The Taste of Place and the Nature of Trust: Zhailau Foods in Post-Socialist Kazakhstan
In contemporary Kazakhstan, as among other industrial and post-industrial societies, ideas surrounding rurally-sourced foods extend beyond questions of urban-industrial hygiene or quality control, and point more powerfully to the perceived moralities instilled in foods sourced from different places. These places may be concrete geographic locales, or as I argue here, more abstract rural idylls—nevertheless, in either sense, they are felt to imbue food with valuable indigenous nature-cultures otherwise lacking in everyday urban life. Here, I focus specifically on Almaty city dwellers’ use of the termzhailau to describe rurally-sourced craft and heritage foods in urban Kazakhstan. Referring to alpine pastureland and the movement of Kazakh mobile pastoralists from winter village to summer grazing grounds, zhailau often alludes to themes surrounding authenticity, cultural sovereignty, place and place-making in contemporary Kazakhstan. This paper builds upon four months of participant observation and semi-structured interviews in Almaty and surrounding suburbs, analyzing the experiences of individuals living in and strongly identifying with a cosmopolitan hub, yet actively engaged with rural spaces and livelihoods. Zhailau foods, I argue, embody a sense of inalienability and community felt to be missing from commercially produced or imported counterparts, and serve as comestible vehicles of rural, primordial nature-cultures amidst the formative powers of Soviet socialism and contemporary transnationalism.
Bio: Julia McLean is a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. With a specialization in Kazakhstan and Turkic Central Asia, her research interests include food, agriculture, ethics and morality, sensory geographies, and shifting consumption patterns. Present fieldwork addresses questions of national representation, heritage politics, internal migration and youth perspectives on projects of modernity in urbanizing Kazakhstan. Julia McLean was affiliated with NU as a visiting scholar in Summer 2017.