Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Nowruz Spring Festival – Part #2

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Lilya Kas'yanova
Lilya Kas'yanova, one of Kyrgyzstan's finest guides, is passionate about the history, art and craft of her country. A graduate in Linguistics and Intercultural Communications from I. Arabaev Kyrgyz State University, she is also a keen photographer and hiker. 

Last week, Lilya, who regularly leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, provided an overview of the ancient Nowruz festival, still celebrated today on 21 March, the spring equinox. In this post, she describes the Nowruz festive table and the culinary subtleties of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh peoples.


The Haft Sin table

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Sprouted wheat, centrepiece of the festive table, image: Lilya Kas'yanova
A discussion of Nowruz specialities would not be complete without first mentioning the Haft Sin table.

Following the Persian tradition, some Central Asians, especially Tajiks, follow the Haft Sin festive table tradition.  The Haft Sin table includes seven items all starting with the letter sīn (س) in the Persian alphabet.

These items are usually: sib (apple), samanu (sprouted wheat) or sabzi (greens or sprouted cereals), sir (garlic), sirké (vinegar), sandjit – wild olive, sumah (spice) and sekké (coin). This is not a strict set of foods, - it may vary.  But all items must begin with the letter S. Each item has its own specific meaning, for instance: vinegar is a symbol of patience, garlic – robust health, wild olive – love, apple – beauty, coin – prosperity, etc.

Kyrgyz and Kazakh Nowruz specialities

The Kyrgyz and Kazakh cuisines have much in common: meat and flour dishes, and milk-based drinks. This stems from the fact that the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs were nomads for centuries.

The main dishes of the Nowruz festive table in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan  are:

Beshbarmak which means "five fingers". Nomads did not use cutlery – they ate with their fingers. The essential ingredients of beshbarmak are noodles, meat (either mutton, beef, horse or camel meat – the latter cooked by Kazakhs) and concentrated broth. The broth is served separately, in small bowls.
Shorpo  – mutton soup with broadtail fat, potato and carrot.
Uzgen red rice plov (devzira is a variety of rice from the southern district of Kyrgyzstan)

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Horse meat sausage, image: Lilya Kas'yanova
Festival dishes are also represented by Turkic boiled delicacies such as:

Chuchuk (shujyk) - horse meat sausage with fat, karta – large bowel (of horse) pulled inside out, and karyn (horse stomach);
Hoshan – deep-fried patty with mince, onion filling and spices;
Samsa – baked patty with meat and onion stuffing, traditionally baked in tandyr (clay oven). Broth is a usual accompaniment;
Kattama  - a type of flaky dough flatbread baked in a frying pan on a slow fire. Kattama can be plain, or chives- or onion-filled);
Jypka -a type of flaky dough cornmeal cake served with butter;

Also, the Nowruz table abounds in a variety of pastry and drinks. Festival pastries are symbols of a sweet and happy New Year. These are some special national drinks and treats:

Sanza - fine twiglets of deeply fried dough. These pastry straws can be sugar powdered, honey or sugar liquor coated;
Choimo tokoch - a type of pastry twiglet;
Boorsok  – small pieces of unfermented or sour dough fried in boiling oil. Sary mai (butterfat), kaimak (home-made sour cream), honey or jams accompany boorsoks;
Jarma - a nutritive beverage based on water, talkan (wheat or millet grits), wheat flour, starter culture, yeast, butter (or fat) and salt;
Chalap - a sour-milk drink, the ingredients of which are mineral water, suzmé (low-moisture fermented dairy product; something between sour cream and cottage cheese) and salt;
Atkan tea -  a distinctive type of tea that is widespread in the Issyk-Kul’ province of Kyrgyzstan. It is a strong black tea with milk and salt. Butter can be added also.

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Uigur pastry straws and donuts, image: Lilya Kas'yanova
A few weeks before the holiday, initial preparations are made for one of the crowning pieces of a plentiful table - wheat is sprouted on plates. By 21 March, dazzling green sprouts reach 6-7 centimeters. A plate with sprouted wheat is not only the centrepiece of the festive table, but also a symbol of new life, fertility and good health.

However, the pièce de résistance of the spring festival in all of Central Asia is sümölök (samanu, sumalak, sumanak) – sprouted wheat pudding. This ritual dainty is cooked only once a year, at Nowruz.

Sümölök’s basic ingredient is wheat which is sprouted a few days before the celebration. The process of making this specialty is time-consuming:  it takes the whole night before Nowruz – 12 -14 hours – during which time the pot must be stirred continuously.

It requires much effort and attention. Only women can participate in the process. Sümölök is cooked in a large hemispherical cauldron, in the bottom of which 7 pebbles (or walnuts) of equal dimension  are placed thus making it non-stick. The sprouts of wheat are minced and then malt is sifted and poured into the cauldron with cotton-seed oil. Wheat flour is also added.

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Sümölök for sale, image Lilya Kas'yanova
Women alternate in stirring the mixture and, while cooking, they invoke God's blessing. Quite often sümölök making is accompanied by chanting. When brewing is finished, the cauldron is covered and the sümölök is left to draw for a couple of hours.

The result is a viscous dark brown substance, which tastes like halva. Then it is ladled out and distributed to those who participated in the cooking process and to relatives and friends. Those who get a pebble (or walnut) in a bowl with sümölök are deemed to be lucky, and they can make a wish that will certainly come true.

At Nowruz, a must for Kazakhs is a dish known as nauryz köjé. It consists of seven ingredients: water, meat, oil, flour, cereals (rice, wheat, corn), milk and salt. Every cookery specialist has her own signature  recipe of nauryz köjé. Nevertheless, this one-of-a-kind soup must be flavoured with a fermented dairy product!

Of course there are more festive and traditional nomadic dishes than those described above. Every family adopts a distinctive menu. However, such specialties as sümölök (source of spiritual and physical strengths) and nauryz köjé are always included.

At each and every Nowruz celebration we hope that the incoming year will be joyous, bounteous and fortunate for all of us!

Contact Lilya on: lolya.87(at) mail (dot) ru     
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Sugar powdered pastry roses, image Lilya Kas'yanova

Read all Lilya's articles

Related posts:  Nowruz Spring Festival  –  Part #1
Celebrating Nowruz - Spring New Year in Uzbekistan
100 Experiences of Kyrgyzstan 


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Nowruz Spring Festival – Part #1

Lilya Kas'yanova kyrgyzstan tour guide, kyrgyz art craft tours
Lilya Kas'yanova
Lilya Kas'yanova, one of Kyrgyzstan's finest guides, is passionate about the history, art and craft of her country. A graduate in Linguistics and Intercultural Communications from I. Arabaev Kyrgyz State University, she is also a keen photographer and hiker. In this article Lilya, who regularly leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, provides an overview of the ancient Nowruz festival, still celebrated today.

Part 2, to be published next week, will
describe the Nowruz festive table and the culinary subtleties of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh peoples.

Overview of Nowruz 


One of the world’s most remarkable festivals – Nowruz (Spring New Year) – was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009. It is celebrated in Central Asia, Afghanistan, the Middle East and other countries. In some countries, Nowruz is officially listed on the public holiday calendar. And, in the Republic of Kazakhstan, it is fêted for consecutive three days.

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Folk music groups,  Nowruz festival Bishkek. image: Lilya Kas'yanova
Nowruz originated in Persia more than 3,000 years ago. It is directly related to the veneration of fire and the sun, as well as to Zoroaster (Zarathustra), the Iranian religious reformer and founder of Zoroastrianism (fire worship).

"Nowruz' in Farsi means "new day" and 21 March - the spring equinox - is the first day of the New Year of the Persian calendar. It is a festival of spring, nature’s great awakening: renewal and purification, fertility, the demonstration of the love of nature, the triumph of love and the friendship of peoples.

The colourful traditions of the Nowruz celebration took root not only in Persian-speaking regions, but also gained ground among those Turkic-speaking nations influenced by the culture of Zoroastrianism. The spring New Year lived through the Arabian conquest:  Islam had never banned the ideas of goodness, mercy and beneficence, and it remained an integral part of the cultures of different Muslim peoples.

When Tsarist Russia annexed Central Asia, this new authority did not interfere with local traditional practices, customs and beliefs. However, after the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917, the situation regarding traditional rituals, including festivals and feasts, changed dramatically. In the Soviet period, Nowruz lost its status as an official holiday in 1926 for no other reason than the exponents of the party’s ideology decided it had a religious nature.

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Children of the Tatar-Bashkir diaspora at Nowruz, Bishkek image: Lilya Kas'yanova
Nevertheless, the peoples of Central Asia cherished the memory of the celebration and waited, observing it in secrecy. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the festivities, which mark the official incoming of spring and the beginning of agricultural cycle, started once more.

Kaleidoscopic Nowruz traditions of Central Asia


The week before Nowruz is considered a time of ancestral remembrance: it is dedicated to them. People bring offerings to the spirits of dead persons and ask for their assistance and protection in the coming year.

A few days prior to Nowruz, active preparations for the upcoming celebration are launched: thoroughly cleaning the house, clearing out old and useless things, making or buying holiday clothing and so on.  Before 21 March, debts should be repaid, misfortunes forgotten and offences forgiven.

On the eve of Nowruz, a purification ceremony is performed to frighten away evil spirits. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, there is the practice of fumigating homes using juniper twigs. In Tajikistan, the peganum harmel plant (Syrian or wild rue) is used for the same purpose.

Nowruz is the longest holiday in the East: according to tradition, it lasts thirteen days and the last day should be spent outdoors.  People enjoy holding parties in the countryside to reunite with nature. Throughout Nowruz, people visit their relatives and friends, exchange greetings, provide alms to the poor, and cook a great variety of specialties.

The festive table has to be overladen with rich food to ensure the coming year will be abundant and fertile and bring joy and luck. The observance of the different rites that accompany the Nowruz celebration, makes for family happiness and well being.
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Folk dance ensemble, Nowruz festival Bishkek, image: Lilya Kas'yanova

In Zoroastrianism, the festival focused on the main object of worship, i.e. fire, which had the power of purification, and was deemed to be the symbol of the sun on earth.

Historically, one more symbolic purification ceremony, related to fire, fell during Nowruz. At sundown, people jumped over big bonfires: jumping over fire was believed to banish corrupt desires and demonic temptations.

Even women with babes in arms jumped over bonfires: they genuinely believed that it could guard from evil spirits and protect from bad luck. As far as Central Asia is concerned, this rite is still observed in some remote, rural areas.

Among the Kyrgyz, Nowruz was known as "Ulustun uluu künü" ("Great Day of the Nation" or "Great Day of the Khanate"). This day was often marked by an important event, such as the election of a new chieftain.

There is a wonderful custom in Tajikistan known as gülgardoni. With the advent of Nowruz, children pick the first spring flowers – snowdrops and crocuses, and distribute them to neighbours, thus acting as heralds bringing the glad tidings of the incoming spring.

Nowruz celebrations also include entertainment, national sports and equestrian games, such as horse races (at chabysh); buzkashi (also known as ulak tartysh, or kuk pari); oodarysh (wrestling on horseback); tyiin enmei (picking up coins from the ground while galloping); archery and wrestling etc.

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Kyrgyz merry-making. Central Ala-Too Square, Bishkek, image: Lilya Kas'yanova
Nowadays, the major festivities such as dance and singing performances, aitysh (improvised contests of poets and singers) take place in the squares of principal cities of the Central Asian republics. In Kyrgyzstan, the Central Ala-Too square of Bishkek is the heart of the spring festival.

The second part of this article will focus on the Nowruz festive table.

Contact Lilya on: lolya.87(at) mail (dot) ru
Read all Lilya's articles
Related posts: Nowruz Spring Festival –  #2
Celebrating Nowruz - Spring New Year in Uzbekistan
100 Experiences of Kyrgyzstan 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ikat Porcelain Tableware

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Emerald Hermès plate from the Voyage en Ikat collection
Oscar de la Renta's 2005 ikat-inspired women's collection triggered a world-wide ikat trend in fashion, then interior design. Now Hermès has launched a collection - Voyage en Ikat - that puts ikat firmly on the table.

More than twenty hues centred on sapphire, ruby and emerald, are enhanced by 24-carat matte gold and come to life in designs composed "thread by thread".

This exquisite collection, which includes platters, presentation trays and tea sets, is hand made by master craftsmen in Limoges, France. It is available for viewing and purchase online.

Tashkent-based Rimma Gazalieva, is a leading Uzbek porcelain artist. She has been producing tableware inspired by Central Asian design - particualrly ikat and suzani patterns - for many years.

Rimma Gazalieva regularly holds master classes in Tashkent. Her pieces, ranging from complete dinner sets to smaller items such as coffee cups and sugar bowls, can be bought at Human Wear in Tashkent, a boutique visited on Uzbek Journeys tours. You can view more samples of Rimma Gazalieva's stunning work on her Facebook page.

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 Rimma Gazaliev's ikat-inspired tableware

Related posts:
Oscar de la Renta's Love Affair with Uzbek Ikat
Uzbek Ikat as Interior Design Element
The Story of Uzbek Silk Production: Step by Step
Ferghana Valley Silk Ikats: Tying the Clouds