By Darra Goldstein for Prague Watchdog
Chechen food reflects a self-reliance that comes from centuries of dealing with harsh conditions, both natural and political. Because the region’s mountains and ravines are inhospitable to most crops, the Chechens developed a repertoire of basic dishes that are notable for their simplicity and nutritiousness. The food is forthright and plain, never elaborated or spicy. Like other cuisines that fall under the heading of cucina povera—the food of the poor—traditional Chechen cooking relies largely on grains, vegetables, and dairy products, although meat is considerably more common now than it was in the past.
Part of the simplicity of Chechen cuisine is also due to the cooking methods employed. While Russian peasants, who shared an equally limited diet, relied on the great Russian stove, which melded flavors through slow cooking, the Chechens historically used an open hearth to prepare foods that cooked quickly—a reflection not only of their kitchen technology, but also of the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the alpine shepherds.
Just as Chechen food stands apart from Russian, so too does it differ from that of Georgia, its neighbor to the south. For one thing, Chechnya could not boast a major city like Tbilisi, which lay athwart important trade routes. Even though Chechen territory was repeatedly invaded and occupied over the centuries, its inhabitants did not enjoy the same abundant flow of goods, especially new foodstuffs and spices. Chechnya was more remote, and its soil less arable. This relative isolation meant that until the mid to late twentieth century—until becoming somewhat russified under the Soviet system—Chechen food remained largely distinct.
Although most Chechen dishes are not heavily spiced, they are typically enhanced with salt, pepper, onion, and garlic, which add lively flavor. The garlic and onion also provide essential vitamins, especially Vitamin C, as do the two wild greens the Chechens favor: cheremsha (wild garlic) and the young leaves of nettle. Cheremsha is often pickled; sometimes it becomes a dish in its own right when boiled and then baked with an egg, like a frittata. Nettles are often mixed with fresh farmer’s cheese (tvorog) and baked into a pie. Although greens are important to the Chechen diet, they are not eaten fresh by the handful, as they are in neighboring Georgia; the wild greens the Chechens favor must normally be processed before eating, unlike the warm-weather garden crops of cilantro, basil, and other herbs.
Other foraged foods include various berries and fruits, such as barberries, blackthorn, and cornelian cherries. Wild grapes abound, as they do throughout much of the Caucasus, and these the Chechens press for juice, which they drink fresh and also boil down into a sweet syrup. Because of Islam’s predominance, a culture of winemaking did not develop in Chechnya, as it did in Christian Georgia.
The lack of good cropland has meant that European vegetable crops were not historically cultivated in Chechnya, although once they were introduced, the Chechens excelled in coaxing a harvest from small, difficult plots of land. Given the contemporary reliance on such staples as potatoes and cabbage, it is hard to believe that they were introduced into the region only in the second half of the nineteenth century. These new crops initially encountered widespread resistance, as they had in Russia, where the peasants were suspicious of the potato’s “eyes” and underground growth, which associated the tuber in their minds with the realm of the devil. The Muslim Chechens considered these vegetables “Christian” and thus did not want to ingest them; only gradually were they accepted. Also in the nineteenth century, cucurbits and melons, especially watermelons, were introduced to the Chechen lowlands, where they came to be highly regarded for their excellent flavor.
Oats, barley and millet—all hearty grains that thrive in harsh conditions—provided the main source of nutrition; barley was further appreciated for its ability to be brewed into braga, a type of beer. However, ever since corn was introduced in the eighteenth century, most likely from Turkey, it has been the favored grain in the Chechen diet. Where western Georgians mix cornmeal and water into mchadi, dry cakes traditionally baked in earthenware pots over an open fire, the Chechens prepare siskal, griddled corncakes served either savory or laced with sugar. Both Chechens and Georgians prepare a polenta-like cornmeal porridge, and corn is also used fresh in salads, often in combination with potatoes or beans.
While the Georgians adopted some northern European practices and now bake both traditional flatbreads and yeast-raised loaves, the Chechens, by contrast, still rely on various forms of their native churek—a flat, unyeasted bread mixed simply from wheat or barley flour and water. Because churek tends to be dry, it does not keep well and is best when made fresh daily. It provides a perfect vehicle for the fat from the fat-tailed sheep, which serves as a butter-like spread.
Sheep, goats and cows were traditionally kept more for the dairy products they yielded than for their meat, which was usually traded for the corn and wheat that couldn’t thrive in the highlands. Whether boiled or grilled over an open fire, lamb remains a ceremonial dish. The Chechens share with other cultures of the Caucasus a reverence toward guests, to whom they extend extraordinary hospitality. In the past, the most esteemed visitors were presented with the head or eyes of the sheep. Today, for special occasions, the lamb is more likely to appear in pilaf, a rice dish with meat and vegetables that is widespread throughout Iran and Central Asia. Similar to other foods from Turkic culinary cultures are the wide range of cultured milk products the Chechens prepare, such as airan and kefir. However, the Chechens are also known for making excellent salted sheep’s milk cheese, similar to bryndza, a skill they share with the mountain dwellers of Georgia’s Tusheti region.
Thanks in part to the style of life necessitated by herding, the Chechens traditionally prepared foods that could either be eaten quickly or preserved for a considerable time. Thus butter was usually heated to clarify it for long keeping. When a cow was slaughtered, sausages both fresh and smoked were prepared; most of the meat, however, was dried, like jerky, and sometimes later rehydrated in stews. Even today, meat dishes are usually enhanced with dumplings, although unlike Italian ravioli or Russian pelmeni, the dumplings are not served as a standalone dish. Furthermore, following the Islamic rules of halal, the Chechens do not fill their dumplings with pork, as the Georgians do their khinkali, the overstuffed boiled dumplings of the contiguous mountainous zones; they use lamb instead. The dough for Chechen dumplings is often made of wheat flour, although for the classic zhizhig-galvash—boiled lamb with dumplings and garlic sauce—cornmeal is favored.
Dolmanash, stuffed meat rolls, are akin to Russian golubtsy or Turkish dolma, whose name they reflect. These rolls are a good way to stretch scarce ingredients. Originally the filling was wrapped in burdock leaves, but today, as in Russia, cabbage leaves are most often used. There is also a signature Chechen pie, chuda, filled with meat, farmer’s cheese, or pumpkin, which is baked until aromatic and golden. Although fish is hardly a mainstay of Chechen cuisine, such river and lake fish as trout, carp, and bream are enjoyed, either grilled over a fire or simply steamed.
Once the lid of the cooking pot is lifted, outside influences from Turkic and Russian cultures can be readily discerned. Yet Chechen food continues to reflect the people’s historical isolation and resilience, both of which have contributed to a repertoire of simple, hearty dishes that recall the region’s dramatic mountains and lush pastures.
Aliroev, I.Iu. and L.M. Dadaev. Pishcha vainakhov. Moscow: Tipografiia GUP TsRP, 2001.
Geshaev, Musa. Kavkazskaia kukhnia: Retsepty dolgoletiia. Tipografiia STIGE Spa, 2003.
Kasumov, S. and A. Illaev, eds. Kulinariia narodov Dagestana. Makhachkala: Dagknigoizdat, 1994.
Pokhlebkin, V.V. Natsional’nye kukhni nashikh narodov. Moscow: Pishchevaia promyshlennost’, 1978.
Darra Goldstein is the Frances Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Russian at Williams College and Editor-in-Chief of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture." View her website http://www.darragoldstein.com.
(T,D) RELATED ARTICLES:
· Chechen society (our articles on the people of Chechnya)