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Stories from the Field, pt. 3: The Sacrifice

December 16, 2010

The horse had been hobbled and heaved onto the ground, where it lay snorting its last breaths. In Kyrgyz culture, there is an unusually strong bond with this animal. It features prominently in poetry and love songs, mythology and memories. The creature is their connection to their nomadic past, when a man measured his wealth by his horses and rode them from pasture to pasture. Yet despite this national love affair, it is not an uncommon find on the dinner menu. To the Kyrgyz, it is a simple matter of survival. “We live in the mountains,” they often remind you. “It is a harsh life. If we don’t eat a lot of meat, we will die.” So the men gathered around their sacrifice and said a prayer and then slowly cut the head off the horse.

The animal took an uncomfortably long time to die, before the knife reached the spine and snapped its nervous system in half. When it had stopped moving, the men dismantled the body, systematically and slowly. The hide was torn away and kept under the horse like a placemat, while the meat was chopped up into cuts of convenient size and thrown into a bowl. It was the women who handled the innards. They would make sausage casing with the intestines, so they squeezed the shit out of it and poured water through the tubes with a hot kettle. I tried imagining a western woman handling such a job with as much grace but found it impossible. The men, too, were not squeamish about slicing up an animal, coating their hands in blood. It was the means to an end, a meal for a man they respected.

It was easily the most gruesome thing I have ever witnessed. I watched a man peel the face right off the horse so that they could eat its cheek meat, and a woman scrape larval worms out of its stomach so they could slice it up for cooking. I kept a straight face, just to fit in. Everybody looked on dispassionately, thinking more of the feast ahead than the organs strewn about them. Is disgust a cultural variable? I am absolutely certain that people from back home will be uncomfortable reading about this. Yet in Kyrgyz culture, that discomfort had been set aside for the sake of practicality. Their nomadic ancestors couldn’t wait around to watch vegetables sprout. They moved with their animals and their animals gave them their meat and milk. It was all they could do to stay alive. There was sentimentality, sure, for the horses they rode to and fro.  But that all ended at the point of the knife. Dinner was served.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2010 9:37 am

    Love the photograph! I never saw a horse slaughtered, although I did see the exact same process you describe (including women squeezing shit out of intestines) with both goats and sheep…

  2. Mitchell permalink
    December 23, 2010 7:25 am

    Great story, I love butchery. What was the most prized part of the horse?

    • December 23, 2010 12:12 pm

      I wasn’t sure so I asked my assistant Abay and he didn’t know, so he called up his friend who is from that area. Unlike sheep or chicken, where different parts are prized by different people (the ears go to the children, eyes to the old people, etc.), horse is shared by all. The most favorite parts aren’t the meat but the organs. The karta, or intestines, is popular, and is used to make sausage by stuffing it with meat and fat. The sausage is called chuchuk. Kazy, or stomach, is also a fav.


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