Holiday Cookbook: Kakim and Karla Kunantaev

The aroma wafting from the kitchen at Kakim and Karla Kunantaev’s home in Hillsboro may have a bit more of a garlic-and-onion bent than most homes in Marion County, but be assured it’s home cooking to them.

The dishes they like to prepare-with names like pelmeni, plov and mante-may be new to most folks in these parts, but they are old family favorites for the Kunantaevs and their two children, Naila and Daniel, and the familiar flavors have helped ease their challenging transition from one life to another.

Ten years ago this week, Kakim, Karla and Naila-Daniel was born soon after-arrived in New York City as newcomers from their homeland of Kahzikstan, then one of the republics of the former Soviet Union.

They came as participants in an exchange program organized by Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and development agency. What they didn’t know at the time was that they would be staying in this new land-for the rest of their lives, they hope.

The late Vernon Wiebe, a member of the MCC board at the time, sponsored the family and brought them to his home town of Hillsboro, where the plan was to study English as a Second Language at Tabor College and learn more about American culture in general.

But their plans changed.

The Soviet Union collapsed shortly after their arrival, and knowing they would have problems with the government if they returned to Kazakhstan, the Kunantaevs applied for-and received-asylum from the U.S. government and prepared to make a new life for themselves.

It wasn’t easy at first.

“After we got asylum granted, the next year and a half was the toughest,” Kakim admitted. “We were still rudimentary in language and had no job. We had old skills, but none were applicable here. It was tough.”

Kakim worked as a roofer for awhile, then, after passing a battery of qualifying tests, he eventually was hired as an investment broker by a company in Wichita. He worked there until recently.

“The adjustment, looking back, seems like it was easier,” he said. “We had our ups and downs. The first several years, you’re cut out of your culture and language, friends and family. You’re surrounded by great people, but still you cannot replace some of the things that you’re used to having around.”

Cooking the old favorite dishes from Kazakhstan helped ease the transition.

“We love the food,” said Kakim, who takes over the kitchen almost every Saturday and Sunday. “We moved when we were 35. At that age, you’re pretty established in your habits. If it’s an eating habit, it’s hard to change. You can change everything else, but food is pretty much the same.”

Kakim learned to cook as a boy while living with his family in an apartment in Alma Alta, a city of about 1.3 million people.

“Everybody works there,” he said of the small kitchen found in the typical apartment there. “You’re always involved. That’s how I picked it up, little by little. I just enjoy it.”

The biggest difference between the cooking he learned as a child and the cooking he observes in the United States is the methodology.

“They would cook everything from scratch,” Kakim said about his childhood experiences. “This is a ready-to-use society, with instant coffee and everything else. Over there, everything is from scratch.”

That’s still the way Kakim prefers to cook his traditional dishes. Besides, most of the recipes are recorded in his head.

“Here you open a cookbook, and it’s down to every pound or small measurements,” he said. “For me, it’s a pinch of salt or a handful of something, like rice. And ‘pepper to taste.’ Whose taste? Go figure. You can play around with the recipes.”

The Kunantaevs describe their traditional cooking as spicy, but not as spicy as Mexican.

“It’s mild spicy,” said Karla, an accomplished pianist who shares the cooking responsibilities with Kakim. “It depends on people’s preferences, too. But there’s always garlic, onion and pepper involved.”

The Kunantaevs say they’ve had to make some adjustments in the their cooking since settling in the Unites States. For one thing, they often find that store-purchased vegetables are blander than what they were used to and prefer.

A more significant adjustment has been the types of meat available here. The primary staples in Kazakhstan were lamb, which can be found in many U.S. stores, and horse meat, which cannot-as Karla soon found out when she dropped by one of the local grocery stores.

“When I first asked for it, I got some strange looks,” Karla said. “But in other countries, like France, for instance, it’s a delicacy. It is a very expensive meat because it has zero cholesterol and it’s very tender. It’s not from an old workhorse. It’s usually a horse that’s young. You can’t believe how tasty the meat is.”

The Kunantaevs cook as a team. Kakim said he leaves the cooking of deserts to Karla while his forte is main dishes.

“I’m the meat guy,” he said. “I like experimenting with frying, cooking, broiling and roasting.”

He prepares a variety of meats these days, and also has picked up some of America’s favorite dishes: lasagna, pizza and almost anything barbecued.

Among his favorite dishes from his old homeland are pemeni, which is a soup with ravioli-like pieces and is made mostly in winter, and plov, which is fried meat with vegetable and steamed rice cooked usually outdoors in a covered iron kettle.

The Kunantaevs arrived in America on Thanksgiving Day Eve, so Thanksgiving is a special holiday for them. Even though they had never celebrated it in Kazakhstan, the spirit of the holiday was very familiar to them: eating with family and friends.

“After I realized what this holiday is all about, I thought probably we have a Thanksgiving almost every day (in Kazakhstan),” Kakim said. “In the States, you cannot come to your friend’s house without warning him first. You might say, ‘Oh, we will come by at 4 o’clock, Monday, July 17, 2003.

“Nobody plans that far ahead out there,” he added with a chuckle. “If friends drop by unannounced, the first thing you start doing is cooking so you can feed them. That’s how it works.”

From the

Kunantaev kitchen

Kakim Kunantaev says these favorite recipes are easy to make. If you have trouble recreating them, or if you want to see how they taste in the master’s hands, he said he is available for hire.

Beef Stroganoff

11/2 lb. lean beef

6 tablespoon margarine or butter

1 ounce flour

1 onion finely chopped

1 cup meat stock

1/3 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon mustard

1/4 pound mushrooms chopped

Trim and cut the meat into strips two inches long and about one-fourth-inch wide. Season the meat with salt and pepper and let it rest. In a heavy pan, fry half of the butter and flour until it turns golden brown, then slowly add the meat stock, stirring all the time. Bring to boil and add mustard, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Fry the onion in the rest of the butter and add the meat strips fry until brown. Combine the sauce and the meat. Add the mushrooms and cook on low for 50 minutes. Stir in the sour cream but do not it boil. Let it sit for another five minutes. Serve with mashed potatoes.

Beetroot Salad

3 or 4 beets

2 apples

2 ounces of walnuts

2 cloves of garlic

3 or 4 tablespoons mayonnaise

Put cooked beets and cored apples grated in a salad bowl. Add chopped walnuts and crushed garlic and dress with mayonnaise.



1 pound ground beef

1 onion


2 cups flour

1 egg

about 1/2 cup water


Mix all the ingredients for dough and knead. Make a bowl cover and let it rest for 10 minutes. Then roll it thinly and cut into two-and-one-half-inch circles. If you don’t have a circle cutter, squares are fine.

Make the filling by combining the beef and very finely chopped onion. Add salt and pepper to taste. Put small portions of filling onto each pastry fold and seal it into crescent shape. Simmer them in salted water for 10 minutes. Drain and serve with sour cream of butter. They can also be cooked in beef stock and served as a soup.


1 pound beef

1 onion

3 cloves of garlic

3 carrots

2 tomatoes or tomato sauce

11/4 cup rice

1 red-hot pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

1 cup beef stock

Cube the meat into 1×1-inch cubes in a heavy pan. Heat the oil until it starts smoking. Drop the meat and stir until brown on all sides. Then add finely chopped onion and fry, stirring it for 10 minutes. Chop tomatoes, carrots and fry with the meat for another 10 minutes. Add the beef stock and bring it to boil.

Dump the rice, but do not stir it-just even it with a spoon. Make sure water just covers the rice. If there is not enough liquid, add some water. Cover and let it simmer for 20 minutes. Add red crushed pepper and chopped garlic cover and cook for another five minutes. Before serving, stir everything in the pot

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