Chicken

Eating with the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan

January 10, 2017

At first glance, Gyrmyzy Gasaba is just another small wind-blown town in northern Azerbaijan. Hidden in the shadows of the Caucasus Mountains that separate it from the Russian republic of Dagestan, the town sits high above the rock-strewn banks of the Qudiyalcay River. Beaten-up Lada cars line the streets nose to tail, shops display trays of sticky diamond-shaped baklava in their windows, and watermelons are piled up at the roadside. Men play nard, Persian backgammon, under shady trees and in the main park, a statue of former President Heydar Aliyev stands next to a blue, red, and green Azeri flag.

Then, clues to the town’s true identity start to appear: a silver menorah here, a Star of David there. Azerbaijan might be a Shia Muslim country, but Gyrmyzy Gasaba is considered to be the world’s last surviving shtetl (pre-Holocaust Jewish village). Its sheer isolation has perfectly preserved its traditions, making it a truly unusual destination to visit.

In Yiddish “shtetl” simply means “town,” but in the collective Jewish imagination the word is laced with nostalgia. For many Jews, the word recalls traditional but hardscrabble Russian or eastern European villages, like the one depicted in the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Walking the Sunday-quiet streets in the center of town I am first struck by its sleepiness. Men shuffle past me, shaking hands with one another and offering each other a “shalom” or “salaam” to Muslims from neighboring towns—religious harmony in action.

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Top Comment:
“Susanne and Creamtea: It's astonishing that this is a still-intact shtetl that survived the Holocaust, countless wars, pogroms, Soviet-era rule, and so on. It's nothing less than incredible. If it DID survive, then it certainly had to have done so by adapting again and again to massive changes, which is what I get from Ruvinova's statement at the end. Not surprised if traditional kosher cooking/eating was sacrificed for the greater good of the village's survival. Or the author took liberties with the recipe. Would be nice if the author weighed in.”
— sydney
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Locals here take great pride in being the descendants of the first Jews who traveled to Dagestan, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan via Persia (Iran), where they had lived as Jewry following their exile from Israel. Fleeing from forcible conversion by warring Arabs in the eighth century, they left Persia and sought shelter in the remote Caucasus Mountains. They have remained here ever since.

The community has long been known as “Mountain Jews,” who consider themselves quite separate from the world’s two major ethnic Jewish groups—Ashkenazi and Sephardi. For some, Gyrmyzy Gasaba is “Little Jerusalem,” possibly the only all-Jewish town outside Israel.

Turning on to Isaak Xanukov Street, I follow my nose, picking up some alluring smells—turmeric, eggs, roast chicken, and chestnuts—to the Bet Knesset synagogue. Once inside the synagogue, the soft aroma of warm fadi (a sweet round bread usually served with black tea) spills into the rug-lined corridor from a little kitchen at the back.

The essential plov. Photo by Laura Edwards, in Samarkand

This kitchen is where Naomi Ruvinova cooks for the Sabbath and special occasions. She tells me she’s been expecting me and has been cooking all morning to give me a taste of what the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan like to eat. Her tiny feet, clad in glittery shoes, move fast while my brain tries to compute the complexities of her kitchen alchemy. Agreeing to my offer of help, she hands me a spoon and a handful of raisins to stir into a cauldron of plov. Azerbaijan is home to dozens of different plov recipes. Typically, plov is made with lamb in Azerbaijan, but Ruvinova’s is lighter and vegetarian. A small slick of corn oil has colored the rice a sunshine yellow, while a sprinkling of juicy apricots and sweet chestnuts lifts it from the doldrums, turning it into a dish for all the senses. While the plov takes on the flavor of the raisins, she presents a plate of steaming yakhny—a soul-food soup of onions, eggs, veal, and tomatoes—and places it on the table. It is filling mountain food, prepared from simple ingredients, designed to keep the cold at bay.

While I enjoy the warming yakhny, my eyes are drawn toward a plate of hasavyurt on the counter. Ruvinova tells me that this paste-like dip, usually served as a side dish, is made with ground walnuts, red apples, and grape juice, nothing else. I scoop a little onto a Matza cracker and when I bite into it I find its taste seductive, not-too-sweet, and bright as a summer’s day. Plump from sunshine, the cooked apples are so intense in flavor their Western equivalents seem tasteless in comparison.

Then, a little plate of glistening Russian-style golubtsy—cabbage rolls—beckons. Popular here since the Soviet era, Mountain Jews follow the standard recipe, using cabbage leaves to wrap the ingredients, but add an unorthodox sprinkling of cilantro, some acidic green plums, and tomato paste. Sour plums are popular with Jews across the border in Georgia too, where they are added to chakapuli, a lamb and tarragon stew.

Next, Ruvinova lifts her khoyagusht from the oven, a thick baked omelette containing poached chicken and chestnuts with a light-golden crust on the top. I note down the ingredients and the method and, struck by the cornucopia of creativity, I tell Ruvinova that her dishes are “a culinary poem to all things Mountain Jewish.” She laughs and then corrects me by saying, “yes, they are. But they are made all the better for also being a little bit Russian and a little bit Azeri too.” Ethnic unity on a plate.

Excerpted from Samarkand: Recipes & Stories from Central Asia & The Caucasus by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford

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13 Comments

Rita M. April 16, 2017
I have to say that at one time chicken was not considered meat. Maybe in this backwoods town the word of other rabbis didn't get through or their particular<br />At brand of Judaism doesn't consider chicken as meat. This is real chutzpah on your part to criticize.
 
Ali S. January 26, 2017
No ill will was meant with this recipe's adaptation; as such, the recipe has been modified to include oil as an option. I do hope you make the omelet—it is so delicious.
 
Sophia January 12, 2017
Can't wait to try this! Beautiful story and photographs
 
OliviaC January 12, 2017
What an interesting piece. Thank you for adapting the recipe to look so accessible to make at home - I’m going to try it!
 
Eleanor F. January 11, 2017
I want to explain that Naomi's recipe (that Caroline refers to in her story) was kosher. The one featured here is from our book Samarkand. Here I adapted the recipes inspired by the flavours of the region. Of course you can make it kosher by using oil instead of butter. Interestingly, poaching the chicken in fish stock is another local variation that you may wish to try.
 
GsR January 11, 2017
What would you do that? Keeping the laws of kosher has been essential in the community's survival and you just dump on thousands of years tradition. Interested in your reasons.
 
sydney January 11, 2017
GsR is correct, and so were Susanne and creamtea. Yikes, this town hung on to its traditions through unimaginable historic tumult and and some cookbook writers blithely un-koshered their recipes, the lifeblood of their town? I'm disappointed and shocked. What a bizarre editorial decision.
 
GsR January 15, 2017
I wondering why you won't answer these questions? Is because you have no understanding of the laws and rules of kosher and the roll in plays in Jewish life and survival or are you just an anti-Semite?
 
anaj January 11, 2017
In Baltimore, of all places, I lived across the street from a young lady who is from this town! She never spoke much about the uniqueness of her home but I sure did enjoy her cooking. So glad to see this community highlighted here. Thank you.
 
sydney January 10, 2017
Susanne and Creamtea: It's astonishing that this is a still-intact shtetl that survived the Holocaust, countless wars, pogroms, Soviet-era rule, and so on. It's nothing less than incredible. If it DID survive, then it certainly had to have done so by adapting again and again to massive changes, which is what I get from Ruvinova's statement at the end. Not surprised if traditional kosher cooking/eating was sacrificed for the greater good of the village's survival. Or the author took liberties with the recipe. Would be nice if the author weighed in.
 
creamtea January 10, 2017
I agree with Susanne. Why is there butter in this recipe when it contains chicken, thereby mixing milk with meat? Surely it can't be traditional this way.
 
sydney January 10, 2017
Wow, what a story!
 
Susanne January 10, 2017
Does the community not follow the laws of kashrut? The recipe should use oil instead of butter if there is chicken in it.