time). Then pull the sides up to the top, dip your fingers into cold water and pinch the sides together together. I made a puffy arch of a dumpling, like a big gyoza or a little pasty (or fried peach pie) instead of the more rounded peak in the pictures, because they look like that in my (possibly faulty) memory. The wet fingers help the dough edges stick to each other better, and not stick to your fingers at all.

When the water is boiling, place as many manti in the basket as will fit without touching (or take your chances on them sticking together. They still taste good). Steam for at least 15 minutes, maybe 20, depending on how big you made them. If you’re lucky enough to have a multilevel steaming contraption, switch the levels halfway for even cooking.

Then eat! The cookbook recommends serving with a yogurt-garlic sauce (sounds ‘southern’ again), but these got gobbled up plain and seconds were demanded (and gotten), so sauce is definitely optional.

I've heard of, but not yet eaten, a variation with pumpkin filling. That's next on the "to try" list.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Nomad Misses the Shortlist

It was a long shot anyway -- Kazakhstan's first official entry in the Oscar race did not make the first short list of nominated films (in the Foreign Language category). Naturally, I can't find my reference for this info, but the final nominations are to be announced tomorrow (January 22) so more should be forthcoming.

I hope this doesn't affect the Weinsteins' plans to show the film in markets around the US.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Nomad Arrives on January 26 March 9?

(02/16/07) Updated information via Nathan at
According to a news bulletin from the Kazakhstani Embassy in Washington -- at last, a (somewhat) nationwide release date for
Nomad, the epic film of ancient Kazakh history, is set for January 26, 2007. postponed to March 9 As far as I can tell so far, it's really only going to be shown in theatres in the Los Angeles area and in New York City, but that's progress for the film, which began production in 2003 (while Sascha Baron Cohen was still doing Ali G). The trailer (above) has been on YouTube for almost a year but apparently there's newer English one for the American market.

KZBlog has a detailed entry on the film, the book it's based on (The Nomads, by Ilyas Yesenberlin), and the local KZ reactions to the film, written after opening night in Astana. I've got a download of the novel in English (thanks for the link, KZBlogger), and am working my way through it. The translation can be, shall we say, humorous in places, but it paints a vast canvas of life on the pre-Russian steppe. At least I now know who my street in Almaty was named after.

The main storyline is of the rise of a boy named Mansur, who becomes the warrior leader Ablai Khan. Ablai Khan unites the three bickering hordes (Greater, Middle and Lesser) of the steppe into a single Kazakh people, to defend Taraz against the invading Dzhungars (or Jungars, kin to contemporary Uighurs of northwest China).

The story of the making of the film is almost as epic, with starts, stoppages, changes of producers & directors, & financial woes. It was purchased for US distribution after last year's Cannes festival, but nothing happened for ages. And, I can't help but feel the irony in a film heralded as a monument to Kazakh national pride that stars Mexican, Hawaiian-American, and Mexican-American actors.

Still, the majority of players in the film are Kazakh, and the steppe scenery is bound to be stunning as well. Nomad is Kazakhstan's first ever entry for the Academy Award, in the Foreign Language Film category. Maybe it's not the most accurate rendition of Kazakhstan's history, but dubious historical accuracy never stopped anyone from seeing Gone With The Wind or Ben Hur . . .

I hope Nomad comes to a theatre near me very soon.

ps -- lots of "behind-the-scenes" photos are online. See some here.

(2/16/07) Based on early US viewer reviews (here and here), I'm betting that if you're not in New York or LA, you'll be looking for this film on DVD by the end of the summer. Schizo went the same way a couple of years ago -- audience response was so lackluster that the distributor withdrew it, and went to DVD release.