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)
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.