Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gone Fishin'

On Saturday morning I was invited to go fishing by Raimbek, one of Sandra's team, a local gentleman.  He has 4 boys and a girl, and the oldest boys, 15,14 and 11 joined us.  Raimbek picked me up at six o'clock on Saturday morning while it was still dark.  With his large family he was transportationally challenged until he imported a Toyota Previa minivan from the US last year.  He bought it second hand from a Toyota dealer over the internet and had it shipped to Kazakhstan in a container.  Clearly not an easy or inexpensive way to get a vehicle.

We headed north out of Atyrau going basically going upstream with the Ural, which meanders all over the plain, so is not close to the road.  A few kilometres out of town we turned off the road onto a dirt track and headed towards the river.  Although, generally landscape looks dead flat from a distance, up close it is rutted and bumpy, with small hillocks and other obstructions which make the off-road ride quite challenging.

When we finally came to the intended spot on the river we had been beaten too it.  Unfortunately, we were beaten not by a couple of other fishermen, but by a group with a bus, a tractor, a couple of cars, a boat and a barge.  Clearly serious fishing was afoot.  I'll explain their technique for you keen fishing folk out there.  A rope is tied to the bumper of the bus.  It is in turn connected to a net in the barge.  The barge is the pulled by the boat across to the other side of the river, paying out the net as it goes along.  On the other river bank the boat turns downstream and pulls the barge a 100 or 150 meters down the river, still putting out the net.  Then the barge crosses back to the original bank and the net is attached to a second rope which is fed through a large pulley wheel anchored to the ground, and connected to the tractor.  The barge and boat now sail away and the tractor drives down the river bank pulling the net in as it goes.

Unfortunately we didn't see the resulting catch but it must have been fairly good as it constituted all the fish in about 150 yards of the Ural.  Raimbek was pretty disgusted with this poaching, but fortunately didn't decide to intervene or I don't thing I would be writing this now.

We bounced around a bit on dirt roads and finally found a suitable spot.  Fishing the river Kazakh style involves baiting the rods with worms, casting them out with fairly heavy weights attached into the deep water, propping them up on a rest, and waiting to catch a huge fish.  We achieved this state of readiness at about 7.30, so it was time to have a beer.  Raimbek drinks non-alcoholic beer but had thoughtfully brought me the real stuff.  It turned out to be Miller.  I think there were Miller commercials that used to talk about Miller Time. I can confirm that in Kazakhstan Miller Time starts at 7.30am.
Raimbek and son baiting the lines

 On the left is Raimbek putting the second rod on the rest.  On the right is me, busily fishing away!

You can see the size of the river, imaging netting everything in 150 meters.

It took me a little while, but finally the penny (or Tenge) dropped!  Fishing here is an exclusively male activity constructed to provide the men with an excuse to get out of the house with their buddies and drink beer or vodka.  The provision of the occasional fish gives the whole exercise a purpose and some validity.  The lack of a fish means more time and effort needs to be expended on the activity.  Practice make perfect.

We were not very lucky with the fish, but the weather was great, much cooler than last week, and the beer was cold.

Raimbek, forever enterprising, had planned to cook his special fishing trip fish dish.  When I expressed some concern that we might not catch a fish, he gave me a confident look and explained that he had brought the fish with him.  And it was a very nice piece of sturgeon, rather than the catfish that we would catch...perhaps!

So after a couple of hours fishing you can see the fruits of our labor....

Actually, whilst it was the fruits of our labor, the labor was not us doing the fishing.  In our copious idle time we watched our neighbors downstream, netting small fry for bait, then "fishing", landing a large carp in a net and throwing it onto the bank, so we went to take a look.  They were kind enough to lend us the fish for our photo-op.  In fact they even washed it down so that it looked its shining best.

So it was time to prepare the "Fish Special".  The recipe is shown below in pictorial form.  I think it is self explanatory, onion, fish, tomatoes, potatoes, green peppers, eggplant a squeeze of lemon and a container of mayonnaise. It is wrapped in aluminum foil and put on the heat for 40 minutes, rested for ten then eaten.

It was good.  The sturgeon was a very nice fish, worth looking for, and the vegetables were all nicely done.  The mayonnaise formed a sort of soft crust on top and sauce below.  It was quite rich!                                                    We sat on the rug and had a proper cooked picnic with chunks of bread and glasses of pop.
Raimbek and the boys.  We stopped to take a picture by the trees on the way back
This LINK takes you to the full set of Fishing Trip pictures.

My Last Full Week...for a while.

Last week was to be my last complete week in Atyrau.  Mercifully the Business Lunch research has come to an end and we are back to quality fare!

I have had a couple, or more, of comments suggesting that my blogging is rather food centric.  I cannot deny this but perhaps I can explain it.

When we get up in the morning Sandra gets ready for work and I prepare her breakfast (it is too early for me to breakfast with her).  I have a yoghurt making routine which involves using powdered or UHT milk, but more usually a combination and incubating it on the enclosed balcony which is usually over 100F.  After the yoghurt is made I strain it (in batches as I only have a small strainer).  I strain it to two consistencies, one for mixing with blended frozen fruit for Sandra's breakfast low fat yoghurt, and one to cream cheese consistency to eat with apricot jam on toast.  Some of this activity, like blending and straining the fruit, is part of the breakfast routine.

I also prepare Sandra's morning fuel, as some of you will know, when she gets hungry her usual sharp and logical mind turns to jelly and there is no predicting what senseless comments she will make.  So we consider it essential  for her career to have snacks at hand during the day.  Today for example she had carrot and celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, grapes, two bananas and some pieces of cold chicken (a quick fix of protein for emergencies). This is fairly typical, and is a daily routine including washing in sterile water and packing into containers.  It would be good to prepare all this for a week ahead, but the fridge is too small for even our daily needs.

Sandra will have her mug of tea as soon as possible, then grapefruit and yoghurt before getting ready for work. Then I make aggs, and sometimes some home made bacon, grilled tomatoes or potatoes.  We rotate through fried, scrambled, poached and omlets. She finishes with toast, jam and labneh.
 Sometimes I do some other cooking at the same time such as making stock or soup with leftovers from the previous evening meal, or starting the bread-maker.

In short, between getting up at 6.30 and kissing her goodbye at 8.25, most of my time is spent fussing food, early two hours.

Then I have to feed myself, which is usually just some toast, possibly an egg, and a few glasses of Cola Lite, and get myself ready to go.

In the course of the morning I will make a trip to Ram Store.  This is considered good field craft in Atyrau, as new supplies can appear at any time (like mushrooms) but you have to be ready to get them at once or they will be reaped by the expat. wives that have a well coordinated SMS network that sends out general alerts of available rare supplies to summon the troops, who, like locusts stripping a tree, can denude a supermarket shelf in minutes

As an aside, I do have to say I am astonished to discover some of the products in demand...spaghetti sauces in jars, packets of macaroni cheese, instant oatmeal.  How hard is it to make a spaghetti sauce? Having asked that I should say that tomato paste is truly abundant occupying a whole aisle in cans from small to huge (who opens a 2 liter can of tomato paste and what do they do with it?  However, whole or chopped tomatoes in cans only appear periodically, and as many as can be carried home have to be bought at once.

The shopping trip can also take some time as it is not always possible to find and identify produce.  I ended up tasting the crystals spilt on the supermarket shelf to first determine whether I had salt or sugar.  I have since usefully learnt the words and the script.  Likewise, sour cream is very popular, Smetana (CMETAHA), but it gets intermixed with the yoghurt (йогурт) which may also have vanilla and sugar (Cахар) added, so great care has to be taken looking at labels, which are usuall printed in maddeningly small print.  It 
is clearly a legal requirement to show ingredients and not a practical consideration.  Though trying to fit the 
contents details in three languages on a small tub of yoghurt is a challenge.

So there goes another hour, shopping in Ram Store.

At about 11.15 I have been going to meet Sandra for lunch.  The walk to her office takes about 30 minutes, or 45 if it is very hot and I stop to take pictures.  I am usually collecting pictures of something.  Below I am exhibiting some examples of my current "collections".  (I would rather not answer questions about why I collect these, but it will demonstrate to some of you that I do not only photograph plates of food, though now you may wish I did).
Umbrellas are commonly used by the more stylish to provide shelter from the sun 
Outdoor workers typically just have hats and sometimes swathe their heads in white cheesecloth

The other outdoor types are the fishermen and the swimmers.  I went fishing, but more of that later.
Fishermen are all along the Ural (for miles). They don't care about the sun!

 There is building everywhere and the patten of bricks is very varied.

 Larger buildings are clad in stone or marble or steel,  the tiles are usually just clipped to the Concrete sub-structure.  I have no idea why this is because the rain and snow must get behind the cladding.  Below is a picture of the way this is done on our building, Ardagar Dom.        

There is also a massive sidewalk construction effort going on.  The paving is usually some form of bricks.  They come in a wide variety of patterns and just recently have started to appear in different colors.  Red was popular at first but not blue and yellow are becoming popular being the ubiquitous colours of the Kazakh national flag.

Recently, I have started to notice a fondness of the architects for domes and cupolas and pediments that are the rounded shape of the yurt.  So I have started "collecting" these.

But as most of you know by now my favourite collection is of the overground pipes.  I now actually have favourite areas which are particularly good for pipe-spotting.  As Sandra and I walk around I frequently have to stop or detour to take a look at or photograph a particular pipe formation. Some of the collection is shown below.

But I have digressed.  At 11.15 or so I walk to Sandra's office for lunch at noon.  where we go is of course one of the more important joint decisions of the day.  The best place by far is Sancak.
This Turkish restaurant has the raw kebabs laid out behind the counter in a cool display case, hot food in an heated display, and salads (mainly Russian style with lots of mayo).  We order at the counter then sit down.  Kebabs are cooked over charcoal right in sight, and they make great fresh bread served out of the oven.

 This is the cook standing in front of the charcoal grill.  It is rather difficult to take many pictures but Sandra asked the baking girl if she could take a photo, hence the pose above.  Sandra is eating an egg-plant salad which is about the best when it is available. See the picture below.

After lunch, at about 12.50 Sandra goes back to work and I may then walk about 5 minutes down the road to Rahat market, which is cheaper than Ram Store and sometimes has different and fresher produce.  The food section is not very large and there is virtually no raw meat, except in the Ideal supermarket, however there are all sorts of other shops.  This is where I bought 1.5 meters of "table cloth".

In the food area we spread our business around.  There is the Tomato Lady, Banana Lady, and Grape Lady that Sandra has anointed and now I have added the Zucchini Lady, Herb Lady.  We are loyal to different chicken ladies though share the same dried fruit and nut Lady.  She always pretends she doesn't know how much you want and tries to sell one industrial quantities of things like prunes.  Imagine the effect!

At the Grape Lady we ask for "Bis" which means without.  I keep suggesting we learn the word for pips, but Sandra says she knows what she means.  It didn't stop her from trying to sell me her grapes with pips when Sandra wasn't there, but I tasted one and brandished the pip in front of her in a suitably admonishing way.  Next time I'm sure I'll be charged double the price for my cheek.

Usually I take a taxi home from there as I have shopping.

So here's how the "taxis" work.  They are usually Toyota Landcruisers, though there are some minivans and even some larget 12 or 15 seaters for when there is a crowd sharing.  They are part of the Agip Transport system and all have AT numbers on the front and back wind shields.  By some strange quirk, although the numbers of people on the project have been growing rapidly there are no new taxis.  They all seem about 10 years old.  Whilst they are standard issue Toyotas, they are all fitted with full roll cages inside.  Quite why I am not sure as the drivers are very careful and the roads are not too bad.  Apparently the drivers are under strict orders to follow the rules of the road, they do not speed, they will not go until seatbelts are all fastened, and they have instructions to avoid certain accident black spots, usually junctions and roundabouts.

One orders a taxi by cell phone....
"Agip Control"
"Hello, I would like a taxi please from Rahat to Ardager Dom for one person"
"Rahat to Ardager, Number?"
"My number is 31 222 5 33"
"Sandra Taylor?"
"Yes, this is Mark Taylor, husband"
"Not employee?"  (Employees cannot use taxis in working hours, which go to 7pm!)
"Not employee, wife Sandra employee"
"OK, wait message"

It that point one hangs up (not literally any more, of course) and in a couple of minutes a text message arrives.

"Vehicle number '273 (E273HBM  AT-315) will be available in approximately 10 minutes", it is always 5 or 10 minutes in the message, and one rarely waits longer than 10 for a taxi to turn up.  You will notice that the locations given (eg Rahat) are not very specific.  That is because the have standard pick up and drop of points for the large markets etc.  It is not a bad idea to find out where these are before setting out!

In the afternoon I usually do some cooking.  We have done quite a bit of entertaining since I have arrived, and have had people over 2 or three nights each week.  This usually means a few hours cooking.  I have tried not to make meals that can be found in the restaurants here.

Salads are difficult with limited greens, and there is tomato and cucumber salads everywhere.  Soups are OK as the local soups are pretty much the same thin broths with chopped vegetables (carrot, potato, onion, cabbage) in them.  I have made cream of tomato (with powdered milk!), leek and potato, tomato basil and french onion so far.

Dessert is another challenge as there is no good milk or cream.  I have just about perfected my Greek yoghurt cheesecake with a lemon shortbread crust (sorry, no Graham crackers, Digestives or anything remotely similar that I can find).  For the last version of the cheesecake I made individual tartlettes, which were topped with fresh peach.  A single peach goes quite a long way used like this!

For those of you wanting to try this low fat filling, the recipe is something like this (scale up 3x for large pan),

1 cup low fat Greek Yoghurt
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg
Vanilla extract (1/4 to 1/2 tsp to taste)
1/2 Tbs cornflour

Bake 20 to 40 minutes (depending on size of cake, tartlettes or 9inch pan) in 190C oven.
Yoghurt Cheesecake with pineapple (yes, I found a good one!)

I'm not too sure about the oven temperature as I do not have an oven thermometer, and the calibration doesn't seem right.  I have failed to cook two legs of lamb to my satisfaction, and think it is because the oven is too hot.

I have baked a few different loaves of bread and this Sunday afternoon made some banana muffins (with some black bananas Sandra had thoughtfully kept for me in the freezer).

I have frozen the muffins, so she can take one a day to work.  I also canned the apricot jam that I made the first week, having scrounged enough jars form people.  It is absolutely impossible to buy jars (Russian: banka).  Everyone keeps the jars that pickles etc come in and cannot understand why anyone would buy jars.  However, one can easily find lids and special contraptions for sealing them on the jars, which are not screw top.

So the bottom line is, with two hours in the breakfast routine, two hours going to and having lunch, an hour or two in the supermarket, and/or going to the market, and somewhere between one and four hours preparing dinner, about six to ten hours each day are occupied with food related activities.  Fortunately, I have been able to watch the test match from about 3 in the afternoon, at the same time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Five Rules for Supermarket Shopping

It is easy to assume that a large western looking supermarket will function pretty much the same way everywhere in the world.  But that is not the case.  When I go back to the UK after some time in the US I stand at the checkout with my shopping being scanned and piling up past the cashier.  There is no-one there doing bagging, that is the purchasers job, so I end up hurriedly grabbing a bag and trying to get my bagging caught up with the cashier.  In some countries the same system applies as the UK except they wont provide bags unless asked, so goods pile up and there is nothing one can do except stuff them in pockets and hope you can hold the rest in your hands.

Anyway, Atyrau supermarkets have their own rules too, provided here to help you avoid embarrassment.

1.  Enter by the Entrance.  That is usually a small gap at the end of the cashiers.  The large gaps around the cashiers are exits and must on no account be used to enter or you will be shouted at by security and directed to the entrance.  Last time this happened to me I confused the security guard by simple walking away in the other direction and not entering the store at all.

2.  Do not carry shopping into the supermarket.  There are lockable cupboards provided by the entrance for you to secure your bag in while you shop.  Don't forget to collect your bags after finishing in the supermarket, the key with a giant size key-tag usually helps.

3.  Do not take photographs, this is considered spying and can get security quite worked up.  They will want to see your pictures and ensure any of the shop are deleted before they let you go.  As some will have seen I have some pictures posted in earlier blogs (I think I may sell them to Safeway, they need a bit of help in the new retail trade.)  The photos I have taken are sneaked when nobody appears to be looking, though I worry I will be spotted on an in store camera (if they have them) and a squad of security guards will rush out and escort be away behind the butchers section to extract the truth and the names of my operators.  I did get caught by a plain-clothes security man.  I don't think it fair that some of them don't wear the blue or orange or green or whatever bibs, that identify them as enemy agents.

4.  Present your loyalty card before the cashier processes any purchases, and be ready with it because the cashiers are fas and will have put the first item through before you can blink.  They slow down after that. And "yes" Ram Store has a card; we don't know what it does, but it feels good and western-ish to show a card.

5.  Don't try to give the exact amount and don't expect your change to be the difference between what you give and the price of the shopping.  There are rounding errors and adjustments for although goods are priced down to the exact Tenge, this  is too small to bother about, so they don't.  And depending on the store, this principle is extended up to fairly respectable amounts (sometimes based on the reasoning that they don't have any change, so won't be giving any).  Yesterday I bought something for TG 4,935 and did not get any change from my TG 5,000 note.  That TG 65 is about 40 US cents.

There are other interesting things that happen in the supermarkets.  We were especially amused by the lone yoghurt tub.  There was a single low fat yoghurt with the other/s of its two/four pack apparently missing.  Just like cans of beer and coke become separated from their siblings.  We took it to the cashier, who looked at it said something and put it on the side, we could not buy it.  Not terribly commercial, but if those are the rules, so be it.  Then the next day it was back on the yoghurt shelf, still single, with no matching tubs, so I tried to buy it again.  I got the same treatment.  I tried again the next day, same thing.  I must remember to look for it today, though it may have gone past its sell by date now, if they bother with those.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Indian Independence Day Party

Basab, the General Manager of the Green Hotel told us at the Curry Club evening on Saturday that on Monday they were having a party for Independence Day, and invited us to come over.

Since we had curry at the Club on Saturday, went to Lena's on Sunday and enjoyed some really good Indian food, it seemed only appropriate to continue the pattern and go to the party.  We taxied over there for the 7pm start  only to find them starting to set up the tables and the buffet in the quadrangle in the centre of the four hotel buildings.  It started at 7pm Indian time, and we hadn't adjusted.  We went to the bar a singularly dark little room with couple of TVs and a small bar with no draft beer attached to the hotel kitchen.  The TVs were on, one with the ubiquitous MTV, the other with the news, neither had sound, that came from some other system.  It seems that the quality of a restaurant in Atyrau is measured, in part, by the size and number of flat TV screens mounted on the walls.  I have not been in a restaurant that does not have TVs.

My glass of Bavaria beer came from a bottle in a locked fridge.  Having to padlock a fridge in an hotel bar raises questions in my mind.  Sandra had a glass of Valpolicella, which she unwisely sipped before she smelt.  I didn't need to taste it, it had the "nose" of a fine red wine vinegar.  We managed to communicate to the bar girls (it took two) that id was not good, and without a fuss they replaced it with a glass of cabernet, and poured the valpolicella back into the bottle, stuck the cork back in the top, and put it back on the shelf.  Sandra had only taken a sip, so it probably didn't mess too much with their portion control!

James, a key organiser of the Curry Club, joined us in the bar.  He was the only other non-Indian, non-Kazakh at the party.  Basab greeted us and was a most gracious host.  He chaperoned us from the bar to the courtyard, where people were arriving.  In one corner was a band set-up, speaker, amps etc. but all that was playing was a video of an Indian author, we couldn't find out who he was, talking about the evolution and development of modern India.  People listened for a while, and it was quite interesting and sensible, but after about ten minutes people seemed to think it fell a bit short of party entertainment ("poverty does not cause corruption, corrupiot causes poverty").  We found a table and settled down to be eaten by mosquitoes.  Is that why I was the only one in shorts with no socks?

The appetizers, were the same as we had on Saturday, tandoori chicken pieces and samosas, but also some king of pakora, and fish in soft batter (not a big favourite...my one small bite-size piece had nearly ten bones in it).

After appetizers it was buffet time, the sun was setting and we were only slightly less hungry than the mosquitoes.  Mercifully, this morning I can confirm that their bites were more irritating than inflaming, and the itching did not keep me up all night nor result in my ankles and legs being covered in welts.  I think I would have relaxed and enjoyed things more if I hadn't felt I was the main meal.

The buffet was a good spread, and for a change I will avoid detailing the menu...but you can email me for it if you are interested!

The light had faded and the music started.  People ate.

In the typical Kazakh way, the small band turned out to be pretty good and extraordinarily varied in what they played.  There was Indian music, Turkish music, Arabic music and rock and roll (we think that is what they were), and there was belly dancing by a professional, Indian dancing by another professional and a truly varied exhibition of all sorts of wiggling and twisting with mincing steps and grinding hips by small groups of men who were guests and clearly not professional.  It was the middle aged male version of the  girls dancing around their handbags at a western disco, except done with extreme enthusiasm and no inhibitions and wanton exhibitionism.  I did not try to film this, but below is one of the professionals.

And below is the esteemed band.

The hightlight of the party was supposed to be a surprise appearance of Indian drummers.  We had been tipped off about their appearance so were waiting to hear them before we left.  Apparently they were due between 9.00 and 9.30, but by 9.45 hadn't appeared and we were ready for home.  Basab clearly wanted us to stay and hear the feature, but Sandra had a busy day ahead, so she went ahead in a cab home and I stayed with James who had boldly volunteered to stay behind and be a good guest.  For we were guests, Basab told us we must not pay, it was his pleasure.  (Though I did manage to sneak in and pay for our drinks...the vinegar was not on the bill, fortunately, as I would have felt unable to dispute it).

James and I stayed for a further 45 minutes and then gave up and too a taxi home.  Poor Basab was very disappointed to have been let down by his star act, as by the time our taxi came there was a small crowd outside the front of the hotel waiting for cars and taxis.

I would not have missed this, it was an interesting evening, and though I have seen Indian and Belly dancing before, I had never seen grown men dancing with such enthusiasm at a party.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Saturday Night is Curry Club Night

Its 7.15pm and England have just beaten India in the third test to become the number one cricket team in the world.  We have taken their top spot, now we shall go and eat their cuisine to celebrate!

The Curry Club meets on Saturday nights at the Green Hotel.  We go there by taxi arriving about 7.30pm.

The first half hour is taken drinking and chatting.

Rita, Leen, Mark and Henk (Rita's husband)


Rita, Leen, M&S

Specialising in Indian, but decor is Japanese (work it out!)

Edwin, (forgotten, right now, apologies) and Ester

James, Geert and Edwin
And then we sit down to dinner...

The food is pretty good.  Tandoori chicken and samosas to start, vegetable, lamb and chicken curries, hot and cold rice, dahl, beans in coconut and breads and papadams  then warm orange semolina for the pudding, which those that had it (all except us) liked.  It is accompanied by as one wants to drink including wine and beer.  A pretty good deal for $25 each.

And taxis bach to the residences at about 10.30.

Six Business Lunches

Last week I promised to provide you with reviews of the business lunches available in the restaurants to Sandra's office.  Business lunches are three to six course menus, sometimes with a choice of main, served fairly quickly, with courses sometimes arriving together, or out of order, and charged at a fixed price of around $8.00 (excluding drinks).  As you will see below, they are fairly formulaic and as you won't be able to tell from the notes below, can be very hit and miss.  In truth one really needs to sample a few lunches at each place to be fair, but I had to use all by good conduct points to get Sandra to do six lunches in a row, and frankly don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting her to repeat the cycle for another couple of weeks.  So I am afraid that the story below will be best I can do.  I have made my comments in note form, as the food does not inspire creative commentary.


Large recently renovated restaurant with a mezzanine area reached up a grand staircase.  Big downstairs bar and seating on banquettes and chairs, high and low.

Carrot Salad.  Finely julienned carrot, with a little oil and a lot of garlic.  Too much for Sandra to eat.  Needed salt which we had and would have really benefitted from some lemon juice or vinegar which we didn’t have.  The julienne were quite long (must have been done through a fine chipper) and so were like spaghetti, only so stiff they wouldn’t curl round a fork.  I gave up and chopped them.

Soup (Borsch).  This is a regular on all menus.  It is not an exotic beet root soup.  It is a watery vegetable based stock which may have beets in it (I don’t think this did).  This had some tomato in the broth.  In the soup are usually finely chopped vegetables, onion, cabbage and small cubes of potatoes.  Some soups have meat in them and they are usually more oily, sometimes very oily.  This had no meat and was not too oily.  It was quite good, and came with a couple of sweetish soft crusted  bread buns.

Shallow fried fish.  Like most expat.s here Sandra won’t eat the fish as it is locally caught and the Ural is quite polluted.  It is not the bacterial pollution that worries most people but the heavy metals that come from the industrial zones of Russia further up-stream.  For that reason boiling tap water is not an advised procedure, and we have bottled water in the flat.  So I had to have the fish which was in a thick batter which had the consistency of an undercooked crepe.  It was even hard to peal it off the very soft and mushy textured little fish that beneath it.  The fish tasted fresh, but the texture suggested it might have been slowly frozen and defrosted.  It was not helped by the accompanying potatoes which were just like chips, but instead of being fried had been boiled in oil till they were almost cooked, and then served.

Chili and Rice:  Beans and meat in a flour thickened “sauce” with no hint of and chili spices served on rice.  Rather bland but the meat was lean and tender and the rice was fine.  The odd bean helped, but the sauce did not.  Edible but nothing to commend it.

Cake.  Sponge with fake cream and some red goo.  Harmless enough!

Four courses for TG1600 ($10)     (Sandra for free)

The Verdict: Each only managed two of the four courses (the only common one being the soup). Hungry again in an hour.


Close to Hugo’s and the AKCO offices this restaurant is more modest than Hugo’s but like Hugo’s a favourite of the venture personnel, as they get to sign for lunch (have it free!).  We sat in a booth at the back, which was fairly comfortable and ordered business lunches.

Soup.  The typical vegetable soup, no meat this time, but nor were there tomatoes. The garnish was parsley not dill.  It was perfectly acceptable.  There was a plate of three types of bread,  black, white and orange.  They all seemed to taste about the same.

Pork Shashlick.  It came with raw onion rings, and chopped parsley, white rice and a tomato sauce which was plain pureed tomatoes with possibly a little onion in it.  Pork was overcooked and so a bit tough but lean and tasty.  It had been well marinated in garlic.  The rice was undercooked and hard in the center.  The sauce added wetness and not much else.

Two courses for TG1300 each. (Sandra for free)
The verdict: Basically edible but not very much to eat.  Next time I’ll eat all the bread.

This is a large English style (loosely) pub in an hotel of OK quality.  The pub is more geared to nightlife with live music three nights a week, and business lunches provide a bit of extra income and work for the staff.

Salad.  Chunks of cucumber with chopped parsley.  The dressing appeared to be salt.  Sandra left hers after one bite.  I was smarter, and seeing the two bottles of oil and vinegar, decided a dash of vinegar would greatly improve it.  And it would have done, soy sauce on the other hand only made it more salty so I ate Sandra’s.  Oil and soy, an odd table dressing combination.

Soup. The same old, same old…this one with a couple of pieces of meat in it.  The meat was lean and tender, and the soup wasn’t very oily, so it managed to avoid failing in the two most common hurdles, grease and grizzle.

Chicken Fillet Garish (sic) Rice.  Turned out to be boiled pieces of chicken in a creamy sauce with a drizzle of bright red beet sauce (I am fairly sure)  accompanied by rice with vegetables in it.  I couldn’t eat the rice, it had an odd earth taste, though Sandra ate most of hers.  The chicken was fairly moist but the sauce was rich and unpleasant.  I wonder if it was cream sauce made out of some fake cream.  We have never found real cream here and this had an odd flavor. 

Three courses for TG1300 each (Sandra not for free here)

The verdict: hungry again in about two hours.


This restaurant is actually a Café with a nightclub upstairs.  It only does business lunches, there is nothing else on the menu. There are plastic covered benches in the booths, and it helps to sit close to the air conditioning. 

Salad.  Typical Russian salad which is small diced vegetables (carrots, potatoes, peas usually) and sometimes extras like eggs, pickles and in today’s…chopped up crabsticks all stuck together (a chef’s term) with mayonnaise-ish stuff.  It was edible if one ate fast enough to stop the fishy flavor becoming too noticeable. 

One rather odd feature of some of these business lunches, like the one served here, is they do not bring the courses in any rigid order, so after the salad the soup and dessert arrived.

Soup. It was the usual vegetable broth, but as you can see from the picture it had meat in it, very well cooked beef but quite alright.  It also had pickle chopped in with the vegetable.  It was fine and not as greasy as the last soup I had here which I could not drink.  There was a plate of white bread but it had been cut a long time earlier and had no flavor.  A shame because I am coming to rely on the bread as the main filling component of these lunches.

There was a bonus course here, a glass of apple juice, or at least that is what it is supposed to be.  Sandra habitually declines hers (something they don't really like, "you paid for it, you get it!").  It didn't taste very appley or very nice.  One of those tastes that seems painless enough on the first taste but then seems to get worse.  Rather than getting used to it the opposite happens, and the last mouthful was like drinking swamp water.

Cabbage Rolls. Two rolls stuffed with beef and rice, mainly beef.  They were quite good.  The cabbage was very well cooked and was textureless and flavourless, after a couple of bites I pealed it off and left it, but the stuffing was fairly tasty  and I think I may even have detected a slight cayenne zing, or maybe I was just hoping!

Cake.  I don’t usually eat desserts, but in order to provide you with information you need to make your choice, I tried it.  It actually was impressively tasteless for something that looked sweet and sickly.  I could have eaten it, but why bother, the bread tasted better and I didn’t eat that.

It cost $8 each.  It was also a lot better than last time we were here.

It is now Friday morning and I am encountering some resistance from my lunchtime companion (Sandra!) to undertake a fifth consecutive business lunch!  What is worse it is supposed to be back to O’Niels, which has been one of the worst so far.  Sandra’s lamb was just a big chunk of bone with grizzle attached. I am also commenting on the Pizza Club which we actually went to last week so as to cover all six business lunch venues.

Price TG1200 ($8.00)

Verdict: More a local cafe and food reflects this.  Food comes quickly and rather randomly.  But having eaten here a couple of times I can say the quality is very variable.


This is really an evening restaurant exploiting the lunchtime opportunity.  There is an outdoor streetside patio but the main restaurant is a cavernous basement.

Salad.  The usual chopped vegetables: cabbage, carrots, onion and some canned peas in an oil dressing.  Edible but about as exciting as the plain dry and rather sweet white bread that appeared with it.

Soup.  A rather oily broth with the same combination of vegetables (potato, carrot, cabbage and onion) and some chopped dill and parsley.  I wonder if all the soup comes from a central kitchen in some secret Atyrau location and the restaurants just add oil, herbs and sometimes a bit of boiled meat.

Meat Pie Thing.  This was something quite different.  It was a served like a square slice of lasagna.  On the bottom was a thin layer of ground beef pressed together like sausage.  Then there was a layer of grated carrot and possibly some onion, and on top were pieces of potato cut like thin French fries.  Some sort of white creamy sauce had been poured over it and sunk down to the carrot layer.  It was baked but the potatoes were a little undercooked.  I am beginning to think that perhaps the Kazakhs like their potatoes al dente.  This was a welcome change from the normal main courses but not something I will be reproducing at home (or ordering in another restaurant)

Dessert.  This was a very very hard cookie crust base pile with what looked like cream but was a sort of soft meringue drizzled with a day-glow fruit gel.  

 Tea.  The tea came with very hot water and a quite acceptable tea bag.  Better than Red Rose anyway!

Price:  Cannot remember!

Verdict: Not the best ambience, like eating in a basement nightclub without the music.  Food was a little different but not better.


This Irish style pub is next to the Chagala Building which is the office block for AKCO (Agip) so it is a popular business lunch spot.  This photo is from the internet.  Last time I tried to photograph it a security guard started making a fuss as he didn't like me using a camera next to AKCO.  As a result I was unable to get a clear picture.

The last business lunch we had here was really awful, So we were hoping this would be better!  The menu offered a choice so Sandra went first with chicken wings (phew!) leaving me to have the meat pie.

 The salad and soup came together.  The bread was already on the table.

The salad was glass noodles and grated carrot. There was some indiscernible dressing on it.  Oil and something and some parsley.  The soup was chicken and though a bit oily was made from a chicken broth, had all the usual vegetables, and chunk of chicken thigh in it.  It was pretty good.

The bread looks good, it always does, but it is rather tasteless and surprisingly soft.  If dipped in the soup it tends to quickly disintegrate.

 The meat pie was stuffed with ground beef and onions.  It was not really spiced or seasoned with anything, but the flavour was fine.  It was served with some sour cream sauce and sprinkled with parsley.  The most interesting thing was the crust, which looked like a crispy firm pastry but was actually more the texture of a suet dough.  The base had absorbed all the juices from the meat and was quite soggy, but still tasted fine.  Not a bad dish, but didn't taste nearly as good as it looked, and I thought it looked quite appetising.
The chicken wings were not the crispy spicy buffalo versions of north America, but stewed in a gravy.  They were served with rice.  I didn't taste this gluey dish but Sandra managed to get some meat off the bones and clean up the rice.  Surprisingly she didn't rave about it!

Dessert was declined by Sandra, but I cannot compliment her on her self discipline.  It would have been all too easy to do the same, but I had my duty.  So I tucked in to a piece of doughnut pastry, stuffed with nothing but drizzled with a chocolate like sauce.  As a person with an avid aversion to fake chocolate, this tested my mettle.  It seemed to be a couple of grades down from that Hershey's Sauce which looks frighteningly fake.  I can confidently say that Krispy Kreme need not feel threatened.

Price TG1350 ($9.00)
Verdict:  Edible and much better than last time.

Conclusion:  You have no idea how glad I am that we have finished that little exercise, and I am now really  looking forward to Sancak again next week.