Learning food culture from housemates

Learning food culture from housemates

Sitting down for breakfast this morning in northern Kazakhstan, it’s quiet and overcast as shoppers hurry along the walkways to the nearby Eurasia shopping complex, passing spindly trees and rutted dirt yards torn up from construction. My housemate Bena* looks out the window, remarks on how karangi it is, the shy faded and grey.

“In my village we eat this all the time,” she says in Kazakh, pointing to the butter and bread on the table. “We spread butter on bread, every day. There’s nothing else, just bread and butter.”

“But in the city, I never eat it. Just Saturdays, Sundays, like today.” She slathers butter on another chunk of round storebought nan, and eats it while looking through the white and green gauze curtains at the nearby apartment buildings.

Traditional Kazakh food in a village

Bena moved to the capital from her village four or five years ago, after hopping around the major cities of Kazakhstan for work, but she still calls home every evening to talk to friends and relatives.

“I try not to eat bread… pasta, rice,” I frown passive-aggressively, nibbling on an almond. “Carbohydrates, we call it. It’s…”

“You don’t like it?” Bena asks, going to the stove to turn off the kettle.

“I like it,” I call over to her. “it’s just… densaulikka jaman. Bad for your health. All Americans think so.” I pick up a cashew and eat it from our tray: cashews, almonds, raisins, sweet rolls, sweet biscuits, candies, sugar wafers. There’s a perverse joy in offering up new stereotypes of Americans for her consumption, partially true and partially overstated.

“So you don’t eat breads?” Bena says, returning to the plastic-lace-covered table with a mug of pale tea in her hands.

Maybe she doesn’t realize that I’ve scarfed down most of her sugar wafers this morning, three pieces of nan with garlic butter, and a handful of cheap marshmallowy chocolates that I distinctly disenjoyed even while eating them. “Oh… sometimes I eat bread,” I say. “But I shouldn’t.”

“I like sweets,” Bena says. “Lots of sweets, candies, vafli.” She picks up a waffled suger-wafer and delicately bites into it.

“It’s better to eat fruit and nuts,” I say, thinking how surely slim Bena has nothing to fear from carbs.

“But nuts are mayliy,” she says, eyes wide. “They’re full of oil!”

“But they’re good oils!,” I protest, sure in my knowledge of good-foods/bad-foods from Shape and Newsweek and Reader’s Digest.


“Anyhow, you eat different.” Bena shrugs. “We Kazakhs don’t eat salat or vegetables. My mother won’t eat any greens,” she says, stirring her tea. “She wasn’t used to those foods when she was a child.” Bena doesn’t eat vegetables either.

“So what did she eat?” I say, sipping my french vanilla cappucino mixed from a powder.

“Meat, just meat. And sometimes broth and noodles,” Bena says. She tells me that her mother won’t consume any chicken, or fish, or any sort of herbs and spices.

“But most Kazakhs will eat lots of bread,” she returns to my earlier thought. “Bread with pasta, or bread with beshbarmak noodles, bread with rice..”

Bena purses her lips. “I don’t eat this way, but bread with potatoes is ok… or bread with soup, just a little bit.”


Keeping house with a new roommate is always a challenge, but even more when there are different cultural perceptions at work. In America, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was vegan or raw-foods, if they were Atkins or gluten-free. Or even if they were a bacon-eating vegetarian, or — like me — knew the basic fact that processed carbs=evil but enjoyed french toast and muffins for breakfast anyway.

So it’s not the choices here that startle me, as much as the assumptions about which foods are right and which are wrong. Nuts are oily but slathering storebought butter on bread is traditional? I’m thinking. Fresh bread is bad but sweetened coffee powder from a Singapore factory is good? she’s probably thinking.


And when I suggest curry spices, red pepper, and some local greens to add flavor, Bena shakes her head. She generously continues to serve up pasta fried in oil, sometimes floating with dill and salt.

So right now I’m full of sugar-wafers and feeling a bit cross and culture-shocked. But I’ve got pleasant dreams of caliente TexMex enchiladas, my mother’s rich spinachy Oyako-Domburi and light-heavy Huevos con Arroz, or of bright tangy broccoli salad with a yogurt and bacon sauce.

It’s also made easier when I remember that I’m just a visitor here. This breadful way of living is temporary. But eating like this with Bena reminds me of all the people adjusting to a cross-cultural marriage. I can’t imagine being in a lifetime relationship with a house full of unflavored pasta & bread eaters!

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