Until I read the news last week, I had assumed that the only time I had eaten horsemeat was on a visit to Kazakhstan a couple of years ago. Now, however, I know that every time I've chowed down on a Tesco beefburger I was going equine. That's why I'm a Waitrose man. If it were stuffing its beefburgers with anything but beef, it would be unicorn and zebra.
It was on my first day in Almaty that I became aware of the Kazakh love for horsemeat. Wandering around the city that is supposed to have first brought apples to the world I came across The Green Bazaar, a large covered market. Rather helpfully, the traders sold their wares in sections that had enormous drawings of whatever animal they sold hanging above them. There was the cow section, the sheep section, the goat section … and a drawing of a rather beautiful horse hung above the largest group of tables. On closer inspection, there seemed to be very little parts of the horse that the Kazakh palate did not desire. Particularly unsavoury were the horse tongues that hung, lifeless and fatty over the dirty wooden tables. Personally, I had no particular ethical problem with eating horse – I had eaten dog (or "sweet meat" as they insisted on calling it) in North Korea, and I once ate at a restaurant that specialised solely in donkey meat in the suburbs of Beijing. I just like to know what I'm eating beforehand so that I can make an informed choice.
That first evening, my host took me to a famous Almaty restaurant. It was one of those places that seemed a touch tacky, with local dancers and musicians, and I worried that it might be a tourist trap – until I remembered that there really weren't any tourists around, so this was definitely what the Kazakhs did to chill out. I let my host order and we had some rather good local wine before any food arrived. This was a good thing because first up was boiled kazy ("horsemeat with spicery in coat", the menu explained helpfully).
The waiter quickly returned with "warm horsemeat dainties" as a chaser. I stared at the hunks of über-fatty meat that were placed delicately on something that looked like cartilage. I forked a piece of gristle and stuck it gingerly into my mouth. A wave of nausea hit me and I tried to swallow while smiling – an impossible task. I could feel my body going into lockdown, battening down the hatches and getting ready to repel all foreign invaders. This was when the kumis appeared.
Kumis is mare's milk, and a local delicacy. Like all local delicacies it was rumoured to be an aphrodisiac and to cure tuberculosis. I didn't have tuberculosis and was not in a frisky mood. I just wanted to get out of this place without vomiting over my hosts. The table raised their glasses of kumis and I did the same. They knocked it back and I sipped it. It was like warm sick. I made my excuses, fled to the bathroom and sat in there for 20 minutes, seriously considering escaping through the small window above me.
At a moment like that, the idea of a Tesco beefburger would have been rather pleasant.
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