This was a long night, you can tell from this grainy mugshot of a photo, complete with the pack of cigarettes on the table (Kent 4’s in Russia, always Kent 4’s, because as the photographer reminds me as he smokes his heavy Kent 8s, I am a rank amateur).
If the Burmese enjoy their biggest meal of the day during the lunch hour, the people who live and fight and eat along the Black Sea coast, half a world away, eat big meals with fever late into the night and on until daybreak. How they do it, though, makes you rethink everything you thought you knew about drunk food. No plate of fried mess, no Denny’s Transfat Explosion. Rather, in Sochi, Russia, where this dish is handed out to night owls, each dumpling is made by hand. The dough is a thick, warm sheet folded around ground beef and lamb that luxuriate in a spiced sauce within. Even the haziest mind knows instinctively how to eat them: grab the dumpling at the top, where the dough is cinched, take a first small bite to drink the sauce from inside. Then eat the dough the meat your fingers in whichever order pleases you.
People who know the Caucasus will tell me that these are not generic dumplings: they are Khinkali, a signal Georgian dish made with pride by most all the non-Russian peoples of the Black Sea region. That is correct. But such is the willful blindness of the Russians of Sochi, a city that extends to the border of what was once Soviet Georgia. Sochi is the South Beach of the Black Sea, which is to say that it is a bit poorer but just as tastelessly neon and as relentlessly ordered around house music and hair gel. And Russian partygoers, from Omsk or Tomsk or Tula or the Taiga, can order what they call “local food” and still pretend that the food did not originate from—and still tastes better in—the land of their enemies, the Georgians.
That is the essence of Sochi, a place that just wants to look ahead to the 2014 Winter Olympics, that would rather not have any past. But it does have a past: at the same time as Americans were fighting the last of their genocidal Indian Wars, the Russian empire was taking the Circassian people who had always lived on this shore and putting them to death by war, disease and exile. The Abazas, Abkhaz, Ubykhs have survived elsewhere, just not really in Sochi. But here, drinking manfully after a long day of reporting—in part about the sad and forgotten history of the Circassians—I felt like the old tribes had left the photographer and I these gifts. Ground beef and lamb, wrapped softly in dough, paired with a half-dozen beers to help us all to eat, smoke, drink and forget.