While Feeka stands sharpening his knives over the eerily calm sheep laid out on the blotched and sloping concrete floor of his butcher’s shop, my eyes keep darting to the center of the room. The shop is a Soviet-era pop-up of uneven tile and browning plaster. In the middle of the space, behind a card table covered in scales and blades, sits a massive tree stump etched by hatchet blows and mottled pink and white by blood and fat. Feeka slits the sheep’s throat with one swift jerk of the arm and we sit in accordance with the Islamic traditions governing butchery, waiting for it to fully exsanguinate and expire. And every second I expect Feeka to lift the carcass onto to woodblock and heft up the hatchet.
But suddenly Feeka drives the same little knife hard into the sheep’s neck. Within seconds, he’s decapitated the beast. This is why we’ve come to Feeka, my friend Leyla tells me: He’s known for speed and precision. He’ll soon skin our sheep without so much as breaking the muscle membrane below. But first he daubs his thumb in the neck blood and offers to anoint my forehead. Then he grabs the head, jams a meat hook into its lower jaw and leaves it swinging from a rusted pipe.
It’s the head that matters the most to me, as I’ve driven out to Mardakan, Azerbaijan to eat kaleh pacheh, more commonly known in the Caucasus Mountains as khash, and the head, with its panoply of tastes and textures, will give the stew its backbone.
Kaleh pacheh—Farsi for “head leg”—is a good, blunt name for the dish. All the sheep’s meat will be used—Leyla’s mother and sister rattle off a Forrest Gump-worthy list of 32 distinctly Azerbaijani dishes you can make with lamb—but our current recipe calls for a thick stew of hooves, head, and stomach.
Khash isn’t a common food in Azerbaijan, and perhaps a fourth of the Azerbaijanis I’ve met actively despise it. Nor is it an easy food to make. The head and hooves must be flame seared, chopped, mixed with the stomach, and scraped clean. Then boiled and chilled to remove their impurities. Thereafter it must simmer for a day to slough the meat off the bone and release the natural oils into the water. But before all of that you need an expert knifeman like Feeka to break the beast down.
After decapitating the lamb, Feeka hangs it neck down from a hook. He slices into the sheep’s belly and unravels its intestines foot-by-foot. He thrusts his arm back in and, after some mysterious fiddling, pulls out a fully intact organ system, which he flushes out with water from the corner sink. He brings the organs to me and slits open the liver. I’m meant to examine its health to gauge the quality of the sheep, but I have no clue what I’m doing, so I smile and nod and he lifts the remainder of the carcass onto his tree stump and goes at it with a knife, a steel rod, and a hatchet. This bit takes just over two hours, but the full process of cooking khash will take us another 24 hours after we leave Feeka’s.
Despite the difficulty and the growing distaste of the younger generation (Feeka disdainfully mentions that Azerbaijani youth these days “just eat at cafes,” the trendy international establishments flowing into the nation alongside high-rise developments, elite tourism, and oil wealth), khash still looms large in Azerbaijani culture. Even those who almost never eat it or consciously avoid it still admit that it’s perhaps one of the most important national foods, harkening as it does back to national memories of lumbering Turkic nomads roughing it in the mountains. Its preparation is tied up in Islamic, Turkic, and distinctly Azerbaijani rituals and myths at the core of national identity. And these rites are more fiercely guarded and nurtured than ever, now that post-Soviet independence has provided the chance to reassert what it means to be Azerbaijani. In places like Armenia, Georgia, northern Iran, and the Caucasus regions of Russia, khash is something of an early morning hangover cure and commercial commodity. But in Azerbaijan, it is far more rare, almost sacred. The dish is usually only prepared in the winter (never—emphatically never—in the summer). Its consumption is connected to the annual religious slaughter of a sheep (our 17 kilos of meat will be sub-divided according to Islamic law and 2/3 given out as gifts and charity), or the celebration of any recently fulfilled wish or answered prayer.
Staking out a claim on khash, naming it as something uniquely Azerbaijani, is a far weightier thing to do in the Caucasus than it is for Florida or Massachusetts to claim key lime or Boston cream pies, respectively, as their own though. Naming a food here is a political act, filled with fire and vigorm, as the contest over foods has been imbued with the long-simmering tensions of regional border disputes.
In today’s Azerbaijan, food is the front line
During the Soviet era, the Caucasus was a site of mass expulsions of ethnic groups. Afterwards, it was wracked by violence over ethnic-historical land claims and slippery borders. The last decade has been, in contrast, calm. Yet the accusations still fly, especially between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia (who technically remain at war): the other side is a destroyer of culture, usurper of history and identity. While total war stays on the table, both nations now assert their claims through an all-pervading cultural war. This includes Armenia’s boycott of the Eurovision song contest in the Azerbaijani capital Baku. Or the implicit Azerbaijani threats to shoot down commercial planes that try to land at airports in Nagorno-Karabakh. Or the protests at the start of the year against former Azerbaijani politician and current novelist Ekrem Eylisli for sympathizing with Armenian claims in his novella “Stone Dreams.” But spend any time eating khash in Mardakan and it will become clear: in Azerbaijan today, food is the real front line.
After we finish with the butchery at Feeka’s, we trek through Mardakan over to Leyla’s family dacha. On our way, we make a detour to a house where a man with an acetylene torch helps us singe the head and hooves and break them down into chunks with a hatchet, leaving the teeth in, the tongue attached, and the brain safely compartmentalized within the skill fragments. (This bit is less about ritual, more about taste, as flame searing removes the hair while preserving the skin and sealing in and heating all of the animal’s juices.) Just like the butcher, this man is an old friend of Leyla’s father, who worked abroad with some of the folks who now work in Mardakan, doing menial labor in Central Asia before Azerbaijan struck it rich with oil. The little family is well off now—I met Leyla in the UK where she’s pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Oxford—although nowhere near as rich as the new-money tycoons freshly arrived in these parts. Their dacha is a pleasant retreat from the summer dusts of Baku, but they have more roots with the meat workers and villagers of Mardakan than many of the residents of the flashy, oversized new dachas springing up around them in recent years.
When we arrive at the dacha, the women begin the long khash preparation—boiling the chunks of head, hoof, and stomach, then soaking them in cold water to remove their impurities, and then simmering them for a night. In the meantime, a horde of uncles, honorary and blood, descend upon the dacha to gorge themselves. I count four generations who’ve come to spend a day waiting on khash by gnawing on rib, loin, and organ kebabs drowned in unknown mixes of brown Polish spices and eaten straight from the spit, on fistfuls of raw tarragon and spicy garden herbs, on grilled tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants stuffed with sheep’s fat, on home-pickled vegetables, on little Russian chocolates and an endless stream of smoky tea from a samovar in the corner of the yard (although none of them ever seem to use the toilet). A mother and her baby watch Vinni Pukh, the Soviet adaptation of Winnie-the-Pooh, while old men play rapid-fire backgammon and shoot the shit. I get opinions on all aspects of Azerbaijani life—on what it means to be a Muslim in the post-Soviet world; on the 125-year-old grandmother of one man who was forced out of Shusha, Nagorno-Karabakh by the Armenians and later died; and of course on food.
One woman brings up dolmas, stuffed leaves (grape, cabbage, anything will do) as a distinctly Azerbaijani food and I mention that I’d encountered them first in other cuisines and had always assumed they originated elsewhere. I’m told that dolma comes from the Turkic verb “to fill up,” and that those countries who try to claim dolmas as their national dish—namely Armenia—don’t even have the decency to change the name to something non-Turkic and can’t justify the Turkic name for the food in their language. I’m told that Armenians are actively trying to usurp Azerbaijani food and culture (the Armenians, I’m informed, have even usurped an entire breed of distinctly Azerbaijani sheep). And they’ve tried to usurp khash as well, claiming that the dish’s very name comes from an Armenian word meaning “to boil.” In their variation, they will eat the dish during any month that contains an “r,” announced with a series of ritual toasts, and mixed with crumbled dry lavash flatbread.
I hear a similar speech just about every other day that I’m in the country, usually whenever food is served and usually in relation to dolmas (apparently the issue of Armenian dolmas popped up on TV recently, so it’s in conversational vogue). The concern about culinary usurpation runs so deep in some parts of the country that, while visiting the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, a region separated from the center of Azerbaijan completely by a 30-plus mile thick strip of Armenia, I’m presented with a thick volume printed by the state entitled Nakhchivan Cuisine, created in an effort to flash-freeze the notion of Azerbaijani cuisine and lend the weight of an encyclopedia to the silent battle to reclaim dishes from Armenia and protect the nation from further culinary theft.
I will sweat this out and it will stink, but I will also be full for a week
A little over a day after our binge at the dacha, the khash is ready. I reconvene with Leyla’s family just after sunrise and the sleepy family lumbers down around a heavy wooden table. Leyla’s mother brings out bowls of yellow-brown broth with clumps of flesh sloughed off the bone and draped here and there in limp and pocked fragments of stomach. I’m given three small pots of vinegar-pickled garlic, salt, and pepper and told to mix them liberally into the khash. The smell is overwhelming—thick, rich, and greasy—and the vinegar lends it a sharp hint in the back of the nasal passage.
I take a gob of vinegar and garlic and drop it into the bowl. Leyla’s mother frowns, then reaches down and adds a larger dollop. I guess I must look skinny and sickly in the dim morning light, because her father pipes in:
“Khash makes you strong. It warms you up. It’s good for your bones and muscles,” he says. That’s what makes it a natural dish for mountain people. That’s why it’s so attractive to everyone in the Caucasus Mountains—it’s hearty food for hearty people. His reverie trails off into pragmatism: “But it’s high in calories and cholesterol. So you really should only eat it once or twice a year.”
I scoop up a spoonful carefully composed of garlic, head meat, and stomach and slurp it down. The flavor is even more rich than the smell, and rather than an after-taste, I’m left with an ever-taste. The meat sits heavy and the oils and lipids course under my skin—I will sweat this out and it will stink, but I will also be full for a week.
As I swallow and swallow and swallow I begin to understand both the aversion and the attachment to khash. It hits hard and anyone not ready to smell of sheep for a day, to suffer a severe bout of meat sweats, will want to avoid it. But it does just feel right for the Caucasus—it feels like a quintessential meal for the mountains in the winter. It’s a rich food, and a food of memory and belonging. In that sense, I can see how it’s a dish worth the wait, the effort, and the fight.