"Goats and sheep for sale"
On my second day in Bishkek we were given the mission to go and choose a sheep to kill, chop and eat at a party the next day.
As surprising as it may seem, I knew nothing about how to choose a sheep for food (or for anything, for that matter) and neither did M, M's mom, or M's friend. So in the end we just chose (mainly, I think) based on price.
Everyone raved about the meat at the party, and about the left overs the day after, so I reckon we got lucky and chose a good one, (although what is considered "good" or "not good" is still not clear).
After the fact, we met a few people along the way who gave us 2 important tips on choosing a tasty young sheep for mutton.
Feel the skin, make sure it is nice and firm and doesn't have too much give (this suggests the sheep is old and wrinkly).
The most important tip is to count the teeth. Sheep have a set of eight teeth in the lower jaw, but they only grow two a year. So if the sheep has two teeth that protrude over the rest, this means it is one year old. If there are four large teeth, the animal is two years old, and so on until they have grown all eight. Generally you want to choose the youngest possible adult.
After examining the photo of the sheep we chose, we learned it must have been between one and two years.
Another fun fact: the sellers did not sell sheep by the kilo, only by the unit (i.e. per sheep), so there was no way of knowing how much meat you were buying (by the way our sheep cost around $120 and it fed over 25 people).
It is also worth mentioning we were at a private residence looking for sheep, these are people who buy it direct from cattle farms or at the animal market, a few at a time and bring it to their backyard for selling within the city.
So anyway, we chose the fine beast above and put a deposit on it. The next day we cam back to pick up this:
Not all of it, only the one on the left. The one on the right was waiting to be picked up by someone else. Judging by the butt, you can see that our sheep was considerably smaller than the one on the right.
Here you see the head and "chuchuk" which is what you get when you braid the small intestines and stuff them with some of the organs. Not shown is "kielbasa" or "kalbasa" which is a giant sausage made up of who knows what and encased in the large intestine. These are all considered delicacies.
The meat was put in plastic grocery bags and we took it to the restaurant where the party was to be held.
Several dishes came out, one of them was a meat stew with root vegetables and cabbage, my personal favourite (not shown). The next one was called "beshbarmak" or "five fingers" and it consisted of noodles, minced mutton and onions (shown below). The head, tongue and delicacies were also boiled and served (shown to the left of the head).
The legs and anything else attached to a bone was boiled and served separately. Most people put them in doggie bags and took them home (common practice at parties). The stock that came out of boiling the meat was also served.
There were several types of salad at the party, and huge fruit plates. I am proud to say I tried every single thing. I am not proud to say I had to let out not one, but two places on my belt.
The "delicacies", I'm sad to report, smelled and tasted like manure. I have never eaten poo but if I did, I imagine that is what it would taste like. I ate pig intestines once in China, and they did not taste like that, so perhaps the sheep wasn't properly cleaned?
What you got out of the head was mostly skin, not meat. The tongue and the head were ok, once you got over the looks of it, but it wasn't anything to write home about. Beshbarmak was M's favourite, mine was the stew. The lamb stock simply tasted like a very rich stock, aka lamb fat.
At dinner parties people are expected to drink, and a lot. Every 10-20 minutes someone will get up and give a toast (more like a speech, the toasts are rather long). They will toast to any given person, to friendship, to love, peace, you name it, and everyone drinks a round of shots. That's right, people drink shots, not sips. I stuck to wine during this particular evening, and it seems that wine is considered a non-alcoholic drink in comparison to vodka, cognac and whiskey. Why else would the restaurant host send me a complimentary virgin mojito to go with my wine?
Needless to say everyone was having a merry ol' time and looked rather flushed by the end of the evening. So a good party all in all.
If you are a guest in Kyrgyzstan, people will try to make you fat. They will likely insist you eat until you either pass out, cry, or throw up. If your plate is empty, it will be full again before you can say "no thank you". If you say "no thank you" they will think you don't like them, or don't like the food, or that you are sick, or depressed. The last thought through their minds is that you are no longer hungry.
It took me 4 meals to figure out the only way to get of out it is to leave some food on your plate to make your hosts aware that you are properly stuffed. You see, these people don't take no for an answer. Is this strategy wasteful? Yes. Necessary? Also yes.
A Kyrgyz joke....
Kyrgyzstan is the #2 meat consumer in the world.
#1 are the wolves.
All the photos courtesy of M.