mutton recipe

Preparing the sheep head


Cooking up some sheep for dinner is one of the things that Kyrgyz do best. I would say mutton, but really it’s just sheep. A big pot of sheep. You get used to it after a while, and it even starts to taste pretty good. I especially enjoy it when the power goes out and we’re eating in the dark.

Today we’re looking specifically at the sheep head (and legs). This is shortly after the cutting-the-head-off step which I thought I would spare all of you, and immediately following the neighbor-who-came-over-and-sliced-off-a-little-bit-of-the-raw-head-fat-for-tasting-to-see-if-it-was-any-good step. (I’m not entirely sure that one is standard.)

Yes, it’s a bit gruesome, but that’s what makes it fun, right? …right?

This is step one. Maksat took a break from lighting a fire inside of a bottomless, upturned bucket to snap this photo. The bucket acts as a kind of a makeshift blowtorch. Firing sessions are swapped in and out for the scraping of the burnt hair off the skin with a knife. After the firing comes the boiling.


Here Maksat is preparing the “torch.”


We had to keep yelling “white rabbit!” and hopping around the fire to keep out of the smoke of the shifting winds.


The head’s getting pretty close to done, but there’s still some scraping to do on the legs.


Now for some serious scrubbing with a rag and hot water. I think I might need to brush his teeth too. Next step, the boiling pot.


Fear the chupacabra

“Makal” in the Kyrgyz language means “proverb.” Kyrgyz is full of wonderful and puzzling little proverbs – some that match common proverbs often heard in English and some that are real head scratchers. Most Mondays I’ll post one of the more fun ones for you. Let’s see if we can’t make some of these commonplace in America by the time I get back!

Saktykta korduk jok

Сактыкта көрдүк жок

“With care and precaution, there’s no asking around”

I’m still a little fuzzy on the translation of this one. For some reason it takes about 30 words to explain a Kyrgyz proverb in Kyrgyz and even more in English. But it goes something like this: when care and precaution is taken, one doesn’t need to go beg for things lost through folly.

I’ve been getting a steady stream of Kyrgyz from my new host dad, and lucky for me I have someone so willing to explain. He’s the master of quoting proverbs, always pulling me aside to say, “Baatyrbek—(my Kyrgyz name)—in Kyrgyz we have this proverb…” My ata is 66 years old this year and still works as an ear/nose/throat doctor at the local hospital as well as working several hours a day in his garden. We have rose bushes, garlic, carrots, cabbage, and rows upon rows of potatoes. He keeps a small chicken coop that provides our eggs and six sheep—wait, only five after this evening’s party—and checks the upkeep on the property. He’s a man who has saved all his life and built a household on those savings.

The number of sheep in our yard dwindles as we host parties. But those losses are of our own volition. What ata doesn’t want is to lose one of his sheep to the chupacabra.

Yes world, our little slice of Kyrgyzstan has a chupacabra. “Imported from Mexico,” some say. “Planted by the Americans,” say others. “A half wolf—half dog turned vampire,” say the more outrageous of the bunch. Pictures and video of sheep, dead as a doorknob and white as a sheet, have been featured on the national news. And animals continue to die.

IMG_5331Taxidermic finds in a local museum in Kochkor—my chupacabra vote is for the guy on the bottom right

It’s not the fact that farm animals are getting picked off. That’s an expected part of a life lived on the edge of the wild. It’s the manner of their deaths that’s so strange. Whatever is killing them only sucks the blood. The meat is left on the animal, ashen grey from the absence of the red stuff pumping through its veins.

What it could be is anyone’s guess—or tall tale. Like any good mythological beast, no one can manage to snap a photo. It’s always too fast. Some have claimed to have seen it: a grey/brown, fury/hairy, dog/cat like animal disappearing through a doorway, around a bend, and into thin air.

It’s 11:00pm. Our guests have just left for the night. My ata grabs a flash light, slips into a pair of flip-flops and shuffles outside. He’s a man who has saved, reared, worked and invested. His home is well maintained and his family is well cared for. “Out to lock up the sheep for the night,” he says, “The chupacabra is on the prowl.” Suddenly he pauses, puts a hand on my arm and pulls me close: “In Kyrgyz we have this proverb…” The way ata works, he won’t be asking around any time soon.