Thursday, March 3, 2016

Tea in Kazakhstan

originally published on the TChing tea blog site:

An online contact mentioned plans to visit Kazakhstan--not about tea--and it sounded interesting to do research related to an unknown country, removed from even the vague hearsay one might catch about a country like Turkey.  Some hearsay about tea in Turkey:  they drink typical black tea there, not so different than Assam or Ceylon, brewed strong, taken with sugar but no milk.  But that's only what I've been told by a couple of people there.

I've researched local tea culture in preparation for trips to Korea, Japan, and Indonesia in the last year--with mixed results--and the review process itself was interesting.  In addition to tea background I ran across some interesting tangents in those searches, like finding a traditional medicine / herb market in Seoul, where I did find green tea, just not the quality level I was hoping to find.

Central Asia Ethnic groups,

Background / what to see in Kazakhstan:

Trip Advisor contributes a good initial summary:

The world’s ninth-biggest country is the most economically advanced of the ‘stans’, thanks to its abundant reserves of oil and most other valuable minerals. This means generally better standards of accommodation, restaurants and transport than elsewhere in Central Asia. The biggest city, Almaty, is almost reminiscent of Europe with its leafy avenues, chic cafes, glossy shopping centres and hedonistic nightlife. The capital Astana, on the windswept northern steppe, has been transformed into a 21st-century showpiece with a profusion of bold futuristic architecture.

Moving their capital city from Almaty to Astana essentially related to building a new city from the ground up.  This planned-city capital theme comes up in Australia and Malaysia, related to Canberra and Putrajaya, or for that matter also in Washington DC.  The same happened here in Thailand, just awhile back, with modern planning results thrown off by replacing a canal system with roads.

Wikipedia covers the general level of background detail well, explaining that 63% of the 17+ million people are ethnically Kazakh, 70 % are Muslim, and so on.  Due to Soviet influence--from being a part of USSR--use of their original language has been joined by Russian.  Of course not that many people are still living in yurts (nomadic culture tents), with current housing options separated by price and style, from Soviet era apartments on the low end to condos and houses beyond that.

No dedicated tea shops turn up as Trip Advisor reviews, so apparently the tea cafe scene isn't much yet.

Astana, the planned city work-in-progress capital (attribution, Wikipedia)

Russian / Soviet tea history:

Prior to Soviet inclusion (as part of USSR) related to a nomadic culture, the tea history was probably not unlike Mongolia, especially since they were conquered by Mongolia at one point.  Russian tea history initially related to close ties with China, not just during that brief communist common-ground phase but well prior, but the Eastern-bloc fall-out Soviet countries and cultures switched completely over to black teas from other places, essentially where they stand today.  Here is more on Russian tea history cited from an interesting Tea Tips site related reference:

In 1567, Cossack atamans (chieftains), Petrov and Yalyshev, visited China, where they tried a local drink — tea. In 1638, an ambassador, Vasily Starkov, brought a present to the Russian Tsar from one of the Mongol khans — 64 kg of tea.

So far so good.  Those may be the same teas we order from China today, some maybe not, seems likely less black teas in that time period, but to jump ahead:

In 1970, for the first time in several centuries, the supplies of tea from China were cut off — due to political discrepancy between the two countries. Soviet tea industry could not meet the demand in full — the USSR began to import tea from India and Sri-Lanka. Our citizens appreciated Indian and Ceylon teas, and they forgot Chinese teas very quickly — nowadays, the share of Chinese teas in the Russian tea market is hardly higher than 5%.

a very nice yurt (attribution:

Kazakhstan traditional  butter tea

Here is one rather vague reference to Kazakh specific tea history:

Regional drinks: Kazakh tea or chai is very popular and there are national cafes called Chai-Khana (tea-rooms) where visitors may sip this Kazakh speciality. It is drunk very strong with cream. 

Of course since chai just means tea in some languages--"cha" instead in Thai--this doesn't clarify if anything was mixed with it, as with masala chai, the tea and ginger and various spices blend from India.

One site passes on a recipe for traditional Kazakh tea that includes black tea, salt, and butter, with optional inclusion of pepper or sour cream (!?).  A Wikipedia article for a related Mongolian tea describes that as made with either black or green tea, butter, and salt.  The tea type naming included "Suutei tsai (Mongolian: сүүтэй цай, Turkish: sütlü çay) (literally "tea with milk")," and the cross-referenced naming for Mongolian tea (tsai in Mongolian; shay in Kazakh).

So adding butter and salt to tea covers the general idea.  That also included an unusual reference to tea grade and storage:

The tea that the Mongolians use for suutei tsai commonly comes from a block. The block consists of a lower quality of tea that is made up of stems or inferior tea leaves and is compressed into a block that can be easily stored.

Tea production:

The standard Google-results take is that they don't produce tea in Kazakhstan.  Someone on an expat-themed forum mentioned that her grandmother grew tea in the South of the country, so given that is correct it is possible.  It's far too cold in most of the country for tea plants to thrive but of course tea production is tied to micro-climate conditions, not general averages, so South Korea can grow tea even though the national average winter temperatures would kill tea plants.

If online review doesn't work how would we really know if they do produce tea there, or not, or in what very limited quantity?  Not easy to say.  One could take a look at annual tea industry production summary records (like this report) and the lack of any mention would confirm production is negligible at most, but that's a bit unsatisfying.  The right person living there would know, just not so easy to reach them.

I'm reminded of an online tea-group discussion about Mexican tea production, related to a discussion comment that no tea is grown there.  I checked on that by asking a tea shop in Mexico City, listed in Facebook, and as far as they knew absolutely none is grown there.  One of my Facebook contacts grows a few tea plants in Mexico, so the total isn't zero plants, but probably on the low side.

Modern tea consumption:

Too easy a question for Google, here is one good reference that's close enough to complete and accurate for this review:

Kazakhstan is steadily increasing its import of tea, which reached 32,000 tons worth $147 million in 2013 alone...  On average, tea import is worth $100 million in Kazakhstan annually and it is growing...

Kazakhstan imports tea from more than 28 countries. India, Sri-Lanka, Russia, China, UAE and Keny are among the biggest suppliers. Other countries that supply the Kazakh market are the Netherlands, Czech Republic, France, Austria, Korea, Ukraine, Italy, Morocco, Armenia, Pakistan, Iran, Germany, Indonesia, Poland and Georgia. 

The Kazakhstanis prefer various kinds of black tea to green tea. Almost 90% of the tea imported to Kazakhstan is black tea packaged in tea bags and placed in boxes weighing up to 3 kilograms. 

Tea bags!  It all sounded so reasonable up until that last part.  It could be that they mean sold to end consumers as tea bags, since it seems odd that high a percentage could arrive in packaged form, but either way they really need to check out some loose leaf tea, and branch out related to types.

It's hard to place how much tea they drink in relative terms from those totals, right?  Per one online reference their consumption is # 10 in the world, reported in 2014.  Per another online reference they're not even included, again reported in early 2014.  Given that the rough numbers seem to say they drink about 3.5 pounds of tea per person annually, and Russia is on that second reference list for 3.05 pounds per person, so the results seem to have been combined.  The rest of those findings are interesting for being so inconsistent, but as a baseline England is somewhere in the top five consuming 4 to 6 pounds of tea per person annually (more research would pin down better numbers).

about the same size as Eastern Europe

What about local trends, the latest changes, for example did they ever take up matcha, or bubble tea?  It's back to the idea of going past a Google search, actually asking people there.

Social networking research:

Tea groups on Facebook:  It really doesn't help that English isn't one of the primary languages, so there is a limit to how well it could possibly work out.  I found groups related to Kazakhstan, like this one, but nothing tea related, and discussion of tea didn't get far (even worse than the Tea Chat forum).  There is a tea shop page on Facebook, Tea Masters of Kazakhstan, and a link to their website, but non-Russian-speakers would need a translate function to read it.  That vendor does sell Chinese teas, and teaware and tea-pets, etc., so some of that common take goes on there.

Expat groups / "Interpals" site:  since I'm an expat these types of channels are familiar, so I tried searching through a few such sites (,, and also  The advantage to these is that English use is more likely; the disadvantage is that such sub-forums tend to be quiet places.

I talked to some very kind people that really didn't have much to say about tea, except that they drank a good bit of it, generally not loose tea though.  One expat from Nepal mentioned that tea from that country is available there, although I'd expect one might need to mail-order to access better versions of it.  Another contact mentioned a native tradition of offering tea to all guests, with a convention that one keeps refilling cups to half full.  One person offered some interesting input that I'll quote:

...some (not many though) drink black tea with milk and onion(!) . The black tea with milk and salt is called "atkanchai" which is in Uigur language. Never heard of a Kazakh term for the tea; I guess it originated with Uigurs (one of many nationalities living in KZ). 

My general impression was that the most traditional lifestyles and practices, the yurts and such, are consigned to a distant past, along with even basic awareness of butter teas.  Related to their history, it probably doesn't help that I'm limited to talking with people that are using English and social media, the opposite of groups likely to be most in touch with that earlier culture.  It seems that better quality loose teas never did find an audience there, now or in the past, so that almost all tea consumed is ordinary mass produced black tea.

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