An interesting aspect about the Kazakh dining etiquette is its affinity with both the Eastern (Oriental) and Western cultures. It has been hugely influenced by eating habits and table manners from both the East, such as eating with one’s hands and placing all the food on one plate, and the West, such as using a set of cutlery and dining plates for various kinds of food.
“Our culture is mainly influenced by the traditional Arabic and Oriental background, and out of hospitality, we tend to prepare a variety of dishes and refill the guest’s plate,” says Meiirzhan Omarov, a student from Kazakhstan, living in Dubai.
There are some customs that are typically observed. “We have to take our shoes off before heading [into the house] and we usually dine at the dining table where the guest sits away from the door out of politeness. The father or the elderly in the family sit at the head of the table. The men are seated according to their age and followed by the women, with the hostess sitting close to the host. Children under 12 sit separately to prevent any fuss at the table,” Omarov explains.
It is discourteous for the guest to help with the table set-up,” he said.
“In my family, out of respect, we always abide by our set of dining rules, such as waiting for everyone to join, be seated and then start eating together.”
Guests, he says, should take cue from the host and the surrounding environment on how to conduct themselves. “They should wait for everyone to finish eating and only then leave the dining table.”
According to Omarov, women cook national Kazakh dishes as a sign of hospitality and place the food on the table. “Horse or camel milk are always part of our regular drinks with meals,” he says.
“There are times where we sit on the floor, share one big plate and eat with our hands. A typical dish would be the bebarmaq — a dish made of horse meat, potato, onion, flour, and spices, which you eat with your fingers. Guests are expected to use their hands while eating this dish.”
When it comes to serving, the food is often served per course, so the starter and the salad would naturally precede the main course.
In terms of the serving of food, the youngest male family member aged 16 or above serves the male guest first, the elder men next followed by the women. Usually soup is offered first, followed by the main course and finally, the dessert. If the guest wants more food, and if it’s close to them, they can help themselves, said Omarov.
The youngest male house help in the home removes the soup bowls and then places other food plates. He then sits and eats with us at the table, while serving everyone at the same time, says Omarov. “Everyone has to wait in places and have tea until the father finishes eating and perform prayers thanking God for the food.
“We always recite verses from the Quran before and after having our meal, thanking God for the food he gave us.”
It is also a norm to strike up insightful conversations around the table, said Omarov.
Omarov has many friends from Russia in the UAE, who, he says, follow a totally different dining etiquette culture compared to his. On the other hand, “when it comes to my Azerbaijani friends — who have very similar aspects of culture — we share many common rituals.”