By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Olivia Curl
“That’s a big bone…”
“Is that a cow?”
“…That must have been a big cow.”
“It can’t be a sheep, right?”
“No that’s definitely not a sheep.”
I’m a vegetarian. At least, I usually am. But in preparation for this expedition I started to reintroduce meat into my diet because, well, I knew that in Kyrgyzstan and probably Pakistan there was going to be a lot of meat. So I sucked it up and started eating meat again about eight weeks before we left. (Now that we’re home, I’m back to my vegetarian ways, much to my Portuguese grandmother’s chagrin.)
To get to our first case study, we drove hours from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s very Russified and European capital, on bumpy unfinished mountain roads into Naryn province. Naryn is Kyrgyzstan’s most rural and, arguably, most authentically Kyrgyz province. The nomadic, Turkic traditions of the Kyrgyz people that have persisted for centuries are most apparent in this rugged, dramatic, gorgeous province that I frequently described as “A high desert plateau in the upper Himalayas on the edge of China.” We were in the middle of nowhere, and it was awesome.
At this altitude, the barren landscape freezes from October to May and growing vegetables is rarely possible. So, the diet is largely meat and starch. Mostly, noodles. Cooked in fat of some kind.
When we rolled into On Archa village for the first time, the sun had just set and I was sleepy and stiff from a long day in the car. Most of all, I was nervous. We were about to enter into a family’s home. A family that was commemorating the one year anniversary of a young father’s sudden death. A family that had four daughters aged 10 and younger. A family that only spoke Kyrgyz (not that our grand total of three and a half Russian words would have been super helpful).
And we were going to stay here for two nights and two full days and do our first full-on, intimate case study of the doc project. I was nervous. Walking into someone’s home is always a little uncomfortable. Walking into someone's home to do work on an emotionally charged weekend is nerve wracking.
Of course, as soon as we entered the home, leaving our hiking boots outside, we were warmly greeted and quickly ushered into one of the home’s three rooms to sit and wait for dinner. This was the first night of a weekend of family visitation, with relatives coming far and wide to pay their respects to the family and remember the young father who died last year.
Once everybody had arrived, we were ushered into the second of three rooms and seated around the edges of this square, 10x10 foot room with a large, plastic sheet on the floor. Grandpa, a regal Kyrgyz man in a new fur hat, sat in the center of the back wall and seemed to preside over the dinner eating process (which was quite a process).
First, out came a plate of on-the-bone meat. Big bones. Huge bones. We couldn’t figure out what we were eating. We asked Azamat, our guide, and he wouldn’t tell us. So, that was really reassuring.
The plate was passed around and everyone took a chunk, so we took a chunk too. Everyone started picking off pieces and munching, so we munched too. Then we were handed small sharp knives and everyone started shredding their hunk of meat onto a plate, so we started shredding too. Let it be known that our meat shredding skills are not up to par and everybody laughed at us (we laughed at us too).
Once everyone had been shredding a while, we dumped our meat pile onto the large pile of noodles that, we later discovered, were boiled in mystery meat fat. Small bowls were passed around and we sipped mystery meat broth. When chunks of intestine were passed around (and Jen took the last small piece and I was forced to gnaw on a big piece), I was very grateful for the mystery broth to wash down the intestines (after about 10 minutes of chewing and trying not to choke while laughing).
This meal is called “beshbarmak” which means “five fingers”. You’re supposed to dig into the noodles, meat, and hunks of fat aka garnish with your five fingers and chow down. Kyrgyz tradition insists that to eat with a utensil is to distance oneself from the food and actually makes the food taste bad.
Jen, Lena and I laughed through this pretty classic example of “Americans travel to new country, eat unfamiliar food, do their best, get laughed at by their hosts.” But, hey, at least we were having a good time.
And speaking of hay, a few days later Azamat finally came clean about our introductory meal with his family. It was horse. Yes, we ate a horse, yes those were very big bones. Azamat knew all along that it was horse. He asked his little cousin about it one night (in Kyrgyz, we didn’t understand)
“Where’s grandpa’s horse?”
She replied: “We cut it for the guests.”
And that, as they say in Kyrgyzstan, is that. (Not really. Everybody says that.)