Cooking in the Caucasus

In 2010, we spent a lot of time eating food. What made the food-eating a little more noteworthy is that we were both abroad for a decent amount of 2010. Both of us quickly realized that for us, being abroad is more about expanding one’s stomach than about expanding one’s horizons.

Now that it’s 2011, we’re still eating, but we’re both back at Swarthmore and a little nostalgic for the new foods and recipes we encountered. This column will be our excuse to make use of the dingy, windowless cell that is the Willets Kitchen and to share a few of our favorite recipes and stories from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

For each article, we plan to spend no more than $20 on groceries at the Co-op or another of the local grocery stores. As most of these dishes should serve 4 – 6 people, you and your friends can enjoy something delicious for much less than the cost of going out in Philadelphia.

Two things that we are not including in the cost of making one of these dishes are spices and cooking supplies like pots, pans and olive oil. If you’re dying to make one of these dishes and don’t have some of these supplies, ask us and we might be able to lend them to you. Our column will begin a story from one of us about how we came across the recipes, followed by an account of our joint endeavor to re-create the magic of these dishes stateside.

Today’s column comes straight from Tbilisi, Georgia, where Jasper spent far too little time back in September/early October. Georgia is located in the Caucasus, a part of Europe that’s bordered by Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Black and Caspian Seas. The country is famous throughout the Former Soviet Union for its food, which combines elements of Eastern European, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines.

When eating with Georgians, it’s important to remember that one toasts his or her friends with hard alcohol or wine, but never, ever beer. Only Vladimir Putin and the separatist leaders to the north should be toasted with beer.

The Story: Jasper’s Georgian Cooking Lesson

I arrived in Western Georgia towards the end of a long solo trip across Eastern Europe that culminated in hitchhiking to the Turkish-Georgian border in a bakery delivery truck. After a day or two in Batumi, a city on the Black Sea, I caught the midnight train to Tbilisi.

Not far from the train station, up a couple of muddy streets and past a small produce market (where most sellers delight in refusing payment from Americans) is the Tbilisi Hostel. The owner, Beka, and a couple of other Georgians run the place, and they have succeeded in creating a sort of un-smelly Willets of the Caucasus that was always overflowing with Indians, Israelis, Poles, and Turks, with the occasional Azeri or Iranian thrown in to the mix. The hostel’s kitchen, needless to say, was a fascinating place to hang out.

My recipe list being a little California-centric (Fajitas? Check. Khachapuri? Nope.), I soon found myself under the tutelage of the Indian, two Poles, and a couple of Israelis at my hostel. The first dish I learned how to make is called shakshouka, and was a favorite of the Israelis.

The dish is originally from Morocco, but has become a favorite in Israel, where 15% of the population is descended from Moroccan Jews. Shakshouka, in its most basic form, is a dish involving stir fried vegetables, lots of tomatoes, and eggs cooked sunny side up on top of everything else. Brahim El-Guabli, a native of Morocco who teaches in Swarthmore’s Arabic Department, told us that shakshouka is traditionally prepared for close friends and family, and is not considered a feast or celebration meal. However, everyone seems to have their own idea of how to make the recipe, including the Indian, who insisted on adding as many spices as possible.

The second dish, khinkali, is actually Georgian, and is one of the staples of Georgian cuisine. Khinkali are large meat dumplings with broth inside, and are usually eaten hot with cold beer. During George W. Bush’s visit to Georgia, he declared them his favorite Georgian food, which may have contributed to the Georgian government’s decision to name the road from downtown to Tbilisi’s airport after him.

Khinkali must be eaten with care; one must bite into the dumpling and suck out the broth quickly, or it may spill all over the poor diner. The top of the dumpling, sometimes referred to as the “hat,” should not be eaten, but instead placed on one’s plate. The hats don’t taste as good, and, set down on a plate, they serve as spoils of your culinary conquests.

The Cooking: From The Tbilisi Hostel to the Willets Kitchen

We began our foray into this international cooking project one snowy evening in the Willets basement. Shakshouka is rather straightforward to prepare, and the biggest challenge we encountered was preventing the bottom from burning while achieving a nice sunny side up consistency with the eggs on top. The finicky settings on most of the electric stoves on campus make this especially challenging, so we suggest using the broiler in the oven to finish cooking the eggs if they aren’t cooked to satisfaction on the stovetop.

Shakshouka is an excellent addition to any midnight breakfast, as well as a nice take on the traditional stir fry. With a little ingenuity, you could even pull off some approximation of it in Sharples.

The khinkali proved a little more work-intensive, and required a solid evening of dough rolling, mincing, stuffing, boiling and eating. This occurred, appropriately enough, on the night of Chinese New Year, when making dumplings is simply the thing to do. We invited a couple friends and did several rounds of khinkali, which you’ll want to do if you take the time to make these briny, savory dumplings from scratch.

Trial and error is an essential part of the search for the perfect khinkali, but a few tips may help you get off to a good start. The wrappers should be thin, but not so much so that they might break open while boiling. Tinker with the water and flour ratio to get a smooth, firm dough that doesn’t stick. Make sure to firmly seal the tops with a pinch and twist if necessary, and make sure the edges of the wrapper are thin enough to avoid an overly doughy top. The optimum number of folds is 18 according to a khinkali authority, but we did just fine with eight to ten. An unopened soda can serves as a suitable substitute for a rolling pin if you don’t have one. However, we would caution you not to immediately open it after using it in this fashion.

The Recipes: Shakshouka and Khinkali

Shakshouka
Feeds: 4 -6
Co-op cost: $17
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:
olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced (going to Paces afterwards? make it 2, please)
2 bell peppers, chopped (I prefer one red and one orange for purely aesthetic reasons)
½ an eggplant, chopped
3 medium tomatoes, chopped
6 eggs
Spices:
Turmeric
Paprika
Cumin
These three are essential, but you can also try adding shawarma spice, shakshouka spice, or a tiny amount of cinnamon.

1. Turn the stove on medium and add a tablespoon of olive oil to your frying pan. Add the onions and garlic.
2. When the onions become soft, add the peppers. Add turmeric, paprika and cumin. The exact amount that you will want to add depends on personal preference, but I would suggest trying 1.5 teaspoons of turmeric and paprika and a pinch or two of cumin. I prefer to add a portion of the spices with each vegetable and taste as I go. If the vegetables taste weak, add a little more spice.
3. When the peppers have cooked for a couple of minutes and are also soft, add the eggplant. Stir. Once the eggplant has cooked for a similar amount of time, add the tomatoes. Stir.
4. Allow the tomatoes a minute or two of cooking time, and then give the pan one final stir.
5. Turn the stove down to simmer and crack the eggs on top of the vegetables, so that they cook sunny side up. Your goal is to cook the eggs until the whites solidify and the yolks are mostly solid, without allowing the vegetables to burn. If they do start to burn and you don’t have access to a broiler, choose edibility over appearance and stir the whole mix.

Serve hot, with salt, pepper and spices available to add as desired. French fries are a popular side dish. בתיאבון (bete’avon) and بالصحة والراحة” Ø© (belsaha wel raha)!

Khinkali
Feeds: 6 – 8
Co-op cost: $19.54
Prep time: 45 – 60 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes per batch/1 hour total

Ingredients:
1.5 pounds of ground lamb and beef, combined (we actually used only lamb, and using only beef is fine as well)
2-3 large onions, minced finely
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped finely
9 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups lukewarm saltwater (approximate)
7 tablespoons lukewarm saltwater
Spices:
Salt
Black pepper

1. Create the filling by mixing together the finely chopped cilantro and onions, the ground meat, 7 tablespoons of lukewarm saltwater, salt and pepper.
2. Make the dough by mixing 3 cups of lukewarm saltwater and the all-purpose flour. Mix with a spoon until it forms a dough, and then knead until smooth. Add additional flour or water as needed to make a smooth, non-sticky texture.
3. Create wrappers by rolling out 2 inch rounds of dough to a diameter of approximately 5 – 6 inches. Make the edges extra thin.
4. Place 1 – 2 tablespoons of the filling in the center of the wrapper, and fold the edges up, pinching at the top. The dumplings should be roughly pear shaped. Make sure they’re fully sealed.
5. Place the dumplings in a pot of boiling saltwater. They should sink to the bottom. After they rise to the top, allow them to cook for six more minutes and then remove.
6. Sprinkle with black pepper and salt to taste. Be sure to eat them properly (see above) and with a cold beer. გაამოს (gaamos)!

Coming up in our next column, Clara recounts her adventures and misadventures in Syria, and we cook up some Aleppan cuisine.


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