After 340 days subsisting on freeze dried powders from “on-orbit” space pouches, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s first sight of earthly prepared food was a Kazakh traditional offering of bread and salt.
Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov touched ground near the town of Zhezkazgan in eastern Kazhakstan at 11:26 pm EST last night (Mar. 1). The welcome ceremony began with two women dressed in bright yellow and green, who presented the homecoming heroes with bread and salt.
“It’s an honor to participate in this event, but first let me welcome you with bread and salt. This is our custom,” said a dignitary, unnamed in the NASA TV broadcast, who welcomed them in a brief ceremony at Zhezkazgan Airport. The astronauts were also presented with tribute matryoshka dolls in their likeness.
The generously sized welcome bread, at times elaborately decorated and glazed, is a staple of astronaut welcoming ceremonies in Kazakhstan, where vast unforested grasslands have served as a landing pad for space travelers of many nationalities over the years. The bread is usually presented with a small ramekin of salt in the middle and served on an embroidered towel. It’s tradition to dip a piece of bread in the salt and eat it, but Kelly, Kornienko and Volkov seem to have skipped that part in the ceremony. Their stomachs were still too unsettled to partake, as Time explains.
Bread symbolizes hospitality, and salt signifies friendship, in several Slavic cultures. “The bread and salt tradition is common for Russians and Ukrainians,” Aisha Mukasheva of the Kazakhstan embassy in Washington, DC tells Quartz. “You might be surprised why this Slavic tradition is used among Kazakh people,” she adds, explaining that people of Russian descent account for a large proportion of Kazakhstan’s population.
Russian cosmonauts have also brought this tradition to outer space. Several bread-and-salt welcome parties took place in Russia’s Mir space station, which orbited the earth from 1986 to 2001.
Space tourists, too, partake in the ceremony. The first space tourist, Denis Tito, was treated to a bread and salt welcome after landing in Kazakhstan in 20o1. And American millionaire Gregory Olsen was offered packets of bread and salt when he visited the International Space Station in 2005.
Bread and salt ceremonies are performed at weddings, house warming parties and or any occasion to welcome guests, in Kazakhstan.
At around 10:30 pm EST tonight, Kelly is expected to return his hometown of Houston, Texas where he will reunite with his family and his twin brother Mark and finally indulge in whatever food he wants.