Make Tacos or Kill a Sheep?

Before reading this post please note that there are graphic photos below.  Also, slaughtering animals isn’t something most Americans experience first-hand; before commenting or judging please be sensitive to cultural differences.

We’ve learned quickly that in Kyrgyzstan that plans are a fluid thing.  One day in our first week here our mom said tomorrow we may make tacos.  This news was exciting to us as we’ve heard rumors that our family, well versed in English and American food, made tacos amongst other foods I’d begun to crave.  However later that evening our father said tomorrow I should kill a sheep and asked if I’d be afraid.  He then laughed as he often does, he likes to makes jokes.  But then he said ‘yes, I will get a sheep tonight.’  Now, these things here happen often.  Never quite sure what will happen when plans are made we’ve learned to just roll with it.  Sometimes people are joking, sometimes we misunderstand because we know so little Kyrgyz and sometimes I think they mean with all seriousness their words but somehow it’s just not important the next day.  Our questions were erased when that evening a young sheep was tied up outside our door.

 

Eric ties the sheeps legs
Eric ties the sheeps legs

The next morning, after a night of listening to the little guy baaaaaa, our grandma asked if we got any sleep.  ‘Don’t worry’ she said, ‘in one hour shhhhh’ and she motioned its throat would be slit.  Around 10am our father was in the shop sharpening a knife.  I still wasn’t sure if I was the one doing the killing or not.  Cardboard was laid out, bowls were brought over. The sheep was untied and led to the front of the garage.  All of a sudden Nurlan (our father) was yelling at me in a mix of Kyrgyz and English to get something.  I grabbed the knife thinking this was my time which entertained him.  Silly me, first you need to grab the rope and tie the sheep’s legs together so it’s easier to handle.  He then yelled at me to grab something else, again I grabbed the knife, this was the time.  Nope, wrong again, I was supposed to grab the bowl.  He pointed where to hold it and with two quick motions he stabbed the knife into the side of the sheep’s neck and brought it forward, severing everything in front of the spine.

Nurlan Baike slits the throat while Eric catches the blood
Nurlan Baike slits the throat while Eric catches the blood

At this point we waited.  Blood poured out the neck.  From what I could tell, it died quickly but there were spasms for a few minutes from leftover electrical activity.  I wasn’t sure how I would react to watching the death of an animal this close, I had all night to think about it.  I didn’t think it would bother me very much.  Being a meat eater (meat lover) it would be hypocritical of me to judge the slaughter but I didn’t know if it would be hard to watch.  But watching the whole event, participating, it felt clinical.  I’ve heard watching a horse being slaughtered is hard to watch but with the sheep it just seemed interesting.  It had to be better than how animals are treated in the huge factory farms, it enjoyed an open range life before this.  Its death was so quick and I knew every part (nearly) was about to be used for something.

Separating the skin from the body by punching and pulling
Separating the skin from the body by punching and pulling

The next ten minutes was the expert and well-practiced dissection of the sheep by Nurlan.  Each part was cut away in a specific order.  First the skin removed by shoving a fist between it and the body, cutting the really tough parts.  Next the organs were removed.  Lastly the best parts of the meat were cut, the skin conveniently serving as a work surface.  When all parts were removed, the women took care of beginning the food preparations while Nurlan took his blowtorch to remove the hair from the hooves and head.

The hair is burned from the face and hooves before cooking
The hair is burned from the face and hooves before cooking

Inside the women made a variety of dishes.  Much of the meat was salted and frozen for later.  The heart and liver were chopped up into small pieces and along with seasonings, stuffed into a casing for sausage.  This was later boiled in the sheep’s blood, the dish is called buja (быжы) and was actually pretty tasty.  The stomach and lungs were cut into long thing strips and the small intestine was then braided around these bits.  This was boiled in water along with many other pieces of meat.  Called jorgom (жоргом) and is a particularly hated dish by many fellow PC volunteers but it’s not bad.  I think the texture is what most don’t like but with a bit of salt, pepper and laza (spicy stuff) it’s actually something I liked.

Several hours later, Jake (our site mate) came over and we enjoyed the freshest beshbarmak (бешбармак) I’ve had.  Beshbarmak is not usually a dish I enjoy, but this fresh and again with a bit of laza mixed in I really liked it.  Lucky for us, Nurlan said every 25 days he’ll kill a sheep.  I guess that means we can look forward to this often.

Fresh beshbarmak with the buja on the left and the jorgom hiding under the rib in the back left
Fresh beshbarmak with the buja on the left and the jorgom hiding under the rib in the back left

And with that the ceremony was over.  Seeing this up close is something many volunteers hear and think about before arriving in country.  I guess the biggest thing I took away from it was how normal it all was.  This wasn’t strange, grotesque or disturbing for me to watch.  It’s just life here.  Killing a sheep in a driveway here is as normal as washing a car in a driveway in the states.

 

We didn’t get tacos that day, but that’s ok, it was really fun and interesting.  Plus Aziza made tacos a couple days later.  And they were awesome.

Taylor, Jake and our grandma after the meal
Taylor, Jake and our grandma after the meal

8 Replies to “Make Tacos or Kill a Sheep?”

  1. I’m going to go ahead and guess that this may be your top performing post. Awesome write up. Why do they burn the hair off the head and hooves, and what do they do with it?

    1. Thanks man. They burn the hair off so they can eat it. They do the same thing with pigs over the whole body because they eat the pig skin. From what I can see of the sheep they eat the head and I think parts of the hooves too (not sure about that.) The head stayed in our kitchen cupboard for a few days and the men pulled it out at dinner and ate pieces of it. Pretty funny to run across that in the cupboard the next morning when I was looking for the strawberry jam to come across a sheep head.

  2. This is a great write up, very informational RE something I think we ‘try’ not to think about. I’ve travelled to some places where they sell frozen sheep’s head so I know that is some sort of something special?

    Glad to hear the tacos were tasty!

  3. Well, now. Not sure exactly what to comment. Interesting experience, I am sure. So glad you are enjoying the food.

  4. Very cool write-up Eric! I like the heart and liver from the game that I shoot, but maybe I should branch out and try some of the other organs.

  5. Very interesting indeed. We eat it every day here and just pretend the slaughter doesn’t happen. Farm to Table, right?!

  6. Really enjoyed this post as well as the “yurt” one. You seem to be having quite the adventure. John and I are quite envious but having fun living vicariously. Keep safe!

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