Regional cookingA book about regional cuisine usually has recipes in the context of the culture, history and traditions of that region. According to its introduction, “Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains“ wants to show us how:
“We find distinct culinary influences [in Caucasus cuisines] from the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Central Asians as they passed through or occupied the area, and there are also some Slavic or Russian contributions. Today, the region's cuisine is perhaps best described as a joyful mélange of Persian, Turkish, Greek, and Mediterranean dishes, with many innovations and improvements”.This is undoubtedly true, but it is only one side of the story. Caucasian peoples have their own, distinct cultures, that go further back in time than the ancient Greeks. Let alone the Russians. The ancient Greeks were immigrants in the region. They told legends of what happened in the Caucasus mountains long before their time. Couldn’t other world cuisines have Caucasian influences? Instead of “innovations and improvements”, there are more likely elements of Caucasian cuisines that have always been there, but are unknown to us because they were not copied by other peoples.
Three texts in oneIt seems to us that three different texts have been put together in this book. It is as if the author wrote the three separately and then sort of merged them, without really integrating the parts. The first text is a (very) short story about her own visit to Georgia. The second is like a collection of college notes (selected quotes and pieces of information) copied from other books about the Caucasus region. Thirdly, there are the recipes.
Many typical, famous regional dishes and ingredients are described in the general information in the book and the introductions to recipes. But don’t expect to find the actual recipes for them. For example, there is almost a full page about khinkali (meat dumplings, a very popular snack), but no recipe. Fenugreek and marigold, typical ingredients in Georgian cuisine, are mentioned, but not found in any recipe either.
What you see is what the author could getIn the preface, the author states that she is a devotee of Georgian cuisine. This would lead us to expect finding many delicious Georgian recipes in the book. But to our surprise, we could not even find recipes for classics like khinkali, satsivi, or churchkhela. For khachapuri, the famous Georgian cheese bread, the book has only one recipe. And that recipe is a copy from another book, “with adaptations”.
We get the impression that the author’s own experience in the Caucasus region is limited to one organized tour in soviet times, with a short stopover in Georgia. She then wrote the preface, which is entirely about Georgia, and decided to write a cookbook as quickly as possible. She relied a lot on informants living in the US, Turkey and Russia, one ethnically Georgian, many Armenian and Russian.
The dishes she presents are not by definition the most characteristic ones of an area or country. It seems like the author just wrote down what she could get from informants, resulting in an accidental collection of recipes.
Embarrassing mistakesThere are some embarrassing mistakes in the book, that could easily have been corrected. According to “Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains”, the Georgian capital is Tiblisi, it’s second city is Kutasi or Kutashi, people eat sulugundi as well as Emeretian cheese, enjoy sat-sivi and wine is stored in khevris. We are tempted to mention the page numbers and corrections here, but we’ll leave that for the author and editors to find out.
Georgian, Armenian, Russian cuisine, what are we talking about?Besides the missing Georgian recipes and ingredients in the book, there use of the term “Russian” is also confusing . There are quite a few recipes in the book that are general Russian recipes. These recipes are not unique to the Caucasus region, people all over the former Soviet Union prepare them.
There is nothing wrong with this. It just means that “Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains” gives us an impression of what people living in the Caucasus region eat and drink – including many ethnic Russians who have settled there in the recent past. The book is not (exclusively) about traditional or original dishes from the region.
The influence of Armenian informants is noticeable as well. Among all the Caucasus peoples, Armenians are the most famous for their nationalist claims. They were ‘the first’ at almost everything in history and label anything they can as Armenian. This is obvious in the book from the large number of ‘Armenian’ recipes, that are in fact more general Caucasian foods, or successful foods of other ethnic groups.
But the recipes? Quality as a cookbookDoes all this really matter, you ask? Can’t we just appreciate “Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains “ as a cookbook? Yes, you can. The recipes are detailed enough, the instructions are easy to follow. The dishes have all been given understandable descriptions instead of regional names. A dolma recipe is described as ‘stuffed vegetables’ for example. This helps you choose recipes you like.
The recipe index makes no sense in the digital edition. It has no hyperlinks and the page numbers are for the printed version. However, you can just search for ingredients, even if you don’t know the local names for dishes. If you have some eggplants and want to see what you can make with them, it’s easy to find recipes by searching for “eggplant”.
Spices left outIn her introduction, the author states that
“Some of the traditional ingredients in the Caucasus dishes are unfamiliar and difficult to obtain in American stores. Substitutions are possible and often an item may simply be left out, to no great detriment to the dish. A few suggestions for replacements are given with the recipes.”In reality, we get the impression that she has simply left out many characteristic herbs and spices without even mentioning that those are traditionally added to a recipe. Tarragon, fenugreek and summer savory for example do not occur in any of the recipes. It shouldn’t be impossible to buy these in America. It would have been nice if the use of original herbs and spices had been mentioned with each recipe. Readers could then choose to try and find them, or make a simplified version of the dish.
The author also writes:
“While there are subtle culinary differences among the area’s three countries, one finds a lot of similarity.”With this motto in mind, she seems to have loosely filled in the recipes with what she knew and silently left out what she wasn’t sure of.
Enjoy comfort foodBut again, does that really matter to every reader? The book covers all categories of food and drink that you need to create a Caucasus-style table. It has a selection of recipes for appetizers, soups, dairy dishes, fish, meat, poultry, game, vegetables and salads, grains and legumes, breads, pastas, savory pastries, desserts and sweets, as well as beverages, drinks and wines. Many of the dishes are warm and hearty, while there are sweets snacks as well. You could see and appreciate the book as a cookbook for comfort foods, that are easy to make and have natural ingredients.
To buy or not to buy “Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains”Do we recommend this book or not? It depends on what you want to get out of it. “Cuisnines of the Caucasus Mountains” is a typical case of “nobody knows, so everything goes”. Few people are familiar with the Caucasus region, so lower quality books get published more easily. Imagine an Italian cookbook claiming that the Italian national dish is paella and that Italians bake “picha”, a bread originally invented by the Americans. Such a book would never see the light of day. If you care about such things, then don’t buy this book.
However, if you don't care and are just looking for some nice and easy-to-make recipes, flavored with lots of general information and quotes from other books, then you should buy this book. You’ll discover lots of tasty dishes and have fun with it.
For Georgian cuisine, we definitely do not recommend this book. Instead, the most complete and accurate Georgian cookbook in English is “The Georgian Feast” by Darra Goldstein. Oddly, “Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains” quotes from Goldstein’s book here and there, while completely missing the point about Georgian cooking and dining traditions.