In the light of recent and not-so-recent events, where more and more neighbouring countries have gone to war and lost connections that have been cemented for centuries or have foolishly erected further barriers between them, I slipped into even more of a pitfall trying to navigate my way around and write sensitively about my family and friends’ life-long experiences. In times of great economic struggle, people fall apart. I have seen it happen on a personal level, where close friends, parents and their children or siblings break ties with each other. When it’s hard to survive financially, hard to stay strong together and hard to make sense of history and events, it’s easy to forget what unites us.
On a greater scale, the same happens with entire countries, which fall out and drag us even further along the road of alienation and conflict, inciting hatred, misunderstandings and worse. This happened to my Armenian family who are originally from Nagorno-Karabakh and have inspired me to write this book. A war broke out in Karabakh in the 1980s, forcing them first to abandon their summer house and then to leave that region — and eventually Azerbaijan’s capital Baku — to relocate to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
Their house was largely destroyed, with only their huge, beloved library room still standing with hundreds of books left abandoned and rotting on the shelves. Yet despite the anguish, mutual hostility and atrocities, I have not once heard my Armenian aunt say anything negative about Azerbaijanis.
She has always reiterated that it was an artificially created conflict, like so many of them were at the time and still are. I was taught from the start (perhaps in rather naive terms, but…) that people and human values are universal. Whether you are Armenian, Azerbaijani or Georgian or one of any of the other Caucasian peoples, so much of the culture of the region is intertwined and destinies interwoven, and — on a more domestic level — so many cooking techniques and dishes are shared and borrowed.
Geopolitics can often be an ugly, unfortunate reality, just like unemployment, financial difficulties and any other man-made afflictions. But I am glad that I grew up without having to take any sides. We cherished our Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, Ossetian, Karachai and Adegei friends all the same, equally interested in what they had to say, what they remembered, what they held dear and, of course, what they cooked!
Badrijani nigvzit or aubergine rolls
There are so many recipes for stuffed aubergines in the Caucasus — some simple, some more complicated. I tasted this in my beloved city of Zugdidi (western Georgia) and this is just how I have been taught to make it. It is one of those perfect universal recipes that will shine all over the world and is now my number one choice if I ever have to cater for a vegetarian friend. It is as filling as it is delectable.
— 6 tablespoons sunflower oil
— 2 large aubergines, halved lengthways
— 2 onions, diced
— 100g (3½oz) walnuts
— 1 garlic clove, crushed
— 1 small bunch of flat leaf parsley, leaves picked and finely chopped
— 1 small bunch of coriander, stalks and all, finely chopped
— ½ teaspoon Red Adjika Salt or some cayenne pepper
— ½ teaspoon Green Adjika (optional)
— seeds of 1 small pomegranate
— sea salt flakes, if needed
1. Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a large frying pan or griddle pan, add the aubergine halves cut side down and allow to colour. Flip them, then reduce the heat and cover the pan with a lid. The aubergine slices need to be cooked through, soft and malleable, so it may take up to 20 minutes for this to happen — be patient. If you prefer, brush the aubergine halves with the oil, sit them cut side up on a baking tray and roast in a preheated oven at 200°C (400°F), Gas Mark 6, for 15–20 minutes until nice and golden, then flip and cook for a further 15 minutes until the aubergines seem soft enough to be folded in two.
2. While the aubergines are cooking, make the stuffing. Fry the onions in the remaining two tablespoons of oil until golden, then leave to cool and strain off any excess oil.
3. Meanwhile, blitz the walnuts until really finely ground in an electric spice or coffee grinder.
4. Mix together the ground walnuts, cooled strained onions, garlic, herbs and both adjikas, if using, or cayenne really well. Taste and add sea salt if needed, then gently stir through half the pomegranate seeds.
5. Drain the aubergine halves on kitchen paper. Spread a tablespoon of the stuffing along each aubergine half, then fold in two. Place a tiny bit of the stuffing on top and add a few more pomegranate seeds to garnish.
This is a meal in itself — a luscious cheesy, eggy, buttery bath to dip the edges of the bread into. I got the original recipe from Arkadiy Petrosyan, a master acharuli bread-maker from Batumi on the Black Sea coast. He used an incredibly fresh Imeretian cheese that I found was impossible to source outside Georgia but that you can make yourself. Yotam Ottolenghi uses a mixture of ricotta, halloumi and feta, which works a treat, while Nigella Lawson favours feta, mozzarella and ricotta and Felicity Cloake in The A–Z of Eating opts for hard mozzarella and feta. I have tried it with my beloved Ogleshield instead of halloumi and its mild dairiness was closer to the original. If you can’t find it, try a 2:1 ratio of Edam and Cheddar instead.
— 7g (¼oz) fast-action dried yeast
— 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
— 200ml (7fl oz) lukewarm water
— 450g (1lb) organic white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
— 10g (¼oz) fine sea salt
— 100g (3½oz) full-fat twaróg or ricotta cheese
— 250g (9oz) Ogleshield cheese or raclette
— 250g (9oz) feta cheese, crumbled
— 6 small eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
1. To make the dough, mix the yeast with the sugar, water, flour and salt in a bowl. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and either leave in the refrigerator overnight or somewhere in your kitchen for an hour or so until doubled in size.
2. For the filling, mix the cheeses with the single egg yolk and use a fork to mash well.
3. Preheat the oven to its highest setting and heat a couple of baking sheets — or a pizza stone if you have one.
4. Flour your work surface really well. Cover your hands in flour and scrape the dough on to your work surface. Knead it in the flour a little if it’s too sticky. Divide the dough into 6 pieces — each piece should be about 100g (3½oz). Roll out each piece of dough on a lightly floured work surface into a 18cm (7-inch) round. Stretch either side of each round to elongate and then pile 100g (3½oz) of filling in the centre, leaving a 5mm (¼ inch) border around the edge. Bring two sides of the dough up to meet in the middle and pinch a seam together to seal, similar to a Cornish pasty. Press down with the flat of your hand to flatten it, then flip it over so the seam is face down. With a sharp knife, make a slash along the middle of the dough and push the sides open to expose the filling. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling to make 6 khachapouris.
5. Slide the khachapouris on to the hot baking trays and bake for 10 minutes until the sides turn golden. Crack an egg into the centre of each, then bake for a further 2–3 minutes. To eat, pinch the dough from one end and use it to dip and mix the runny egg yolk into the filling.
In Georgia, the finished article will be served with yet more cubes of butter dropped inside the boats as soon as they come out of the oven. If you have amazing butter and you love it, go ahead. Get your cushions and duvet ready for straight after. Zzzzz.
Red adjika salt
There are numerous types of adjika, ranging from dry garlic and chilli salt to chilli pastes. The commercially produced watery sauces are best avoided. My friend Ia called this recipe the generalnaya adjika, and it’s the mother of all adjikas.
People rarely make this at home and I have been told that only professionals know the secret to the perfect general adjika. But I am never deterred in such situations, so I grabbed a 3kg (6lb 8oz) tub at the market in Zugdidi, and brought it back to London to begin my experiment. You will need to source some good blue fenugreek or what the Georgians call utskho suneli, which is used in numerous dishes in this book. It is extremely versatile, so just apply your imagination and creative flair with abandon. Use it sprinkled over eggs or used in a salad dressing.
Makes about 750g (1lb 10oz)
— 200g (7oz) ground blue fenugreek
— 100g (3½oz) ground coriander
— 65g (2¼oz) dried marigold petals or powder
— 40 garlic cloves, peeled
— 100g (3½oz) cayenne pepper (or the same quantity of fresh red chillies if you want tomake a wet paste – see Variation below)
— 200g (7oz) sea salt flakes
Bash everything together using a pestle and mortar, or pass through a meat mincer, which is what’s mostly used these days, as it results in neat red salt pellets that keep very well out of the refrigerator.
What you will end up with essentially is a flavoured salt, so use it sparingly. It will keep for a couple of months in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
To make a wet paste version, Wet Red Adjika, simply use fresh red chillies instead of the cayenne. Store the paste in the refrigerator in a sterilised airtight jar, adding a thin film of oil on top if you want it to keep for longer.
There are so many ways to extract flavour from saffron. Some advise pouring hot water over it; some say to grind it with salt with a pestle and mortar. My friend Zulya instructed me to soak it in a bowl of warm water (hot water kills the flavour, she says), with the bowl standing on a warm surface.
— 100g (3½ oz) Clarified Butter
— 1 small organic chicken, cut into 10 pieces
— 4–5 onions, not too thinly sliced
— pinch of ground turmeric
— pinch of saffron threads, soaked in 50ml (2fl oz) warm water for 5 minutes with the bowl standing on a warm surface
— 50ml (2fl oz) verjuice or lemon juice
— 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
— 6 eggs
— 1 tablespoon natural yogurt
1. Heat the Clarified Butter in a large pan and brown the chicken pieces, in batches, really well. Set aside.
2. Add the onions to the pan and fry over a medium heat for about 10 minutes until they are light golden, then stir in the turmeric, the saffron and its soaking water, verjuice or lemon juice and sugar.
3. Return all the chicken to the pan, cover with a lid and cook for 10–15 minutes. Then turn off the heat and leave to cool.
4. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F), Gas Mark 4.
5. Beat the eggs and yogurt together.
6. Pack the chicken and onions snugly into a baking dish and pour over the egg mixture, then prod all over with a spoon so that the egg mixture is evenly distributed. Bake for 35 minutes until golden and crispy on top, then serve as part of a bigger feast.
Tarragon and cucumber lemonade
Instead of cola and fizzy orange drinks, us ex-Soviet children grew up drinking a fizzy, fluorescent green pop called tarkhun, meaning “tarragon”. It was poisonous-green, very sweet yet somehow delicious. Tarragon is extremely popular in Georgia — they do not shy away from its strong flavour. I do love the addition of cucumbers like they do in the Pheasant’s Tears restaurant in Signagi, a town in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia, which makes this summer drink even fresher.
Makes about 3 litres (5¼ pints)
— 500ml (18fl oz) water
— 200g (7oz) caster sugar
— finely grated zest and juice of 4 (preferably Sicilian) lemons
— 2 bunches of tarragon
— 2 cucumbers, sliced
— 2 litres (3½ pints) cold sparkling mineral water
1. Put the still water into a saucepan with the sugar and heat over a low heat, stirring often, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Leave to cool completely, then stir in the lemon zest and juice.
2. Blitz the tarragon (reserving a few sprigs) and half the cucumber in a blender or foodprocessor (easier and less splashy than using a pestle and mortar, although you can do it that way). Strain the mixture through a fine sieve.
3. Mix the lemony cordial with the tarragon and cucumber juice and dilute it as you would with any cordial — topped up with sparkling or still water. Garnish with the reserved tarragon and cucumber. This is not too bad with a dash of gin, too.
There are as many adjika recipes as there are tkemali (plum sauce) recipes, and every woman has her own. I love this one that I picked up in the city of Zugdidi in the western Georgian province of Samegrelo. Stir a little bit through plain cooked pulses or through yogurt. It is also excellent used as a base for a dressing for roast root vegetables or with added gherkins or capers over soft-boiled eggs.
Makes about 400ml (14fl oz)
— 2 celery sticks, roughly chopped
— 1 bunch of coriander, leaves, stalks and roots (if the roots are available, well washed)
— 1 bunch of flat leaf parsley, stalks and all
— 1 bunch of basil, stalks only
— 5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
— 10 green chillies (leave the seeds in if you like it hotter)
— 20g (3/4oz) sea salt flakes
Blitz everything together in a powerful blender or food processor. You will end up with a wet, green paste. Store in the refrigerator for up to one month.
Text: Olia Hercules
Imagery credit: Elena Heatherwick
Food stylist: Olia Hercules
This is an extract from Kaukasis: The Cookbook by Olia Hercules, published by Mitchell Beazley on 10 August, 2017, £25
Want more stories delivered to your inbox? Sign up to our newsletter here:
More from Life & Style
A drag queen’s guide to infiltrating post-Soviet pop culture
Step inside the art hubs, bars and co-working spaces reimagining the city
Inside the secretive queer night at Tbilisi’s world-famous Bassiani club