I have mentioned before that people over-prepared us with regards to how difficult it is to find familiar foods in Astana. It seemed to make sense; good and affordable produce, recognizable cuts of meat, American brands... we're fairly isolated from other countries and the harsh climate significantly limits what is produced in the borders of Kazakhstan. Despite this, we haven't had nearly as much trouble as we first thought.
There are lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables, fresh and frozen. Some of it isn't as cleaned and processed as the stuff we get in the U.S., but we've found carrots, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, beans, corn, tomatoes, bananas, apples, pears, peaches... the list is far more extensive than what we were able to get easily in Japan. Right now there are fresh produce open markets in the city that have locally grown foods at fairly cheap (and negotiable) prices, plenty of imports from closer to the Mediterranean, and there is a weird variety of frozen vegetables that tend to heat up pretty well. They are a bit unpredictable; one week there will be big bags of frozen mushrooms, a bag with a variety of sliced peppers, and green beans, and the next week (when all of that has been purchased) we will have cauliflower, mixed carrots and broccoli, and brussel sprouts.
I imagine that once the Winter season sets in, these things will become more difficult to find and the price will rise, but I've talked to some people here who have said that they never entirely go away. This is a country of meat and potato meals, but in the stores and at the Embassy, where I eat on a nearly daily basis, there has been a pretty good spread of vegetable and fruit options.
Meat is a bit stranger. Maybe it's my untrained eye, but I don't really know how to tell the difference between good and bad meat, and even with the help of some talented Russian speakers who have been here for a while, it can be a little hit or miss. The best meat here is tougher than U.S. meat, be it beef or chicken (even pork or turkey), and the worst meat is... really quite bad. We tried cooking up some ground beef about a week into our time here and were so disgusted with the bits of bone, connective tissue, and gristle we found in it that we tossed it out half-cooked and tried other things that evening. We have had some good success with chicken breasts and steaks, and we've ordered a meat grinder to make our on ground meats. We also make do with some frozen meat. We found turkey "meatball" patties in the frozen section of the grocery downstairs, and there are a very popular meat dumpling that are easy to find and cook.
Although it's difficult to find sandwich bread, there wouldn't be much of a point because there aren't really any sandwich meats. There are some sausages and salamis, but I'm not really sure how well they would supplant roast beef and cold cuts. Regardless, we were warned that fresh bread is hard to get a hold of here, and that turns out to have been a misrepresentation as well. Every grocery has a fresh baked section with many kinds of bread, including pre-sliced varieties, and we are discovering some of the local styles such as a large flat bread (almost like naan) and tiny pieces of sweet bread (a little like biscuit dough), among others.
Thankfully, our meals are not all things that we have to cook ourselves. Many are, many more than we were used to in the U.S., mainly because we don't have an easy way to get around in the city yet. As I mentioned, though, I eat at the embassy about once a day because the food in the little cafeteria there is good and cheap. They have a mixture of Kazakh traditional foods (dumplings, pilaf, borscht), interpretations of American food (chicken sandwich, french fries), and international dishes (teriyaki beef, "Mexican"chicken, curry). They also make bread, cake, and other deserts. It's nice being so close I can walk over for lunch, and very rarely am I disappointed.
The first night we were here, we went out with a bunch of people to a restaurant called Line Brew. I think they brew a beer on site, thus the name. The food was pretty good, if a little expensive, but that tends to be the standard here. Susie and I had fantastic steaks, and even had a chance to try the Kazakh "horse meat cooked on a hot stone." They bring a stone that has been in the fire to the table with raw horse and you cook it yourself. It was nice. I haven't had any since, but I would eat it again. Outside of that, there is a mall with a sizable food court and there you can find the city's only Hardee's! It's basically like American Hardee's with a menu that is more limited in scope. You can get cheeseburgers, jalapeño burgers, curly fries, etc. Across the court from there is a KFC which mostly serves fried chicken sandwiches and wraps, but it tastes like KFC.
Yesterday Susie and I tried a new place that people recommended, in no small part because of the English menus (I forget the name). There were several kinds of sandwich and salads, and we both really enjoyed the meal. The sandwiches were huge, packed with stuff, and for around $20 we both had a more than enough food. It is nice to be able to do that, to find places that we are comfortable ordering and eating. Living abroad is stressful, wandering around cities without speaking much of the language is frustrating, and having a significant variety of food and restaurants is a major comfort that we did not have in Japan. I know there will be places we end up that are tougher than this, but hopefully we get more experience and better skill with adjusting.
On a final note, there are a couple of different chain burger restaurants to eat at in Astana. I mentioned Hardee's, but there are also some Kazakh-based chains. What you won't find is a McDonald's. Apparently, glorious leader Nazarbayev doesn't like them and doesn't allow them. So, that's something.