Sochi, a dark legacy

Up to and including the infamous Olympic rings incident, the Sochi games have been a complete PR disaster for Russia (On some level I am disappointed things didn't go spectacularly wrong in Sochi. Nothing would have made me happier than seeing Putin’s Russia the laughing stock of the world). While most of the column inches where directed at the discriminatory homophobic laws, another dark secret of the place failed to grab the world attention. The Ethnic Cleansing of Circassians from their motherland and its historic capital Sochi hardly made it to the press.

Being ethnically half Chechen I have always been interested in the North Caucasus. Despite never visiting, knowing the language and cultural differences I feel strong connection to the region mostly because of my great admiration of my late grandfather. Like the Circassians, Chechens and other East Caucasus people have suffered a great deal at the hands of Russians.

After defeat to Russia in the Caucasian War in 1864  Circassians were expelled en mass from their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of people were dragged from their villages to ports on the Black Sea to be transported to the Ottoman Empire. Unknown number of people perished of diseases or killed at the hands of the victorious Russians. Most of those deported settled in Turkey or moved further south towards Syria and Jordan. Their descendants today make a community of a hundred thousand or so in each country.

In Syria most Circassian settled in The Golan Heights. They were the majority ethnic group of the region up to the 1976 war. Most Circassians along with other Caucusian people and Arabs fled the Israeli occupation and resettled in and around Damascus or immigrated to Europe and the US. In the late Nineteen Seventies few hundred Circassians returned to Beer Ajam and Breeqa, two Villages closed to the seize fire line that lay abandoned for over ten years.

Beer Ajam is one of my favourite places on Earth. The nature of the place is breathtaking. The hills covered in green all year round mixed with black basalt volcanic stone makes a wonderful back drop to the beautiful villas built in a traditional Golan black stone style. I always thought to myself that one day I willI will buy a small plot of land in the village and build myself a nice summer villa. Needless to say this dream is further away than it ever was.

Although increasingly assimilated in the Arabic population, Circassians have preserved their identity and culture. Some still speak the Adyghe language and traditional music, dance and costumes are present in weddings and social occasions till this day.  

Circassian cuisine, similar to the rest of the North Caucases , is a simple hearty affair. The cuisine is heavy on meat, dairy, grain and flour influenced by the availability, or lack of, ingredients high in the Caucasus Mountains. Cheese and meat stuffed dumplings and various other pastries are the heart of the cuisine.

Today’s recipe Chipse Basta (شبس باسطة) is a Circassian dish served in Weddings and special family occasions. The dish is a simple chicken and Bulgur pilaf served with a garlic and walnut flavoured sauce.  Chipse is the sauce and basta is the bulgur. The dish has special costume to serve and eat. Traditionally the dish was served in communal large tray where all the guests sit around. The meat is arranged in a special way where the breasts and wings of the bird is placed in front of the older person with legs and thighs arranged on the sides. The host or the older person will say few words then take a bite of the wing. He will split the breast in two and pass it to the guests to his left and right. Then everybody dig in. The elder at the top of the table will remain seated and eating until everyone is finished, so no guest feels embarrassed and leaves the table before completely full.

This is my take on Chipse Basta based on my distant child hood memories, my Mum recipe and my dear friend “Maysaloon” family recipe.

One chicken cut to quarters or four chicken legs
Chicken stock 700mls (use cold stock)
Bulgur wheat 300g (you can use 2/3 Bulgur and 1/3 short grain rice)
Walnut 100g
Garlic 5-6 cloves
Ghee purified butter 3 tbs
Flour 3 tbs
Olive oil 3 tbs
Coriander powder 1 tsp
Paprika 2 tsp

Season the chicken with salt and pepper, half the paprika, a spoon of olive oil and one crushed clove of garlic. Let marinade for an hour or so if you have time.

Wash the Bulgur and soak in cold water for 30 minutes.

Cook the chicken to your preferred method; grill or roast. I like to start the chicken skin side down on a hot griddle pan to mark the skin and give a nice BBQ flavour. Flip the chicken over then continue to cook in the oven for 30 – 45 minutes at 195C depending on the size of the pieces.

While the chicken is cooking drain the Bulgur and cook in 3 cups or so of water. Add salt to taste. The bulgur needs to be cooked properly, almost over cooked.

In a separate pot start by frying the flour in the clarified butter on medium heat until the mixtures turns light brown. Add the clod stock slowly to make a roux stirring continuously with a whisk to prevent the flour clumping. Once all the stock is incorporated bring to a boil then turn down the heat to medium and let the sauce thicken. Add Salt to taste, the rest of the crushed garlic and the coriander.  Crush the walnut in a pestle and mortar or a food processor and add at the end.

Stir the cooked Bulgur with a wooden spoon to mash it slightly. Press in a cookie ring on the serving plate. Alternatively press the cooked Bulgur with the wooden spoon in a roasting tray and cut to squares to serve. Arrange a piece of the Bulgur, a piece of chicken and small ramekin of the chipse. Just before serving heat the olive oil in a pan and add the paprika. Remove of the heat immediately. Spoon on top of the chipse sauce.

Paralysis Cheese and other dodgy translations

Syrians have an inherent inability to finish anything right (see Syrian Revolution). They start a wonderful piece of work or a nice project then they ruin it on the final details. Nowhere is that more apparent than restaurants menus. You can hardly see a restaurant menu around damascus without a bleeding obvious spelling mistake or dodgy translation.

The paralysis part of the name comes from the fact the spelling of the word  شلل could refer to a wool hank or paralysis. Needless to say the cheese is named after a wool hank it resembles not after paraplegia. 

To be fair the above picture was not in Syria but it is so funny I couldn't resist. However, Baked Aborigine (baked aubergine) and Jordanian Heater (Jordanian Musakhan) are true menu items in a couple of high end Damascus restaurants.

Harra' Esbao'o (Harra' Esba3o or حراق اصبعو), is possibly the most frequently mistranslated dish ever. It is not really a mistranslation but rather a very literal translation. Harra' mean burning hot and esba3o is his finger. However, no matter if you call it "Finger burner", "Burns his fingers" or any variation of these three words it still doesn't make any sense to the non Arabic speakers trying to order some lunch. In fact it doesn't make any sense even to an Arabic speaker who is not familiar with the dish.

Modern take on presentation. Picture by @Tammamo

Hara' Esba3o is my all time favourite vegetarian dish, hands down. In essence the dish is a simple lentil pasta stew. It is made special with all the extras; crunchy fried croutons, garlic and coriander topping, pomegranate molasses and lots of citrus juice. I am drooling just writing these words! The traditional recipe requires making dough, rolling it thin and cut it into half inch squares, a very time consuming process. Nowadays most people use pasta instead. In Damascus you can actually buy special Harra' Esba3o pasta. Alternatively, you can use shell pasta (Conchiglie), orecchiette, or even lasagne sheets broken into pieces. My favourite however is pappardelle broken into inch long pieces. 

Historically this dish was associated with all-women occasions. It was the brunch of choice to serve in Sobhiyeh (صبحية), a late morning gathering of women usually in the house of a high class house wife. In early twentieth century Damascus, Sobhiyeh would have been an elaborate occasion with with singing, entertainment and a lot of Hara' Esba3o. It was a way of showing wealth and affluent. In modern day Damascus these large Sobhiyehs are all but gone. The name now refers to housewives morning gossip sessions, Turkish coffee and reading fortunes in empty coffee cups. 

My more traditional presentation and iPhone picture!

Here is my version of Harra' Esba3o 

Dry green lentils 200 g
Pappardelle pasta 300 g
Olive oil
Garlic 5 large cloves
Coriander leaves 50 g
Arabic bread 2 medium loaves
Corn starch 1 tbs
Pomegranate molasses 2 tbs
Juice of one lemon
Vegetable oil for frying
One onion 
Pomegranate for decoration (optional)

In a large pot start by cooking the lentils in 4 cups of water until half cooked, roughly 10-15 minutes. Break the pasta into one inch pieces and add to the pot. Season with salt. Cook for further 10-12 minutes depending how al dente you like your pasta.  

While the pasta and lentils are cooking. Heat 4 table spoons of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Crush the garlic and chop the coriander. Add the garlic first then the coriander to the hot oil and remove from the heat immediately. You just want the leaves to wilt. Avoid burning the garlic.

While the pasta is cooking add half the garlic and coriander mixture, juice of a lemon and the pomegranate molasses. Check seasoning. You can change the lemon/molasses ratio according to taste. 

Just before the pasta is done, dissolve the cornstarch in a little cold water and add to the pot. Let the pot boil for few minutes to thicken the sauce. It needs to be fairly loose at this stage as it will get thicker as it cools down. Add more boiling water if necessary.

plate in a glass oven dish or individual shallow bowls and let cool down. The dish is best served luke warm or room temperature.

While cooling, Cut the bread using kitchen scissors into 2 cm squares.  Heat the vegetable oil in a pot and deep fry the croutons. Keep an eye as they burn very quickly. Drain on a kitchen towel.

 Slice the onion thinly and fry in the same oil after the bread until dark brown. Drain. Onion is almost always served as a topping however I am not a fan so I don't.

When ready to serve, spoon the rest of the garlic and coriander on top. Sprinkle with the onions, croutons and few pomegranate seeds.