Transcaucasia is my definition of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. A quick glance at a world map may help to explain why I was excited to cook from this region, as these countries straddle a thin piece of land between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, perched between the huge world and culinary powerhouses of Turkey, Iran and Russia, and an important stopping place along the ancient Silk Road trade route, when influences from further afar also added their mark to the food scene. This unique mix of influences is indeed represented in their cuisine, which mixes Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean elements to create a whole new range of flavours. 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. As far as I can tell, Transcaucasia’s vegetable predilection seems to be predominantly based on the abundant availability of a wide variety of vegetables, which grow prolifically in the fertile soil and mild climate of the region. Also popular are fish from neighbouring seas, beef, chicken, lamb, a huge variety of white salty cheeses, nuts (especially walnuts), fresh herbs, dried fruits integrated into savoury dishes, produce preserved via fermentation or pickling, rice, bulgur (cracked wheat), breads and wine, with Georgia boasting one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world.
Lavangi and shirin plov
Lavangi is one of the national dishes of Azerbaijan, and, unusually, can describe either a chicken or a fish preparation. First, the cleaned out internal cavity of either animal is stuffed with a paste of walnuts, onions and a sour fruit (e.g. pomegranate) syrup, and then the cavity is sewn shut, the outside rubbed in some more fruit syrup, and the whole preparation is baked in the oven until cooked. As I hadn’t prepared any seafood this week, I opted to try the fish, which is traditionally the Caspian kutum, also known as the carp of the Caspian Sea, but for which I used a rainbow trout, which may more may not be an adequate approximation. Shirin plov (sweet plov) is just one of dozens of plov recipes prevalent in Azerbaijan, with “plov” referring to a pilaf or spiced rice dish that is another close contender for the national dish of Azerbaijan. Many recipes feature pieces of meat in the plov, but the shirin plov is characterised by its adornment with assorted dried fruits and nuts and colouration with saffron. Another typical feature of all plovs is the delicious crust that forms on the bottom of the pan, called the “qazmaq”, which can be helped along with the addition of slices of parboiled potato, a layer of flatbread or, as I used here, a combination of yoghurt and beaten egg (presented as the triangles on either side). The rice (a basmati-type variety) is typically parboiled in salted water, then drained and added on top of the qazmaq materials, layered with its other components (saffron, fruit, meat etc), and then steamed until perfectly cooked, but not sticky. Plov is thought to have come to Azerbaijan from India, as well as Iran, the latter of which has its own types of rice-crust called tahdig (but more on that next week!). In Azerbaijan, plov is almost mandatorily served at weddings, usually accompanied by some sort of pyrotechnics, often including dancers setting the rice itself aflame. Apparently the rice represents wealth, so I’m not sure if setting fire to it is the most financially sound symbolism with which to begin a marriage – but I’m sure it makes for a fantastic spectacle! The combination of the typically bland rice and fish with the sweet and sour flavours from the fruits and nuts profoundly accentuated their delicate flavours and aromas, creating a superbly balanced dish.
Sini kofte, eech and manti
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 an iteration of the individual kofta meatballs found all over Transcaucasia and its neighbouring countries. To make it, you first cook a beef filling (gheyma), flavoured with butter, onion, paprika and parsley. This filling is then layered in between layers of a mix of raw beef, bulgur, 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 outer layers are slightly lighter in colour and form a crispy, hard shell encasing the beef filling, and also keeps it moist, as it would in traditional kofta balls covering the outside of the sphere. 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. Indeed, I can clearly picture my imagined inventor of the sini kofte – a no-nonsense grandma with arthritic fingers, exhausted by the constant insistence of her (likely ungrateful) grandchildren to make them kofte, who came up with the novel recipe that imparts the same flavours and concept with a much easier delivery. The absence of deep-frying that usually accompanies spherical kofte also helps this dish to be a healthier version of the meal. 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! I served my sini kofte with eech, which sounds to me like the utterance of a comic book character after discovering a particularly large spider. It’s actually a salad of coarse bulgur, and lightly sautéed 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. 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, and also avoids the unhappy scenario of your dumplings bursting/splitting during the cooking process. The manti are cooked in the oven on 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, as the unusual additions of crunchy texture and Caucasian flavours were an exciting novelty.
Ajapsandali, lobio and mchadi
Ajapsandali is a delicious vegetarian stew eaten throughout the three Transcaucasian countries, containing 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 is thought to come from the expression “How delicious you are!”. At the risk of attracting the ire of the French, I would even posit that Ajapsandali is a more delicious version of ratatouille, having the traits of firmer vegetables and a spicier flavour, both of which I prefer. 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 fresh and cheap, and freeze them for future lunches. Lobio is a delicious thick Georgian soup, eaten hot or cold, made out of stewed kidney beans, onion, coriander, garlic, fenugreek, bay leaves, walnut, pomegranate molasses and salt. It is most typically sopped up by mchadi, which is a Georgian cornbread, cooked by combining white cornmeal with water and salt, then frying patties in lots of oil. So impossibly simple. So impossibly delicious. Local fresh white cheeses traditionally join the combination of lobio and mchadi, but I did not want to insult the purported excellence of those cheeses by including a (surely inadequate) substitute – I will just need to travel to Georgia to try the real thing! Finally I had a red cabbage sitting in my fridge so I made a cabbage pickle on the side, the acidity of which happened to offset the heavy savoury flavours nicely.
Khachipuri, khinkali, pkhali and badrijani nigvzit
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 wheat flour and yeast and allowed to rise, and then various types of cheese (fresh and/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, and the crust can be torn off and dipped into it. Khinkali are often cited as a close contender for the national dish of Georgia, consisting of handmade dumplings from the mountainous regions, originally filled with beef/pork/lamb mince, but now sold with myriad vegetarian options. The filling is flavoured simply with onions, salt, cumin and a little chilli, before being placed raw in the wheat-based dough, which is closed and boiled in salted water until cooked. The raw filling releases a lot of juice during the cooking process, which gets trapped inside the dough and results in a phenomenal taste and texture explosion. This juicy interior has resulted in a number of strict customs surrounding the making and eating of khinkali, for instance their characteristic shape, which is particularly resistant to bursting in boiling water, also creates a thick and tough area of dough at the top where all of the pleats join that is customarily not eaten, and rather collected on one’s plate to keep track of how many have been consumed. I wholeheartedly rejected this custom, partly because, savage that I am, I found the tops delicious and ate them all, but also because one of the delights of dumpling consumption is losing track of the number you have eaten, and it is therefore pure cruelty to have a counting system in place. Another custom surrounding khinkali is that it is uncouth to eat them with anything other than your hands, sucking out the liquid upon the first bite, as a utensil would prematurely pierce them and lose all of the interior juices. Now here is a tradition I can endorse! Pkhali generally describes dishes of chopped vegetables combined with ground walnuts, vinegar, onions, garlic and herbs, with the addition of pureed walnuts being the uniting ingredient. The vegetables in question are first cooked and finely shredded, and can be legumes, eggplant, cabbage or, as I made, spinach and beetroot. The final product is a thick paste that is usually served as patties and which is perfectly scooped up by pieces of fresh bread as an appetiser or side dish. Badrijani nigvzit consists of a walnut paste wrapped up in strips of eggplant. 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 fried 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 and garnishing with pomegranate seeds. As you may have inferred by now, I made many varieties of walnut paste this week and can now bestow some of my acquired wisdom about their preparation. First, roasting the walnuts and removing some of their skins before processing them to a paste will help to reduce their bitterness and create a much more delicious paste. Second, due to the inherent bitterness of walnuts, its important to include a sweet component along with them, such as pomegranates/pomegranate syrup or beetroot. Finally, salt is critical to bring out the umami flavour of the walnuts, so shouldn’t be overlooked during the preparation. Now, go forward and incorporate my walnut secrets into your meal rotations! It’s a delicious and nutritious substitute for meat that I promise you won’t regret.