Monday, September 2, 2013

In which a sheep is slaughtered “in my honor”

June 10, 2013

WARNING: This post contains graphic images of a sheep being slaughtered.

Altynbek was gone most of the day yesterday at some sort of political meeting two villages west of here. He returned around 6pm, at which point I was told that they would be slaughtering a sheep “in my honor.” Now I don’t know how often they slaughter sheep in this family, but given that we consume sheep two to three meals a day, this surely is a frequent occurrence. I suspect that the “in my honor” thing is just their way of being polite. Of course, other than when we slaughtered a sheep in honor of the birth of Jumabek’s granddaughter, I haven’t witnessed the slaughtering of any sheep, so who knows. Of course, I definitely had mixed feelings about being told that this particular sheep was being slaughtered specifically for me (whether that was the entire truth or not). I mean, I’m not a vegetarian, and I have been eating sheep essentially every day for the past month. And just a few days ago I watched the slaughter of one of Jumabek’s sheep without flinching… but being told that an animal is being killed specifically for you is rather disconcerting.

Altynbek led the sheep out of its enclosure and over to the area in the courtyard next to the yurt. He tied its feet together and then we stood in a row facing west to pray ‘omin.’ I silently prayed to the sheep: “Dear sheep, I’m sorry. I thank you for your sacrifice. I will try to enjoy eating you.” It’s somewhat disconcerting to watch how rapidly something goes from being alive to being… not. It’s something that – unless you’re a hunter or a farmer – most people back home rarely think about.

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The slaughtering and butchering process followed the exact same pattern as it had the previous time at Jumabek’s. This time I observed the whole slaughtering and butchering process from a much closer vantage point. It occurred to me that kids out here have a much better grasp of anatomy than kids back home. I remember in 10th grade when we dissected fetal pigs and struggled to locate the various internal organs. In contrast, kids here learn from a very young age how to locate and identify all of the various internal organs. And unlike me and my 10th grade companions, they do it without flinching.

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After the sheep was slaughtered and butchered we went into the big external kitchen located behind the house. It’s been there since the original house (not the new, two-story house they currently live in, but the older one next to it) was built. It is the place where all of the cooking is done. The “kitchen” inside the new house is a fairly sterile place with a hotplate and an electric tea kettle – no stove or running water. The real cooking is done out in the external kitchen, which contains several wood-burning stoves, and a large wooden table. (Underneath the wooden table is a ladder descending into a large, underground root-cellar.) It also had what appeared to be an inflated and dried large intestine hanging from the ceiling.

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First Altynbek lit the fire – filling the place with smoke – then he placed the portions of the sheep that we were going to consume in a vat above the fire where they began to boil. The remaining cuts of meat and various internal organs were brought inside and spread out on the large wooden table.

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Rakhat began chopping the liver and several other unidentifiable (at least to me) internal organs, which she then mixed with rice, salt, pepper, and a smidgeon of flour. She then took the dried large intestine (yes, that’s what it was) down from the ceiling. Apparently the large intestine is soaked in brine for a week or two, then blown up and hung up to dry. This one was from the last sheep that they had slaughtered. The large intestine from “my” sheep was then placed in brine to soak. The dried intestine was rehydrated in water, and then filled with the rice-liver-innards mixture and tied shut. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is how you make sausage (or as Altynbek put it, “Kyrgyz Kielbasa”). The sausages, as well as the braided small intestines, were then thrown into the vat with the meat that was already cooking.

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Now that the weather has warmed up, all of the eating and tea drinking takes place in the yurt in the courtyard. I was told that the meat needed two hours to cook, so I brought my kindle into the yurt and curled up on a chair. (They’ve rigged a light from the tunduk – the opening at the top-center of the yurt – so it isn’t dark inside.) While I was inside reading, a man arrived. This is nothing new; guests pop in unexpectedly all the time. This guy, however, was actually expected.

He and Altynbek sat and chatted in Kyrgyz for some time before Altynbek went off to deal with sheep-cooking issues, at which point this fellow started talking to me. It turned out that he was the district prosecutor, as well as a distant cousin of Altynbek. They’d seen each other at whatever the regional meeting was where Altynbek had spent the bulk of his day, and Altynbek had invited him over to partake in the freshly killed sheep.

The prosecutor, whose name I promptly forgot, was an interesting fellow. He had spent some time in Cuba back in the day, and spoke basic Spanish, roughly on par with mine. We traded a few phrases back and forth in Spanish, then switched back to Russian. He had spent time in both St. Petersburg and Vladimir in Russia (both places where I have lived), so we discussed both cities, and what life was like there, and how that contrasted to life in both Kyrgyzstan and the US. We also talked about some of the more current problems throughout European Russia, such as the racism against Central Asian minorities. He was a tad nostalgic for the former Soviet Union. He wasn’t one of those who glorified the FSU with memories beginning with ‘когда был Советский Союз…” but he did say that before the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone seemed to get along: Muscovites and Central Asians, Kyrgyz and Uzbek, etc., and he could travel throughout the Soviet Union without fear of racism, unlike today. He also said that while the transfer from communism to capitalism was extremely difficult for Kyrgyzstan, things were finally starting to get better.

At this point, the food – and the booze – was brought out. Booze. Goddamn. Rakhat and Altynbek don’t drink, meaning that this bottle was destined for me and the prosecutor. Luckily he was a bit of a lightweight; he had trouble keeping his eyes open after three shots, and by the fourth he looked as though he might pass out right there at the table. At that point, Rakhat put the bottle away. For people who don’t drink, Rakhat and Altynbek seem to take a lot of joy in getting other people intoxicated! Luckily four shots amounted to less than half of what I’d consumed with Jumabek so I, unlike my prosecutorial drinking partner, was not too terribly inebriated. But let’s get back to the sheep.

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The beshbarmak came out as a giant plat filled with meat-covered bones. The meat was perfectly cooked so that the flesh simply melted off the bone. As tired of sheep as I have become, I actually found this to be quite tasty. The meat was also accompanied by bowls of hot, greasy sheep-bullion for each of us, and I was actually able to drink half of mine. (And I didn’t even drop mine in my lap this time! Haha.)  The plate did not merely contain meat-covered bones, however; it also contained the two sausages and a variety of freshly cooked innards. I was able to avoid the straight-up innards, although I did eat a couple of pieces of sausage. The sections that consisted of liver and rice were pretty tasty. However, the sections that consisted of miscellaneous other sheep guts… well, let’s just say that my gag reflexes reacted strongly to the texture (although thankfully in a way that I was able to disguise).

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After we gnawed on the bones for a while, Rakhat cut the meat off the remaining bones and sliced it up into tiny pieces. She also did the same with some of the guts. This meat/guts mixture was then placed on a large plate, then topped with homemade pasta and a liberal dose of sheep-bullion. This was the meat-n-pasta portion of the beshbarmak, and my companions actually ate it with their hands as well. (Remember, beshbarmak translates as “five fingers” as this is a meal that is traditionally eaten with one’s hands.) The pasta was actually quite good, except for the few moments when my tongue realized it was touching guts. Sigh.

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