Transcaucasia is my definition of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The area is influenced by European and Middle Eastern ingredients and culinary traditions. I was particularly drawn to this region because there is a great variety of traditional vegetarian and vegan dishes. This is actually rarer than you might think, given that meat and seafood are often expensive commodities, but most traditional recipes are those that countries cook for celebrations and during times of patriotic pride, and therefore the choice produce (aka meat) is often used. The places that commonly feature vegan/vegetarian traditional dishes are therefore those that have experienced a lot of poverty/shortage of meat and/or those that traditionally don’t eat meat for religious reasons. Whatever the reasons, I think that vegetarian/vegan cooking offers some of the most surprising and marvellous flavours, because tastes that are usually overpowered or hidden by meat are allowed to shine through in a subtle and complex balance. This is one reason I always pounce on traditional vegetarian recipes: just about everywhere has brown meat stews, or meat on a stick, but the vegetarian recipes are wonderfully diverse, colourful and unique.
Badrijani nigvzit and lobio with flatbread
Badrijani nigvzit is one of those wonderful vegan dishes that is traditional and delicious. It consists of a walnut paste wrapped up in strips of eggplant. I also made rounds of fried zucchini topped with walnut paste. The walnut paste contains walnuts, garlic, white wine vinegar, ground coriander, fenugreek, cayenne pepper and some water. I ground all of these up in a food processor until a chunky paste was achieved. I cut long thin slices of eggplant and then baked them until they were nice and brown (but not crunchy). The next step is as simple as rolling up some of the mixture inside the eggplant. I must confess, although I love walnuts, I was not a huge fan of the walnut paste. It was very strong and had a bitter walnut aftertaste. If I were to make it again I would try roasting the walnuts first to take the edge off that taste and bring out a bit more sweetness. I also made lobio served with flatbread, which is delicious dish made out of stewed kidney beans, onion, coriander, garlic, fenugreek, bay leaves, walnut, pomegranate molasses and salt. I felt like the walnut inclusion in this dish was much better balanced with the other components. The pomegranate molasses is a relatively common way of adding sugar to Transcaucasian dishes, as pomegranates are abundant in many areas, hence the seasoning with pomegranate seeds over the whole dish.
Sini kofte, khachapuri, with spinach, apple and pomegranate salad and yoghurt sauce
Sini kofte is an Armenian meat recipe that cleverly uses bulgur (cracked wheat) to texturise the dish and make the meat go a bit further. Apparently “sini” means pan, and “kofte” means meatball, so this is basically a meatball in a pan. To make it, you first cook a beef filling (gheyma), flavoured with butter, onion, paprika and parsley. Then on top of that is spread a mix of raw beef and bulgur, with mashed potato, cornstarch, paprika and an egg. Diamond criss-cross shapes are then cut into the pan, and oil and water is poured into the holes to stop it drying out too much. The second layer is slightly lighter in colour and forms a crispy, hard shell on top of the beef filling, and also keeps it moist. I thought this dish was a fantastic innovation – it has all of the flavour of normal kofte balls, but is so much less time- consuming when the meat is not required to be modelled into shapes. The two layers also mean it’s very easy to get the two consistencies usually desired in meat dishes – a crunchy outside that’s not burned, and a juicy flavoursome inside, all complemented with a squeeze of lemon. This is a great dish to make if you’re bored with your normal routine, but not super confident of your cooking skills. I even suspect kids would like it! Khachapuri, the national dish of Georgia, has already been made internationally famous for its simple genius. It’s basically a bread boat filled with egg and cheese. “Why didn’t we think of that?” said the entire world upon learning of its existence. The bread is made with yeast and allowed to rise, and then various types of cheese (fresh or aged) are piled into the middle and baked with the bread. A cracked egg is added for the final minutes of cooking, so that the yolk is still runny when the bread is cool enough to eat. Is your mouth watering yet? I know mine is. This was a great success, and delicious with a bit of yoghurt sauce. The spinach, apple and pomegranate salad was an invention of mine, because I wanted a salad and all of these ingredients seemed to be available in Transcaucasia. It was delicious with the other components, so I stand by my decision.
Manti and eech
Manti are an Armenian recipe of baked open dumplings. Any meat or combinations of meat can be used to fill them, but I used lamb mince, spiced with garlic, onion, pepper, cayenne pepper and allspice. The dough is made with flour, salt, egg, water and butter, and is rolled very thin and cut into squares to encase the small balls of meat. I like that the manti are sort of boat shaped, like a khachapuri. I think it’s a nice way to make foods easy to eat with the hands, and still allow some of the filling to brown with direct exposure to heat. The manti are cooked in a baking pan with some beef stock at the bottom to make sure it doesn’t get too dry. This makes the tops nicely crispy and the bottoms juicy and flavoursome, which I really loved together. I served the manti with a yoghurt garlic sauce and a spicy tomato sauce, both tasty additions. I think I liked the manti better than many Asian dumplings/wontons or Italian raviolis I’ve had. They really hit the mark texturally and flavour-wise. I also served them with eech, which sounds like the utterance of a comic book character after discovering a particularly large spider. It’s actually a salad of coarse bulgur, fresh tomato, capsicum, chillies, garlic, onion, cayenne pepper, black pepper, lemon juice and parsley. It can be served hot, cold, or room temperature, which is handy for leftovers, and although I didn’t add one, apparently it’s commonly eaten with a fried egg on top, which sounds like perfection.
Ajapsandali with garden salad
Ajapsandali is a delicious vegetarian stew, with eggplant, capsicum, tomato, onion, potato, spring onion and coriander. It was very quick and easy to cook, and all of the vegetables melded into a deliciously flavoursome meal. Indeed, the origin of the dish’s name comes from the expression “How delicious you are!” I served it with a garden salad dressed with vinegar, which nicely complemented the cooked tomatoey vegetables. If you have vegans coming over and are in the process of panicking, this is a great easy meal to make them. It’s the kind of dish I fantasise about making with my own produce when I have enough time to have a big garden and grow all of the ingredients (maybe in 70 years when I retire…). I also suspect that the ajapsandali would freeze well, so I am intending to make a large batch in summer, when all of the ingredients are extremely cheap, and freeze them for future lunches.