Zhazira: The Kazakh way of sharing food

Zhazira is a research scholar on assignment at George Washington University. The monthly stipend she receives is not enough to meet her family’s expenses in the costly environment of Washington, so she has reached out to Food For All DC for support.

Zhazira with the seven balls of dough that will become the seven breads (see below)

Zhazira is from Kazakhstan, where the sharing of food is a common expression of religion and culture. One way this manifests is through jeti nan shelpek taratu (the sharing of seven pieces of bread), a tradition that predates the conversion of Kazakhstan to Islam in the 10th century. In those early days of shamanism, it was believed that by sharing bread (shelpek) with those in need, one was feeding the souls of the ancestors.

To this day, Kazakh families bake 7 pieces of bread every Friday, the Islamic holiday, and serve them to street people or neighbors. In Islam, the sharing of food is also a virtue, so Kazakh people have blended their religion with their culture to make Friday a day of honoring humanity through food.

Seven breads baked and ready to share!

Another important food sharing event occurs during the Kazakh new year holiday, called Nauryz (“new day”), that starts on March 21, the day of the spring equinox. During Nauryz, families from a community carry homemade soup (Nauryz kozhe) to a central location. They mix all these soups together and share the common soup with everyone to be taken back home. This custom helps build bridges between rich and poor, thereby reinforcing the sense of community. People also believe it strengthens truthfulness. These two examples capture the community-based nature of Kazakh society.

Every Kazakh community takes care of its people, so no one has to suffer from a lack of food. Food For All does the same, making sure that DC residents have enough food to share with themselves, their families and their neighbors.

Another unique story related to food comes from Kazakh history. The years 1930-1937 were a dark period for the Kazakh people. Stalin artificially created a famine in Kazakh lands, killed the intelligentsia and put their family members in concentration camps. The camp conditions were harsh, with barely enough food given to sustain life. It was only due to a clandestine and unusual food sharing practice that countless lives were saved.

The food in question is a Kazakh national food called kurt, a dry cheese made of fermented milk, which looks like a stone. Kazakhs would throw this cheese over the boundary fence at the camp prisoners. The Soviet soldiers thought the people were throwing stones, and didn’t investigate further. When the guards’ backs were turned, the prisoners ate the “stones” and managed to survive in those horrific conditions. The same scenario happened at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Soviets relocated ethnic and minority groups from their homelands to the Central Asian territories. When these people suffered from a lack of food, Kazakhs would also threw them “kurt” to save their lives. Today, minority groups often recall the Kazakh culture and how Kazakhs saved the lives of their ancestors, even though the Kazakhs were suffering at that time too. 

To see a dramatization of this, watch the following video from the 2-minute mark.

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