It seems like most major holidays have a special food associated with them: Thanksgiving and turkey, Christmas and cookies, Easter and eggs, Halloween and any form of candy. In Kazakhstan this trend continues, especially with the biggest holiday of the year, Nauryz. Nauryz is the Kazakh new year, and it celebrates the coming of spring. Nauryz has been traditionally celebrated all across Central Asia for millennium. In modern Kazakhstan, the official date of the new year is March 22.
Nauryz is celebrated like most holidays in Kazakhstan: people get together with families to eat giant feasts of food, concerts are put on in every city and town of any size, and there's a day or two off from work. Nauryz has several additional traditions. Usually, on top of staging a concert, every city and town will set up a yurt in the town square for people to look inside. The largest cities sometimes host a game of kokpar, the Kazakh national sport, which features two teams riding around on horseback and fighting over a headless goat carcass. And finally, there is the special food associated with Nauryz: Nauryz kozhe.
According to tradition, kozhe must be made from seven ingredients which symbolize the seven important attributes of man, such as strength, wisdom, and knowledge. These seven ingredients can vary, but typically include: airan (similar to buttermilk), kurt (a rock hard, very sharp cheese), meat, wheat, salt, rice, and raisins. The mixture turns into a rather soupy concoction which is halfway between a drink and something you need a spoon for. As a result, I've seen both methods of consumption. The first time I was served kozhe, mine was one of the last bowls dipped up, and so it was more on the “solid” side of the spectrum. What I got looked remarkably like mushy rice pudding, especially with the raisins mixed in. My first bite, though, quickly proved otherwise. As you can gather from the list of ingredients, kozhe has a very unique taste. But despite my aversion to the dish, most Kazakhs I talk to like it, so I guess you can acquire a taste for Nauryz kozhe.
Most of my encounters with kozhe happen at the Nauryz parties each class puts on at school during the week before Nauryz. At these parties, the kids dress up in traditional costume (or, often, throw a Kazakh hat on their head and call it good), sit around a low table covered with food, and watch their classmates perform songs and dances for about 45 minutes. Then, after the kids are done eating, any teachers and parents in the room descend on those tables and do a number on the leftovers. Although I mostly attend these parties to support my kids and get cute pictures of them in Kazakh hats, I don't mind the calorie-filled reward at the end.
Kozhe always makes an appearance at some time during the festivities. Sometimes, it is served during a break in the concert to each of the adults watching the show. This is how I got caught with several cups of it last year. I politely took a couple sips of the kozhe and then passed the nearly-full cup to the person sitting next to me. (There are rarely enough dishes, so only “honored” guests receive a serving. Luckily, nobody minds sharing a cup, and I never had any problem giving away my extra kozhe.) I was ready for the “honor” of kozhe this year, though. When I saw the jar come out, I quickly busied myself with taking lots of extra pictures of the children stuffing their faces, and so managed to avoid notice.
At other Nauryz parties, though, the kozhe comes out later, when the adults are gathered around the tables eating. Sometimes, all I had to do was avoid eye contact, and since the supply was limited and the demand was great, I prevented anyone from even offering me a cup. At one party, though, the jar of kozhe was huge, and the number of teachers sitting around the table smaller than normal. I was trying to decide if the half inch of orange juice remaining in the bottom of my cup was enough of an excuse, when I saw another teacher quickly polish her juice off and offer up her cup enthusiastically. Then, by a stroke of luck, the man sitting next to me offered me some Fanta. Eagerly I held out my glass. I couldn't possibly down an entire glass of Fanta to make way for kozhe. Thank goodness for limited dishes. I don't think the man realized that he was my savior, but I harbored a lot of gratitude to him getting me out of a possible disaster.
Well, I'm sure I could have taken a few polite sips. But at this point, I consider it a real triumph to have sampled all the pleasures of the Nauryz holiday...except the kozhe.