My seventy-five-year-old grandma, dusting a clean working area generously with flour, slightly patting with the top of her hand to flatten the dough she has just made, begins manoeuvring a thin rolling pin, rotating the dough with each motion. She then delicately creates intricate and tender boat-shaped pasta called surhullu, one of the most popular local dishes, usually served with dried meat, repeating an incantation in her native tsakhur language while she drops them into the pot. With warmth and the fondness that accompanies much-cherished memories, she reminisces about her childhood and how the family would come together to make and eat this comfort food on chilly winter days in the forbidding peaks of rural Dagestan.
Welcome to the Caucasus, a melting pot of ethnicities. This mountainous region boasts more than fifty ethnic groups with their ancient accompanying culinary traditions. A rich variety of fruit and vegetables, colourful spices, and a kaleidoscopic culinary landscape, well-preserved to this day, abound. Different species of wild edible plants, almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, pomegranate, grape, mulberry, plum, apples, and pears, to name a few of the more common crops, can all be found growing wild in this rugged land bridge between Europe and Asia. I have never ceased to be in awe of the biodiversity around me, made all the more astounding to contemplate when one considers that virtually every passing empire known through the history books has conquered these people, and this land. Caucasian food culture has been influenced by the Roman, Persian, and Byzantine empires, and by the Arabs, Mongols, and Turks. The fecundity of the land has resulted in a bounty of ingredients, compounded by a few thousand years of culture and trade. Since the climate in the Caucasus is consistent across the region, many countries such as Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia have similar agricultural traditions, and a number of common dishes and food staples.