Galnesh, Spirit of the Mountains

As I mentioned in my previous post my mother side of the family comes from Chechnya, a tiny nation in the North Caucasus Mountains. The geographical nature of the area as well as two hundred years of on and off wars and independence attempts from Russia left their mark on the Chechen cuisine. The food in Chechnya is very simple and basic. The available vegetables are no more than potatoes, garlic, onion, cabbage and few wild greens as the Caucasus with its sharp slopes and cold weather didn't offer a suitable environment for farming. During war time especially winter months people had to survive on very little but flour, dairy and preserved meats. Chechen in the diaspora although left Chechnya over a century ago managed to preserve some of their cuisine till this day.

My grandparents house wasn't strictly Chechen since my Grandmother is Kurdish. The language spoken in the house was Arabic and the vast majority of the food was Syrian. Nevertheless, few Chechen dishes were always on the menu. One of the most unusual dishes my granddad (and occasionally my mum) enjoyed for breakfast was Churychay. This was a bowl of hot tea and milk but instead of sugar salt and pepper and a piece of butter is added. You then dip your bread to soak the tea. When you are full you simply drink what is left! You can imagine my horror when I first tasted this stuff at eight years of age. This dish is the ultimate evidence that food is an acquired taste.

Kurzanesh was a crowd-pleaser in my grandparents house. It is minced lamb filled dumplings steamed or boiled depending how many hungry mouths my grandma had to feed. These then eaten alone or with garlic and yogurt sauce.

My favorite Chechen dish (this might be my favourite dish ever, or very close up there) is Chechenya's national dish Galnesh (Galvash, Djir-Galnish and Zhizhig-Galvash are other names of this dish). A simple pasta like dough cooked in meat broth and eaten with very strong Garlic sauce. This simple, filling and hearty dish reflects more than any other the historical isolation and resilience of the Chechen nation.

Here is my recipe:

Plain Flour 2 cups
One Egg
Lamb cubes 500g (or even better, lamb shanks)
Garlic 5-6 cloves
Water 1 cup

Meat in Chechen cooking is always boiled (All Chechen food is cooked by boiling on open stove . There is hardly any fried or roasted dishes). Start with adding a liter or so of water to cover your meat. Bring to the boil making sure you regularly skim the surface to get a clear tasty stock. Season with salt and pepper. Once boiled reduce the heat and simmer for 60 - 90 minutes till the meat is nice and tender. Once cooked remove the meat aside. Keep a bowl of the meat stock for the garlic sauce. The rest of the stock will be used to cook the Galnesh.

Once the meat is simmering, start making your dough. Mix the flour, egg, one tea spoon of salt and 3/4 cup of water and start mixing. Add more water if the dough is too hard, the final dough need to be Pasta-like hard dough. Work the dough for few minutes, cover with a damp cloth and let rest for 30 minutes.

When the dough is rested, cut into pieces and flatten with your hand to 5 mm thick. Cut into small squares. On a well floured wooden cutting board, using your fingers, press and roll the dough squares to form the Galnesh fingers. Arrange on a tray till the meat is cooked and you are ready to cook them. The video below will show you the way.

In a large pot add boiling water to the rest of the meat stock and bring to the boil. Drop the Galnesh fingers and cook for 20 - 25 minutes. This is similar to cooking pasta. The Galnesh need to be slightly al dente.

Crush the garlic cloves with salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the garlic to the meat stock preserved to make your dipping sauce. This need to be salty and very very garlicky.

Arrange your Galnesh around the sauce bowl and the meat pieces on top. With your fork take some meat and a piece of Galnesh, dip in the garlic sauce and enjoy.

Granddad, May Your Soul Rest in Peace.

I was in Syria for a 3 days visit last week. My granddad passed away after a couple of years struggle with COPD and heart problems. He passed away peacefully in his bed with his family around him. I was planning to go to Syria this weekend to see him for the last time but it was too late. Such is life.

My granddad was a great guy. Very honest and extremely straight he could only see the right side of life. He was so straight it verged on naive sometimes. He never told a lie and never backed down when he believed he was right. God bless you granddad. I miss you loads.

My granddad was one of the 5000 or so Chechen living today in Syria. They migrated from Chechnya in the Nineteenth century to Ottoman Turkey and from there to Syria, Jordan and Iraq to establish small communities that survived till this day.

Chechen are a tiny nation of the mountainous North Caucasus. They have been in a constant battle with their Russian occupier since the Eighteenth century. Their first resistance war led by Sheikh Mansour started in 1785 to last few years. The next big resistance war in 1835 led by Chechen legendary hero Imam Shamil lasted 24 years before ending with his surrender to the Russian army. The Chechen emigration that brought my maternal family to Syria followed this war.

Imam Shamil (below) and his surrender (above)

More Chechen rebellions followed in 1905, 1917, 1928 and a major upraise in the 1940s. This last rebellion ended up with the deportation of the entire ethnic Chechen people to Kazakhstan and Siberia on the orders of Stalin. They were allowed back to their homeland after 1956 but only after two third of them dying of cold and famine. A period of calm followed till the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early Nineties when two Chechen wars took place in 1994 and 1999. I am waiting for the next independence attempt in the next ten years or so. I can't think of another nation that fought that long or suffered that much for their freedom.

Granddad was born in 1924 in Al-Quneitra the main town of The Golan Heights in south west Syria. He grew up in the Chechen community of the predominantly Circassian town. He spoke only Chechen as a child to learn Arabic only in school. Unfortunately he didn't pass the language down to his children as my grandma who is ethnically kurdish didn't speak it. He moved to Damascus to complete his studies. He lived and worked between the two cities till he finally settled down in Damascus after Al-Quneitra fell under the Israeli occupation in the Six-Day War in 1967. Quneitera returned to Syrian control in 1974 as part of a seize fire agreement that followed Yom Kippur War. The Isreli Army totally bulldozered the city down and not a single building survived the systematic destruction. The family home my granddad grew up in lies today as a big pile of black volcanic stones. The vine tree ,that once covered the court yard and give my child granddad sweet grapes to pick and a cool shade of the hot summer sun, grows aimlessly today over the rubble.

He was a great story-teller. He loved Al-Quneitra. He could never stop telling me his childhood adventures, fishing, camp fires, stealing watermelons from neighbours field, and snow sledges to name a few. The stories of the later stages of his life were about horse racing, gun hunting and traditional Chechen dancing with girls in weddings. More serious stories were of Second World War, helping the Palestinian resistance in the early forties, dodging Hganah paramilitary gangs and nearly getting shot in the head only for his life to be saved when he leaned back to light up a cigarette. His friend died in that last indecent.

My granddad dream was to return one day to Quneitra and rebuild his family home. He dreamt of getting back his family vineyard in Abo Al-Neda Mount outside the town that is still under Israeli occupation till today. He wanted to build us his grand children a beautiful home to spend our summers in. He died without realising that dream.

I hope one day we will rebuild that house for you granddad. God bless your soul.

Damascene Cocktail

Today I am simply quoting a brilliant post from Syria News Wire. I loved reading this post and I wanted you foodies out there to read it too.

"Damascus has the best fruit juice in the world.

The orange is sweet to perfection. The lemon and mint tangy like nothing else. Delicate strawberry. Satisfying banana, milk and chocolate. And then there’s the cocktail.

The fruit juice is probably the single thing many Damascenes miss the most when they’re away from home.

Ask a Damascene which is the best place to try these concoctions, and they’ll probably say Abu Abdu or Abu Shaker. Their support for these places is intense – like a football supporter arguing over Arsenal and Manchester United.

I fly the Abu Shaker flag. Their cocktail is made to a secret recipe (the photo is below) and costs 50 lira. It opened in 1953, just a few years before Gamal Abdul Nasser became president – not just of Egypt but also Syria (during their short lived union). Inside, there is a photo of Abu Shaker meeting Nasser.

Abu Abdu has the advantage of outdoor seating. While Abu Shaker opened a shiny new indoor cafe five years ago – although this is only if you’re having a fruit salad (well, I say fruit, it’s fruit with heaps of cream and chocolate).

You can find Abu Shaker behind Benetton on Salhiyeh, near the Muhafaza. And Abu Abdu is at the other end of Salhiyeh – just before Arnous."

For the record I am an Abu Abdu man.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 2. Muhammara

Muhammara is one of the most popular mezze dishes and one of the most distinct flavoured. This dish is originally from Aleppo, they love their peppers there. Even a type of pepper is named after the place Aleppo Pepper.

The main ingredient in Muhammara is sun-dried pepper paste. The red pepper is finely chopped, salted and dried in the summer sun in large trays.

You buy red pepper paste ready made from the market in Syria as it is a long painful process to make your own as I personally discovered. Here in London if you depend on the beautiful British summer to dry your peppers you are up for a long wait. The Olympic will hit London way before you get to taste your Muhammara. Instead I tried a Nigella Lawson inspired "Oven Kissed" red pepper paste complete with finger licking and night trips to the fridge.

I heated the oven to maximum, cut my red peppers to half, salted them and put them in the hot oven. I immediately turned off the oven and left them over night. Next morning, no where near ready! I repeated the process and by the evening, after the oven cooled down again, I thought they are ready enough. NOT REALLY. I put the peppers in the food processor and so much water came out. I had to spread them on a tray and back to the hot oven for another night. They came out OK this time. Close enough to the real thing.

The moral of the story, If you are in Syria go to the market. If you are in London buy a jar of ready roasted peppers and put them in the food processor.

Update 4/11/2009: I now managed to find Turkish made red pepper paste from a Turkish supermarket in West Ealing. I am sure you can find it as well in the many Turkish shops in North East London, Green Lanes area. Check my Essential Shopping Basket for more details.

This recipe is how my mum make it rather than the traditional way. I use fine bulgur wheat instead of the usual bread crumbs. Bulgur wheat from Arabic supermarket comes in two varieties coarse for cooking and fine for tabouleh and kebbeh. The one you buy from Tesco is somewhere in between and it doesn't work for either purpose. So make a trip to the nearest Middle Eastern shop, it is worth it.

This is how I make Muhammara:

Red pepper paste 250g
Fine bulgur wheat soaked in water 1/2 cup (replace with bread crumbs for more traditional smooth texture)
Chopped walnut 1/2 cup
Pomegranate molasses 2 tbs
Lemon juice
Olive oil
Sugar (optional)

Mix the pepper, Bulgur(bread crumbs), walnuts and the molasses and mix well. Add lemon to taste. You might need to add some sugar if your peppers are not sweet. Muhammara is nice with a sweet hint. Finally add olive oil slowly and mix till you get the right texture.

There is loads of variations to this recipe and you can experiment. I add a table spoon or two of tahini. I think it works very well. Garlic and cumin are common ingredients to add. And finally hot chilli powder if you want it hot.

Eighties Nostalgia

In preparation for the release of Terminator 4 Movie (I am a big fan) I made my poor wife watch the the first three movies within one week (we managed two so far, one to go) so we can go to watch it together in the cinema.

The sight of Linda Hamilton's hair in T1 gave me a severe attack of eighties nostalgia. All clothing items must be rolled up: long sleeves, short sleeves, jeans, the whole lot. Everything was over sized from sweat shirts to dodgy perm hairstyle. I was in my early teens towards the end of the eighties so I just managed to capture the "beauty" of that decade. I still remember my jeans jacket, neon T-shirt, acid washed jeans and a very bad hair style.

Bad style wasn't the only thing the eighties brought us Syrians. That period introduced a totally foreign dish to Syrian cuisine, Kabseh.

I was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there trough the eighties till I was 15 before we moved back to Syria. There was a huge exodus of Syrians to Saudi in the late seventies and early eighties caused by the oil boom in the Gulf and bad economical times in Syria. I can safely say that every Syrian family had at least a member moving to Saudi Arabia for a certain period of time time.

I remember when we used to go home on summer holiday we used to bring Basmati rice and Kabseh spices with us to cook a big family feast in my grandparents' house. We were not alone in that, every other Syrian family had similar occasions in the summer months. Slowly Kabseh became a stable dish on the Syrian table. It became so integrated in the cuisine that a Uni friend of mine, who was from another city, thought Kabseh is a traditional Damascene dish.

Kabseh is the national dish of Saudi Arabia. It is simple but extremely addictive. It is spicy rice pilaf served with meat. You can cook the meat with the rice or separately. I prefer the latter.

Two things differentiate Kabseh from any other Byriani-like dish: dry lime and the special spice mix of cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, galangal and more dry lime. You can buy ready made Kabseh spice mix from any Middle Eastern supermarket.

Here is my Kabseh recipe:

Basmati rice 1.5 cups
Chicken stock 1.5 cups
Water 1.5 cups
Two Tomatoes
One medium Onion sliced
One chopped green chilli
Sliced pepper 1tbs
Sliced Carrot 1tbs
Kabseh spice mix 1tbs
Dry lime 4-5

Wash your rice and soak in cold water for 20 min.

Start by sweating the onions in vegetable oil. Add the chilli, carrot and peppers. Gently crush the dry lime to allow cooking water to get in. Add the lime with the spice mix to the pot. Grate your tomatoes or put them in a food processor then add them and cook for few minutes then add the stock and water and season well.

Drain the rice and add to the mix. Bring back to boil. Stir the rice once and turn the heat down. Let cook for 20 minutes.

Serve with grilled chicken and salad or yoghurt.