Milk


The Kazakhstan Tales: Milk

I heard a rumor last Thursday, a rumor of something new in Kazakhstan. (I feel like I should burst into song: Have you heard? There’s a rumor in Kazakhstan – Or not. Not enough syllables in “Kazakhstan” to take the place of “St. Petersburg.”)

Yes, there was a rumor. Well, more than a rumor because I actually saw the proof, yet I couldn’t believe it. It just seemed too fantastic to be true.

I decided that I needed to experience this anomaly for myself.

Sunday, I got my chance.

I had to go to the grocery store. Now, when I need to buy groceries, it’s because I literally have run out of food. I don’t keep a lot of food in my house. In fact, if I were to open my fridge now for all of you to see, there wouldn’t be much in it. Would you like to see?

The inside of my fridge. Yup.

That’s it. And that’s after a trip to the grocery store. What can I say? I’m single.

But that’s a different discussion.

Back to the original post.

So. I had to go to the grocery store.

I had planned to go to Ramstore at Mega, but by the time I got home after spending the day with my pal Pamela and some others, I decided I could make do with the Keremet store right beside my apartment. (That’s Keremet, not Kermit, although… You know what? I think I want to start calling it Kermit from now on. Think of what they could do with the logo and ads! But I digress. Again. Sorry).

After grabbing a few things (eggs, mainly. I’ve craved scrambled eggs lately.), I decided to see if The Fantastic Miracle was at this store. I was told that it was available at “American-style grocery stores,” but it was possible that even Kermit-Keremet would be keeping up.

I rounded a corner and found the dairy section.

And there it was.

Oh, dear readers, it’s wonderful. I both adore and fear this great change to my understanding of Kazakhstan.

We can now buy pasteurized milk.

Ta-da!

When my family first moved here in 1996, we had to make several adjustments as we acclimated to Kazakhstani normality. One such adjustment was milk. In America, we were used to purchasing our pasteurized milk in square, plastic gallon jugs. However, in Kazakhstan, things were a little more… retro.

Every morning, a milk truck would arrive in the neighborhood. A man would set up, and then, taking a deep breath, would sing out, “Молоко!” (moloko). Suddenly bathrobed housewives and babushkas would appear with brightly floral-decorated milk pails. They would line up, and the milkman would fill up each woman’s pail for a low price.

I think my family tried this a few times. There was just one problem – the milk wasn’t pasteurized which meant that before we could drink it, we had to boil it. We weren’t very good at it. I remember one snowy day I decided that we were going to have chocolate milk. My parents were away, and we three kids were watched over by Ria, our Russian nanny/housekeeper. I got out our milk and poured it into a pot on the stove, left it to boil, and came back to a thick scalded mixture.

I assume my parents decided that while buying our milk on the street might seem “cool” and “adventurous” and “Soviet,” it ultimately wasn’t as economical or convenient as buying long-life milk. That was Kazakhstan’s other option: ultra-high temperature processed milk (UHT milk) in small liter cartons. This milk was okay, but it had a funny taste to it, and I decided that I didn’t like it. For the rest of my time in Kazakhstan as a child and teenager, and even these past three years as an adult, this was the milk that I bought. If I had to.

1 liter of 1.5% UHT milk. They also sell 6% milk, but that's another story.

When I moved back to America, it was hard to get used to the milk. It just tasted too… I’m not sure what the right word would be. Probably “fresh” and “bacteria-free.”

I had one friend from high school who had been raised on the unpasteurized milk sold on the street. The practice of selling milk on the street has died out, but my friend lived outside the city where it was still common. She was an American ex-pat child, too, but had spent even less of her life in America than I. She told me once that she couldn’t drink American milk. It tasted “wrong.”

This was the Kazakhstan that I knew, so imagine my surprise when on Thursday one of my colleagues pulled a bottle of milk out of the fridge and showed it to me.

I had to find it myself.

When I saw it in the Kermit-Keremet store, I could hardly contain my excitement. I left the store as quickly as I could and hurried home, banging the bag containing the eggs I had bought into every door and wall I passed. (I don’t know why, but every time I buy eggs, I seem to be at my clumsiest. It’s very frustrating.)

I poured myself a glass and took a sip, savoring the experience. It tasted American.

The first glass.

2.5% American since that’s all they were selling, but that’s okay.

As a person who avoids milk (not just because of my crazy history with it but also because I think I’m slightly allergic to it), I’d say it was pretty darn good. So what if my sinuses are acting up now?

It makes me a little sad when I think about the changes I’ve seen in Almaty. Some changes are good, but some are hard to accept because just a bit of the magic of Kazakhstan diminishes. I never hear shouts of “moloko!” in the mornings. (Although I should note that in the summer I can still hear vendors selling “Сметана!” [smitana/sour cream] and vegetables, but it’s just not the same as “moloko.” “Smitana” doesn’t have the same almost yodel-like musical quality.)

There’s still something very retro about this newfangled pasteurized milk – the bottle. It’s as if the company wasn’t sure how to move forward.

I think that’s Kazakhstan in a nutshell – a little old mixed with a little new. It’s a country desperate to be progressive, yet it clutches just as desperately to the past. There’s so much nostalgia here that even dairy products are affected.

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