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  • Jerome Kocher

60. The Green Bazaar

I’m in Almaty which means the city of apples. It used to be named Alma-Ata, which tranlates as "Apple-Grandfather." As one of the main hubs along the ancient Silk Road, Almaty today is also the cultural business center and largest city in Kazakhstan. Here the Tree of Life is an apple tree. Their original signature apple was huge, like a small cantaloupe melon. You can’t find these anymore at the Bazaar, but there is everything else.

The Green Bazaar is a showcase not just of food, but of the multiple ethnicities in Kazakhstan. Each section is controlled by the ethnicity most experienced in that produce.

It’s a Central Asian market with Soviet efficiency. No chaos here. It's built in classic Soviet style with planned features. The ceiling of the market has four huge pyramidal skylights which allow for natural ventilation and constant air movement. There are no flies here on the meat or produce. Not one. The four large columns in the middle have giant elevators inside that transport produce into the market from trucks in underground delivery areas where they are also pre-inspected for quality. On top of the columns are four different eateries, each one with a specialty, like elevated food courts. All part of Russian planned architecture that is impressive in this case and really works well.

The dried fruits, nuts and seeds section is controlled by Tajiks. In part because there is a longer growing season in Tajikistan. Apricots are endemic to Central Asia so there is a wide selection: the smaller wild, the natural dark and the sulphured to stay orange. Apparently apricots turn dark when dried, but to preserve our expectation of the color orange they add sulphur so they appear more fresh. Something Trader Joe’s may not tell you. Just saying!

Fermented apples, mushrooms, carrots and more, This section is run by Kazakhs with their nomadic experience of preserving foods.

The Korean salads section has a backstory all to itself. in WWII Stalin deported over 100,000 Koreans who had migrated to Manchuria on the Russian border. Stalin didn’t trust their allegiance so he sent all of them to Kazakhstan, a holding tank of vast areas in the middle of “nowhere.” These women are the descendants, the grand daughters of those deported Koreans. Now they have adapted Korean cuisine to Central Asia with their specialty salads.

Next is “kurt.” Again, made by Kazakhs who have mastered the art of preserving their fresh milk into dried yoghurt balls. One of my favorites. These savory salty snacks can be an appetizer or nutrition on the go while travelling the steppes. The root word “kurt” can be seen even in English with Yo-ghurt or curds, whether small or large as in cottage cheese.

Then comes lamb and sheep. Nothing is wasted. In very traditional families they may still give a sheep head to the guest of honor at table. This follows a ritual. The guest often gives parts ot the head to children. He cuts off an ear and gives it to a child with the reminder to better listen. An eye is given to admonish them to better observe.  Or a tongue given to a child sends the message to speak better, maybe to your elders. My guide was an American married to a Kazakh wife. When he would be invited over to his wife’s family he was often given the breast meat because as a son-in-law he was the central piece connecting both families, like the chest or rib cage of their family community.

The rear of a sheep’s butt is solid fat so this large mass becomes a natural storage of fat using in cooking. No olive oil on the steppes. Just nice fresh butt. Try that on your popcorn.

Next comes the controversial aisle for my family and friends in the States who own horses and love horses. So do our nomadic cousins. Even more so. The horse is the signature icon for Kazakhstan. It meant everything to them, even food. There are ribs, flanks, steaks - all from horse ranches that raise horses for food. They ride them up to higher pasture in summer for the same reason the Swiss parade their cows to higher alpine pastures. Different grasses give different quality of horse meat. 

The most common delicacy here is “beshbarmak,” a national dish. It's horse sausage, not ground, but cut up and placed into an intestine as sausage, then cut into small round medallions to be served over a thin bed of dough as light and thin as a crepe. For the record, Kazakhs would never eat their riding horses. Horse cuisine is not a crude form of retirement or what we think of in the States as a slaughterhouse. Horse meat is raised from a special breed specifically farmed for this purpose. 

And then there is horse milk, a fermented drink, lightly salted and diluted with water. For the record, the beshbarmak dish is very tasty, but as for a drink, my favorite is camel milk with a slightly thicker consistency and pleasing taste. Fermentation of course is the natural method of preserving fresh food products before we had refrigeration. There’s no electricity on the steppes. In the actual fermentation process they would leave a portion of the milk in the bottom of the container as a starter culture for the next added batch of fresh milk, similar to a sour dough process of keeping some behind for the next bake.

And of course the Russians are in the market. They are the only ones in a Muslim majority country that will sell and consume pork, whether ribs or bacon. There was a humorous exchange in Russian between them and my guide. Apparently a few weeks prior they had made disparaging remarks over a few Americans in the market place. My guide shockingly responded to them in fluent Russian, calling them out for their behavior. They did not think an American could speak Russian. Still embarrassed from that incident they gave us a peace offering of a can of beer and dried salted fish. Just like salty nuts or pretzels for happy hour, the fish was their natural accompaniment with beer. Later in one of the market eateries, I enjoyed the beer, but the fish not. It was too hard to eat. For me, beer goes down better with pretzels than dried fish with a head on it. 

And to end on a lighter note, but unexpected, I was told later that one should not miss the restroom experience at the market. But this is not what you think. Here, like many foreign countries you have to pay a few cents to use a toilet which may not be the best experience. But here, of all places, it was shockingly elegant with what appeared to be back lit agate above the sink countertops. They were still pit toilets, but shiny stainless steel. Presentation is every thing. And this was worth the price of admission. The best public bathroom in the least likely place.

In our modern life bazaars have been replace by supermarkets and malls. But if you want fresh produce, the Green Bazaar in Almaty is the place to go. The city of Almaty is “Grandfather’s Apple.” And Almaty is The Tree of Life. There are many green areas and parks. And the best one is Panfilov, but that’s another story.

I want to thank Dennis Keen of "Walking Almaty” for his understanding and deep love of culture here. It’s good to walk with someone who has feet in several worlds.

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