13 March 2013

Shopping in Kazakh Supermarkets

Earlier this week I was speaking with a new arrival here in Astana.  He was telling me how confusing he found the supermarkets and how long it had taken him to get everything he wanted.  This started me thinking about how I get around things like shopping when I come to a new posting.

I find that I get used to whatever is available in my last home and fall into a way of shopping and eating that works well with what is available in the shops there.  My basic shop in the UK is subtly different to one I would do in the Netherlands for example.  Moving to a new country presents a challenge – not everything I want will be available and I have not yet got my head around the cost of living.  Add to that not speaking the language and even naming something can be interesting. 

Kazakhstan threw up a new challenge for me – it is the first time I have lived somewhere with a different alphabet.  For various reasons I did not have time to learn much Russian before I came out so the Cyrillic alphabet was very strange to me.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that there are two languages spoken here – Russian and Kazakh.  Kazakh is written in modified Cyrillic so until you can tell the difference you are not even sure which language you are reading. 

My usual trick when I go somewhere new is to prepare a basic shopping list with translations so I can get at least the staples into the house.  This time we were taken to the supermarket straight after waking up on our first day.  It was a very kind and well meant offer but unfortunately it also meant that I had no time to prepare a list or even to grab a dictionary from the suitcase.  

Supermarkets here are well stocked with everything we could need so  I was just about ok - meat is meat, juice is juice wherever you are in the world.  I was a little apprehensive about buying horsemeat by mistake but it turns out that it is quite distinctive and most meat is labeled with pictures of the relevant animal.

The real confusion started when I came to the dairy section of the supermarket.  Kazakh supermarkets have a bewildering dairy offering.  Most comes in a range of fat percentages - you don't buy semi skimmed milk you buy 2.5% milk.  The milk that comes in cartons tends to be longlife and fairly unpleasant, you can buy it fresh but it comes in bags to decant into a jug rather than in a carton.  In the UK you can buy one type of sour cream - here the supermarkets stock at least 3 different types.  

Smetana - Kazakhstan
Sour cream - it comes in more variants than you could possibly imagine.
Milk in comes in bags rather than cartons
I spent a good 5 minutes trying to make head or tail of this confusion but I was not very successful.  My first error was to mistake Kumiss (Кумыс) for Milk (Молоко) just because it comes in milk cartons. Kumiss is a sort of fermented milk/yogurt perfect for making yogurt based doughs but it is an acquired taste and the children were not at all pleased to find it on their cereal. It was a stupid mistake because  Молоко looks so like milk but I was tired and on autopilot.  I have since heard from a number of people that they made the same mistake.    Still this is part of a long tradition of family mistakes - when we moved to Norway my mother misread a label and bought whale meat instead of beef. 

Kefir in Kazakh supermarkets
Kefir is not milk - and it is not a pleasant mistake to make
Strangely enough for a long time it was almost impossible to buy natural yogurt.  All the yogurt available came pre-flavoured, fine if you want to eat it, not so good for cooking.  Kumiss is a good substitute but in recent months live culture natural yogurt has been in all the shops.

There are some other strange differences to get used to.  Tomato ketchup and mayonnaise are very popular but it took me some time to find them.  I was looking for jars but here in Kazakhstan it is sold in squeezy pouches, they are actually much easier to use and store and it will be quite a change to go back to using jars when we move.

MAyonnaise from a kazakh supermarket
Butter was also a difficult staple to locate - I looked in all the chiller cabinets but finally had to give in and ask for help.  It is stored in the freezer section rather than in the refrigerators.  Another slight annoyance is that it tends to come in 200g blocks instead of 250g.  I never weigh butter - I measure it by eye and it took me a little while to adjust.  Eggs are  found in packs of 10 rather than 12 and are kept in the refrigerators, my housekeeper thinks I am very strange for keeping my eggs out on the counter rather than in the fridge.

It can be difficult to explain how to find items, a few months ago I was back in Europe and my husband called me from the supermaket asking me what the washing liquid looked like.  We had run out but he could not tell what bottles held the washing liquid and what bottles held the fabric softener.  I had managed to work this out when we arrived because I recognised a brand name otherwise it would have been a process of trial and error.  In the end he plumped for a washing powder instead just to be certain he was getting the right  product.

Before I worked out the brand names and labels I made a number of mistakes buying tomato puree instead of passata.  The puree is sold in jars here instead of tubes. This has another long pedigree in our family.  Years ago we bought what we thought was tomato puree from a Nigerian supermarket.  The name 'Tomapep' should have given it away - it was a hot sauce rather than a puree - we all had a bit of a shock when we ate our food that evening.

In the winter it can be difficult to get fresh vegetables, our local supermarket has a particularly limited selection but the bazaar is pretty good even in the depths of the cold.  Herbs are like gold dust and very expensive during the colder months so I freeze them in the autumn and then use them as necessary.  I also keep a pot of windowsill herbs for basil and rocket because I like them very fresh.

My favorite aspect of shopping in Kazakhstan is the wide range of juice available.  In most places we have lived (other than Turkey) the range of juice tends to be limited but here we can enjoy Sea Buckthorn, Rasberry, Cherry, Rosehip, Peach, Apricot and many many others.

Juice comes in lots of flavours
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat


  1. I too bought kefir instead of milk first time round in a Russian speaking country. Another interesting dairy product is tvorog, which I've come to rather like: like fromage frais in flavoured yoghurt pots or ricotta if plain. In Belarus, they sold tvorog chocolate covered and with jam in the middle - like a cheesy cake.

    Thank you for all the helpful tips - I think newcomers will find this very useful. You are right that the mayo/tomato sauce in bags is quite handy.

  2. Hi! Great blog!
    I'm moving to Kostanay in August. How do you think a vegan will fair in Kazakhstan? Here in Armenia I mostly stick to veggies and whole grains.
    Are things like buckwheat, bulgur, lentils, and chickpeas readily available on the shelves?
    How about nuts?
    Thanks for the info!

    1. Hello - glad you are enjoying the Blog and hope you enjoy your time in Kostanay.

      I would imagine that you would struggle to find suitable vegan food in restaurants, Kazakh food is typically meat based- lots of mutton and horse and lots of dairy products. You should be ok cooking your own.

      Buckwheat, couscous, bulgar, lentils, split peas etc are readily available in the supermarkets. Chickpeas can be difficult to source - they can usually be bought at the bazaar, the Astana supermarkets have them from time to time but I am not sure about Kostanay. They are dried not tinned so need a lot of soaking. Nuts and dried fruits are very popular and easily available.

      Fresh fruits and vegetable are plentiful and tasty over the summer. The supermarkets can carry a slightly limited supply over the winter. Most things can be bought frozen or in jars but if you get to know a good grocers at a bazaar or specialist shop they can normally see you through with fresh produce (potatoes, carrots, pumpkins and cabbages are common winter fare).

      If you want salads in the winter your best bet is to grow your own cut and come again.

    2. Thanks for the info! I'm very much looking forward to the move to Kazakhstan.
      I actually became a vegan here in Armenia, at the urging of some of my coworkers. I do a whole lot of soaking and cooking- it's very old school!
      Anyway, thanks again :)

  3. Hi there
    I am enjoying getting to know Astana through your blog as my son will be moving there in a month with his dog, Angel. I noticed the great coat and booties that your dog was wearing. Did you buy them in Astana? Good luck with your new adventure in Mira!

    1. Hi there - good luck for your son's move. Astana is a great place to live. Our british dog did find life challenging and hated the winter. We bought her coat in the UK and the booties from Amazon (pawz). The booties were particularly good as they were flexible enough to allow her to grip and she did not try to take them off as she did some more padded versions. They come in packs on 12 and are disposable but reusable. You can also buy paw wax on Amazon if the dog really hates booties.

      You can get winter coats for pets in Astana but the selection tends to be for smaller pets only. When choosing a coat I would recommend one with chest protection, you can buy fleece jumpers for dogs and put a coat on over the top if you cannot find one with a chest cover.

  4. Also, will he be able to find an apt./house/condo with a yard for Angel?

    1. Most buildings will have a yard (dvor) but this is usually a place for children to play and it is not appropriate to allow the dogs to relieve themselves there, most apartments will have some rough ground or a grassy area on the street nearby that can be used for this purpose if you pick up afterwards. Some dogs just use litter trays on the balcony in the winter time (not something we allowed).

      Many kazakhs are apprehensive of dogs, particularly larger ones. That said over the years the kids in our building got used to our dogs and played with them beautifully but this took three years.

      Our UK dog refused to stay out longer than a few minutes in the depths of winter and would have loved to be allowed to become an 'indoor dog'. Our Kazakh girl seemed immune to even the coldest temperatures and was happy running through snowdrifts for ages at a time.

      Astana is a city of parks and it is easy to find a flat near a park (we lived opposite the Arai park) or close to the river. Dogs should not be off the lead unless the park is empty.

      If your son needs a vet try Zoosfera at 1 Petrova near the war memorial. They are very good and extremely friendly. Take a translator if your Russian is not up to medical discussions. The best pet shop is in the basement car park of the Khan Shatyr, the blond lady who runs it is endlessly cheerful and helpful. She stocks a good range of toys, grooming products, leads and in date Royal Canin food.

  5. Great information. Thank you! My son will be playing for the Astana Basketball team. His dog is large but she is a sweetheart and she loves the snow! :)

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