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Daghestani Delicacies


Robert Chenciner—Daghestanologist extraordinaire and one of Britain's foremost experts on the Caucasus (and on many, many other subjects: fabrics, carpets, arts and crafts, spoon boxes, food, books, &c.)—recently handed me a photocopy of a strange and wonderful talk he gave to an audience of 6 during the 1987 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, entitled Little-known Aspects of North-east Caucasian Mountain Ram and Other Dishes and which is reproduced here in full.

Robert Chenciner & Dr Emile Salmanov

[NOTE: The reference numbers are to a list of slides that were shown during the talk. This list has been included at the end of the article to show the range of subjects witnessed and recorded by the authors.]

I visited the Soviet Republics of Daghestan and Chechen-Ingush in the north east Caucasus during August 1986 with Dr Emile Salmanov, my Soviet collaborator (1).

These places are normally closed to non Soviets and it is even unusual for Soviets to visit the normally reclusive mountain villages (2). The object of the trip was to study a unique group of textiles, so we were favoured guests and our interest in the diverse cultures of the region was appreciated by the locals (3). In an area roughly the size of Scotland, over 50 languages are still spoken. Out visit provided a mutually welcome excuse to enjoy traditional feasts (4). Out hosts were local manufactory directors and other officials, as we were accompanied by the Vice Ministers for Local Industry and Culture. On a gastrographic note, we valiantly wrote records immediately after these feasts, took photographs and also made a video film.

The Ram is the symbol of Daghestan, signifying independence and virility (5,6). We chose three typical ram dishes which show their traditional way of both cross- and contrast-flavouring among the large variety of dishes which are served together as described later (7). This ceremonial presentation of food is a significant for ritual hospitality which is an essential part of Caucasian mountain life. It is clear, then, that rams are never castrated.

In the past all mountain people were hunters, eating game (8,9). They later became herdsmen, first keeping cattle, then sheep (10). Mountain cows are small and only give milk once a day, so sheep yoghurt and cheeses are eaten. Both the two main types of sheep are eaten (11): plains sheep with fat tails and mountain sheep without (12). As Thomas Love Peacock wrote (1823),

The mountain sheep are sweeter, but the valley sheep are fatter,
We therefore deem it meeter to carry off the latter. (13,14)

The classic meal features Khingali, diamond-shaped pasta made of flour and water, up to 10cm square, jokingly punned with Khinjal, the famous local mountaineer's dagger. The mixture is rolled on a 15cm-high tables on the floor using a rolling-pin, folded and left, and then re-rolled and cut with a wavy wheel. The flour is scooped out of a carved wooden cylinder 20cm high. The Khingali are boiled in ram broth, drained and served in melted butter as in the village of Koubachi or butter and cream cheese as in the village of Gotstl, with pure garlic juice and pure walnut juice separately crushed in a carved wooden mortar using the rolling pin as a pestle. Each person has their own dish of Khingali. This is eaten with luke-warm boiled ram chunks, on the bone, up to three-inch cubes. Also each diner is given a deep bowl of orange coloured broth, made of the ram with added vegetables, potatoes and tomato paste. There was also a herb and shallot salad. Afterwards large cups of tea were accompanied by spoonfulls of locally grown apricot sugar syrup preserve, spiced with orange peel from Morocco, which came via Georgia. It is customary to finish with local brandy.

The ancient existence of these dishes is confirmed in a text identified by Mr Charles Perry. Chapter 81 of a 10th century Arabic 'Book of Dishes' (Kitab al-Tabikh wa-'Islah al-'Aghdhiyah al-Ma'kulat) describes noodles (Lakhshat), made like Khingali, and flavouring (Sibaghat), including garlic and walnut, and boiled meat, probably onager, and broth. The text mentions how much the Sassanian king Khusraw (mid-6th century) liked this. Charles Perry thinks that this section came from an earlier Persian source judging from the Arabic. I would also add that King Khusraw built a palace and the great walls at Derbend, near the mountain villages where similar dishes are eaten today.

Each house (15) still keeps a decorated wooden flour jar and spoon box (16) which once kept the spoons off the ground (17,18). The old oven was at ground level (19) and food is still cooked over specially made open air hearths near the house (20). The 10mm thick bread was not baked but griddled with butter on a flat, iron plate.

In Gumi in Tabasaran we began with tea, then Khingal with a garlic yoghurt sauce, then Dundar or Chudu, a greasy 15mm thick moussaka type soft pancake with minced meat, perhaps ram, filling, a magnificent local baked turkey, with a rice and walnut stuffing. And tomato, shallot and sunflower oil salad; baked lamb, ram stew, white melon, Tendir, or hearth flat bread. Then pears, peaches, white grapes and water melon (21).

In nearby Khuchni, supper also included what is called Nurhh in Tabassaran, Peruni in Azeri, or Bulgur (Turkish)(22): boiled cracked wheat, the most simple pilaw, made with corn cultivated in the east from neolithic times, called Dary in Azeri and Turkish. It is a very hardy plant suited to stony mountain terraces. The corn is oven dried and then flailed with a levered 3 metre long stone crusher, called Ding.

In this region we drank a dry full bodied rosé wine with a sweet blossom scent, called Indjar, deceptively of 10° strength (23). The wine was made from a mixture of Muscadet (100 hectares), Cabernet (20 h), Saperavi (100 h) and Rhatsele [perhaps the white rkatsiteli grape, very widespread in neighbouring eastern Georgia? — A.B.] (350 h) grapes. It is probable that the flavour of the wine has been changed by local conditions since replanting in 1957. The wine used to be kept in oak barrels, but now steel tanks are preferred. The wine may be a descendant of a noble wine exported from this region from at least the 12th century to Asia Minor and Persia. Earthenware wine jars are sealed with ram's fat and butter glazes (24). The boiled ram meat was served cold, as part of breakfast the following morning. There was also Indjar wine, coffee, baked ram stew, ricotta-like consistency sheep cheese, tomato quarters with the stalks cut out, grapes and rich sweet blackberry preserve, spooned on to small side dishes and eaten neat. Also halva which they said was made from bear fat.

We saw a dried ram carcass in our host's spare room in Koubachi (25). This is normally part of the winter diet, but we ate one boiled as part of lunch in Kolkhadov on the Chanti Argun river in south Chechen (26). It was tasteless, unlike the boiled chicken, chepeldhyk or moussaka minced meat pie, linden blossom honey, apricot and small cherry sweet preserves, round flat yellow wheat bread, heavy maize bread cakes, very heavy maize Khingali with butter and garlic juice, sheep cheese with 3mm holes and delicious cream cheese. There was no water with the meal, lots of tea and preserves after. Soviet influence appeared in the limp mass-produced artificial sweet cream wafers.

As well as other dishes described above there were three types of warm ram sausage for supper in Untsukul, a mountain village in the Avar region of Daghestan, where we ate on the balcony in the dark. Two were encased in ram intestine, the large one two inches, and the small half an inch in diameter. They were made of different ram offal spiced with hers. The larger was tastiest. The third type of sausage was ram intestine surrounded by orange bobbly ram gullet, tied together with string loops. This could not be cut with a normal knife or chewed. The sausages remaining after supper were re-offered at breakfast next day. Local pagan priests used to prophesy by examining offal and other internal organs of the sacrifice. The ram's head is still considered the most honourable part of the animal, which was therefore reserved for priests and tribal chiefs (28), as well as appearing as a decorative element in a dominant position.

We were often reminded that these meals were not real feasts since we were not eating the heads (29). Another difference between everyday meals and a feast seems to be the amount of meat served. The market in Koubachi had plentiful fruit and vegetables. In summer people consume more fruit and vegetables, milk, yoghurts and cheeses (30-3). Only when they have guests is a sheep slaughtered or dried meat boiled, which is a real sacrifice. The presence of dried, fatty sheep or ram means that broth is always available and most homes now have a refrigerator.

What is the gastrological significance of these meals and what parallels do their taste hegemony have with our own?

Their customs of serving and eating reflect ritual (34). When we entered the dining room the large table was usually laid. We sat on chairs and divans in the best room, the guests' room, called Gonagh. It was decorated with the treasures of the house, plates, blankets, carpets, linen and cushions all around the hearth (35-7). Some of the best carved argilite stone hearths are still made or survive in Koubachi. It is traditional to eat with your own dagger, bread and fingers, but we used cutlery (38). The kitchen was on the ground floor and the wife or other women carried the food upstairs to the dining room door. The host then took it to the table (39). A common custom is for all the food to be quickly set out on the table, so that the men are not disturbed while eating. The host often picked out and cut food for his principal guest. Only our host and his male friends ate with us, but women in the guest's party were included. Many people sat with us at the table, symbolising a pre-revolution custom of mutual cooperation, called Belkhi in Chechen. It is polite for the guest to have two tastes to express approval and to leave some to emphasise the generosity of the host. For example I ate one and a half out of six large Khingali. Although all the dishes arrived at about the same time, in spite of our being three days late, there was an approximate order of eating: first Khingal and/or Chepeldhyk, then meat and salad, then broth and finally sweets and tea.

It seems that many European taste values share an underlying assumption of a food trade economy where there are imports and hence choice (40-1). But because of communication problems, these mountaineers have virtually none and seem to use all of the locally available foods. Recalling their historic hard life and poveerty, where brigandry was often their only livelihood, their feasts probably indicate a brave and precarious state of plenty rather than a carefully calculated culinary balance (42). Taste is almost irrelevant where only the status of the meal counts.

In the remote mountain regions of the Caucasus, ancient pagan traditions survived into the 19th century (43-4). In Daghestan and in Chechnya and Ingushetia, Christianity arrived late from Georgia in the 12th century (45-7). Sunni Islam only took hold in the mountains during the 17th century. There are also a few mountain Jews, thought to have originated from Babylon. Byhan [perhaps in his La civilisation caucasienne, Paris: Payot, 1936 — A.B.] and others consider that all these recognised religions were permeated with the older paganism. For example, in mountainous districts of southern Chechnya, rams and cows were sacrificed to Dela, the Sun god, Sela, the Thunder god, and Tusholi, the Fertility god, during the 19th century. A rare photograph (48) of a Khevsur (a small mountain tribe in nearby north-eastern Georgia) funeral early this century shows initiates about to sacrifice rams. It is a general custom to give the first offerings of a sacrifice to the relevant god and eat the rest at a subsequent feast (49). In Koubachi the flat stones on top of moslem tombstones are thought to be 'plates' for offerings and grim Zoroastrian funerary customs in Koubachi are described by Bleichsteiner. In ancient sacrifice, offerings of broiled or boiled meat were cooked without spices to give the gods pure flesh incorporating the undiluted flesh of the animal. For mountain people, vegetables are used instead of spices.

As I mentioned before, the ram's horns symbolising the head are considered the most noble part of the animal (50). Rams' horns appear frequently as decoration, in the grand carved wood central capital (51), 3 metres across in 16th and 17th century mountain houses (52), as rafter finials and column capitals in 19th century mountain mosques (53-4).

Further south and west in Azerbaijan and eastern Turkey there was a ram cult, and many stone rams survive (55-6). Sisoyev reported in the 1920s that infertile women, to achieve a cure, passed through the gap between their front and rear legs or lay next to them. Curiously, a similar custom survived to the 18th century in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, where ancient standing stones were similarly used. Rams were one of the animals in whose form a pagan god appeared (57). Conversely in secret mountain hunting societies in Koubachi, and further north west, human participants wore felt helmets with horns. They were called asegafa, roughly meaning 'old goat'. They were photographed and published by Dr Studenetskaya (58-9). We also found a mid-19th century Avar flat woven rug in Buinakst mosque in north Daghestan where a horseman is wearing a floppy-horned helmet.

It would seem that taste or flavour play a secondary role in this central part of the ritual feast where the sheep or ram is a survival of an ancient sacrifice, and in modern terms reaffirms the virility, well-being and survival of the host, his family and his village. At the same time it emphasises their wealth by their ability to put on a traditional feast. Last century, it was frequently reported that families would materially ruin themselves putting on up to three week long feasts in honour of the late head of the family. Typical pictures of a Khevsur funeral have been published by Nioradze (60).

In contrast, the accompanying foods show a sensibility for mixing local flavours. Sweet, sour, acid and salt, hot and cold, fresh and cooked foods are all eaten at the same time. Sequential flavouring occurs when the Khingali, cooked in the broth and the drained ram meat are enriched by the tart juices, fresh fruit, rich preserves and bitter salads. All the dishes are served at the same time unlike in European cooking (61). This is probably more to show a groaning table rather than for reasons of taste. In the same way, before dinner in Untsukul, our host fired a shotgun in the air to show the neighbours that an honoured guest had arrived, who brought honour and pride to the host and his family. Our hosts clearly enjoyed the act of hospitality and eating their own traditional food. When I suggested that it might be interesting to add eggs to the Khingali pasta, they smiled resignedly and laughed (62). This is how they have always made their food and, like their mountains, it is an inalienable part of their identity.

1. Map of the region.
2. Arakhanee mountain village.
3. Ethnological map, Vienna, 1943.
4. Map of tour, 1986.
5. Ram Davaghin rug.
6. Koubachi (hereafter K) dormer window with tin ram's horns.
7. Chechen mountain goat.
8. Stone carving of hunting for rams, drawing by Debirov.
9. Landscape with cattle.
10. Cattle drinking trough at Mitaghi.
11. Plains goat and sheep.
12. Avar shepherd.
13. Chechen stuffed (?)sheep.
14. Khingali and carving turkey.
15. Carved wooden bowls with horns.
16. Woman and children with spoon box, K.
17. Ram horn spoon box, Makhatchkala museum.
18. Interior with ram capital, showing hearth position, drawing by Debirov.
19. Dag[-? — A.B.] outdoor new bread oven and stove.
20. Tab[-assaran? — A.B.] underground bread oven and tinned round platter.
21. Peach seller, K.
22. Ding or dried wheat neolithic crusher.
23. Tasting Yersi Muscadet grapes.
24. Mountain village house fronts and verandahs, K.
25. Dried ram on wood lamp frame on floor, K.
26. Chechen road by the Chanti Argun river.
27. Archaeological bronze rams' heads, Makhatchkala museum.
28. Dag[-? — A.B.] wood lintel with carved horns, Debirov.
29. Market with sheep's head, K.
30. Market, tomatoes in car boot, K.
31. Market, aubergines and green peppers, K.
32. Makhatchkala market, sheep cheese.
33. Roofs, K.
34. Guest room with shelves with dowry, K.
35. Bronze cauldron, K.
36. Grosny museum, Chechen, felt mosaic, Istang.
37. Carved stone fireplace, K.
38. Stairs up to dining room, Gumi.
39. Eating, Gumi.
40. Plank bridge over Avar Koisu river.
41. Rekom Ossete sanctuary with horn gable finials and ram skulls.
42. Avar sanctuary, Botlikh, with ram skulls on wall, Debirov.
43. Avar Islamic tombstones with ram horns, Debirov.
44. Dag[-? — A.B.] carved stone fire surrounds, with rams, Debirov.
45. Either the top of a 7-foot wide cross, or ram's stone, Debirov.
46. Mitaghi tombstone with (?)woolskeins, possibly 15th century.
47. Modern Chechen tombstone with painted horns, dated 1954.
48. Sacrificing priests, Khevsurs, from Nioradze.
49. Tombstones with slabs, K.
50. Makhatchkala giant wood capital, ram's horn shape.
51. Drawings of 3 similar capitals, Debirov.
52. Mosque near Khuchni with horn gables.
53. Ruguda mosque with horn topped wood columns, Debirov.
54. Detail of 53.
55. Azerbaijani stone ram.
56. Azerbaijani stone ram with carved dagger, etc.
57. Karachaev felt mask, from Studenetskaya.
58. Masked horsemen, from Studenetskaya.
59. Davaghin rug with horsemen in felt horned helmets, Buinaksk mosque.
60. Funeral mourners, picture by Nioradze.
61. The author and host wearing black shaggy felt bourkas.
62. Sunset landscape, Avar Koisu river.

CHENCINER, Robert, & SALMANOV, E., "Little-known Aspects of North East Caucasian Mountain Ram and Other Dishes", in Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, London: Prospect, 1987