No matter where you are dining in the Caucasus, certain things are going to be consistent: fresh, local ingredients and vivid flavors. These are age-old cuisines and the classic dishes are second to none. Here are a few highlights – and recipes!
When you travel in Armenia you will frequently see a brazier going on the side of the road, a signal that kabobs (shashlik) are being grilled at a nearby establishment, or home. Kabobs are ubiquitous, and whether it is chicken, beef or lamb, it will be family farm raised. Other staples of the Armenian table are yogurts both thick and kefir-like, and white cheeses served with fresh herbs and crèpe-thin lavish bread. Stuffed tomatoes, peppers and of course, grape leaves are typical main and side courses. Fruits both ripe and dried add sweet/tart flavors (particularly the famous Armenian apricot). Although a plethora of aromatic spices, usually associated with Indian food is used, this is not a spicy-hot cuisine.
Here’s a recipe for stuffed grape leaves. It’s time consuming, but a great team project, with results that always get raves—you’ll be spoiled for any other kind.
1 cup short grained rice
7 cups onions, chopped
1 cup olive oil
½ cup finely shopped parsley
¼ cup chopped dill
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup currants
2 TBs cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
50 grape leaves
Line the bottom of a pot with flat grape leaves. Use the small torn ones which are not good for rolling. This prevents the rolled grape leaves from burning. Mix all ingredients (except leaves) in a big skillet and stir constantly over a low flame for about 20 minutes. It should maintain a mushy consistency, add a little more olive oil and lemon if it gets dry. Rinse and drain leaves. Put a grape leaf on a plate smooth side down, stem side up. Put a generous teaspoon of the filling in the center. Start rolling like a cigarette, halfway through tuck the sides in and continue rolling. Do not roll too tightly, as the rice will swell and tear the leaf when you cook it. Arrange the rolled leaves side by side in the pan, 2 or 3 layers, depending on size of pot. Place a plate on top of the leaves to keep them secure, add 2 cups of water and optional ¼ cup olive oil. Cover and cook on very low flame 1.5 hours. Do not uncover them until they are cool to avoid discoloring. Refrigerate, then serve with lemon slice garnish.
The Georgian kitchen is probably the best known of the Caucasus cuisines. Walnuts, pomegranates and tarragon play a major role in Georgian food, along with a surprising peppery heat. (But dining in the Caucasus in rarely an overly heated experience, just a mild kick here and there!)
Georgia also has a history of viniculture stretching back 7,000 years or maybe even more, so pairing the right wine with any meal is a lot of fun. The Tsinanadali white wines are fresh, delicate and dry, while Saperavi is the richest and darkest of the Georgian reds with a whole spectrum in between to choose from.
One taste is worth a thousand words…Here is an easy recipe for an oyster mushroom dish from the “Pheasant’s Tears” restaurant (and winery) in the mountaintop town of Sighnaghi. It was relayed to us verbally by the chef.
Oyster mushrooms grow in abundance in Georgia, and have a very delicate flavor and texture. If you cannot get them you can use regular button mushrooms, or thinly sliced portobello, and this treatment will still impart a surprisingly delicious—and typically Georgian-- flavor to them.
Sauté mushrooms in oil or butter with salt, some chiles and garlic. Add some fresh tarragon last, cook one more minute, till tarragon has imparted its aroma. All ingredients are to taste, but don’t be afraid to add a bit more than you normally would. You can’t go far wrong. Again, it’s easy but it’s a wonderfully unique dish.
Of the countries of the Caucasus, the Azerbaijani kitchen may be the most influenced by Persian and Turkish cooking. Although breads and potatoes are served, rice is the Queen Carb here, and there are tons of variations on pilaf. One of the most visually striking is Khan Plov, a regal pilaf of dried fruits, saffron, chestnuts and lamb --made even more impressive by being encased in a crisp phyllo-like wrapping.
Saffron is grown in Azerbaijan, and so this most heavenly of aromatics is a main flavoring in many dishes. The coastline on the Caspian Sea also yields several fish; in particular sturgeon and its prized roe, black caviar. Since 85% of Azerbaijan is Muslim, it is not traditional to drink wine; instead there are a variety of refreshing liquid sherbets, made from fruit juices. In Azerbaijan, as with most dining in the Caucasus the presentation of food is also a visually aesthetic experience.
Here is a recipe for Manqal, a classic grilled vegetable salad, great for summer:
3-4 small eggplants
2 red bell peppers
1/2 raw chile –or to taste
1/2 red onion
fresh basil to taste
fresh cilantro to taste
4 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp of olive oil
Grill eggplants, tomatoes, and bell peppers until tender. When cool, peel skins and cut them into small cubes. Put in a colander and press to remove excess juices. Transfer to a bowl. Finely chop basil and cilantro. Fine dice onion, garlic and chile. Mix with the vegetables, dress with vinegar, olive oil, and salt (to taste). Put in a serving bowl. Refrigerate for 30 min.