Acclaimed author Oliver Bullough talks with street vendors and presidents about adjika, the national condiment of Abkhazia.
In order to make building materiel for a nest, a wasp masticates wood, mixing it up with saliva and spitting it out into a pulp. I have never tried making a home that way myself, but that sensation—chewing wood and wanting to spit it out—is what I felt the first time I ate Abkhazian food.
I was eating their food in the first place because the Abkhaz, residents of a land of wooded hills between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, are famous for their long lives. Legends tell of people here topping 150 years in the days before chemicals polluted the purity of their diet.
I had been interviewing an old lady of 96, and her daughter promised to initiate me into that cuisine. Perhaps, with its help, I too would live long enough to meet my great-great-grandchildren, she said, gesturing round at her many descendants.
We sat down to a lunch of corn porridge. My plateful was pale yellow and shaped like a hubcap. I hacked off a lump. I chewed; then I chewed some more.
It was like the sun had risen in my mouth.
The old lady’s eyes narrowed with amusement. No, she said, you do it like this, reaching for a small dish of deep red sauce on the table between us. She mixed a little of the sauce into the porridge, dabbed on a lump of cheese, and pushed the plate back to me.
It was like the sun had risen in my mouth. Instead of the cold lumpiness of wood pulp, there was a spreading glow of summer: garlic, chilli, salt, and a dozen other spices I could not identify. I looked up in amazement and picked up the little dish of red sauce to smell it. The old woman smiled again.
“That’s adjika,” she said.
That was half a decade ago. At the time, I lived in Moscow and, returning to the Russian capital, I sought out adjika in the supermarkets. It was not hard to find, its red colour standing out between the yellow mustards and white mayonnaises. But when I got them home, these jars did not contain bottled summer, but a sludgy mess of tomatoes and dill. Clearly, the Russians had modified adjika to their own tastes, doing to it what the Americans have done to pizzas, or the British to curry.
This was a shame since it would mean me missing out on the life-prolonging effects of the condiment, attested to by—among others—the American anthropologist Sula Benet who studied the Abkhaz in the 1970s. She seems to have completely fallen under the spell of their culture of hospitality, their relaxed generosity and, more importantly, their cuisine.
“Even Abkhazian scientists of international renown and high-ranking party officials who have dined in the world’s best restaurants, are eager to return to the fare of their native villages,” she wrote in her book The Long-Lived People of the Caucasus.
Every subsequent trip I made to Abkhazia resulted in a bag loaded with adjika to take back to Moscow, and later London. I sometimes bought it in the market, though more often I cadged it from the mother of the woman I rented a room from. She even told me the recipe for her version, which had a lot of poke to it, but some subtle grace notes too, hidden away in the garlic-chilli fanfare.
“Take maybe 100 big dried red peppers, two or three heads of garlic, salt, spices,” she said. “You mix them together through a meat-grinder and this is what you get.”
When I asked which spices, she smiled and shook her head: “every woman does it differently”.
Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union, then defeated the Georgian army in a brief but bloody war, and has stubbornly resisted attempts to be reintegrated ever since. I have visited Abkhazia primarily to report on its foreign relations, including during the Russian-Georgian War of 2008, when the Abkhaz took advantage of Georgia’s distraction and cleared the last Georgian troops from what they consider to be their territory.
After the war, Russia recognised Abkhazian independence, and the territory became something of a pawn in the struggle between Washington and Moscow. This was always the nominal topic during interviews with politicians but, quite often, we ended up talking instead about adjika. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Chirikba, for example, strongly recommended buying some from a woman called Seda in the market in Sukhum, the capital. “Everyone knows her, she makes the best adjika,” he said, with a degree of passion that had been missing from much of our previous discussion of Abkhazia’s strained foreign relations. “Just ask when you get into the market and they’ll tell you how you find Seda who sells adjika.”
He pointed out that, as an ethnic Armenian, he was neutral in the Abkhaz adjika dispute.
That was a controversial viewpoint, however. Ruben Migranyan, spokesman for the prime minister, did not think much of Seda’s adjika at all.
“Seda’s neighbour in the market has much better adjika. Look out for her, she has blonde hair, though I can’t remember her name,” he said, as we waited for his boss to turn up. He pointed out that, as an ethnic Armenian, he was neutral in the Abkhaz adjika dispute, so his viewpoint was one you could rely on.
“Seda is a brand name. Buy it from Seda by all means, maybe it’s good, but you can find any other person who makes it better.”
The next morning I had a couple of hours to kill before seeing the president, so I took Chirikba’s advice. The market was a chaotic noisy place full of vegetables and bread and furniture and clothes and hustlers. I smiled at the thought of Chirikba, careful and precise in his beautiful suit, walking through here.
But he was right: everyone knew Seda, who was pleasingly nonchalant about having her produce recommended by the country’s top foreign policy official.
She just smiled at my questions though: “I will not tell anyone anything about what’s in here”.
“Of course, mine is the best,” she said, pulling out a jar from under a counter covered in vegetables. “It is the purest so it is the best.”
She opened the jar and offered me a spoonful to try. More coriander in this one, I thought, as I waited for the garlic and chilli explosion at the back of my mouth. And something else in there too: dill seeds? Cumin? It was indeed wonderful.
She just smiled at my questions though: “I will not tell anyone anything about what’s in here”.
A bald man, 40 years old or so, was listening to our conversation and chipped in to support Seda’s boast. When he heard I was writing about the national sauce, he insisted on his viewpoint being recorded as well.
“Write that Adjika is Abkhaz, not Georgian. They say it is theirs, but they lie. They always lie,” he said, before stumping off, a string bag of vegetables in each hand.
The Georgians, of course, have their own thoughts on this. But since the word Adjika comes from the Abkhaz word for salt, I am a believer in Abkhaz claims to the invention of it.
Seda dipped the jar in spices to seal it, screwed on the lid, and handed it over.
“Everyone knows me,” she said. “Seda, Seda, Seda, in America, in Israel, auntie Seda, they call me. Auntie Seda.com for adjika. Ha!”
There is, alas, no website. I checked.
I had somehow provoked the president of a war-torn semi-recognised country into miming the action of grinding spices on a stone.
With the jar safe in my bag, plus one from her blonde neighbour too, I headed off to see President Alexander Ankvab. We did cover the issues I wanted to discuss—American opposition to Abkhazian independence, Russian support, the return of Georgian refugees. But it was perhaps inevitable we would spend some of our time talking about a particular spicy condiment.
“Adjika is number one,” he said with finality, when I asked him to rank it in the world top 10 of sauces. “I can remember, when I was a schoolboy, when we went to the village, the old women would grind the adjika on a stone like this.”
I looked on in amazement. I had somehow provoked the president of a war-torn semi-recognised country into miming the action of grinding spices on a stone. He had a glint in his eye too.
“There were so many herbs in it, starting with garlic and ending God knows where, but the taste was heavenly. The most tasty kind was done like this, with a stone.”
He then called over his spokesman and started discussing something with him in Abkhaz, a whistly language with a half-dozen vowel sounds between English’s ch and sh. It turned out there was a factory, a new factory, making Abkhazian adjika for export. President Ankvab was giving instructions that I should be taken there.
It was a Saturday and locating the factory’s owner took some time but, since this was a request from the president, he stopped doing what he was doing and hurried over. Business, Rauf Jirikba said when he had caught his breath, was good. He had nearly finished a new factory that he wanted to show me. It was a strange hybrid of a traditional Abkhazian house – with veranda and overhanging eaves—on top of a steel-frame shed, but rather handsome.
When the factory was completed, he said, the spices and herbs would dry up in the mountain breezes, while the canning process would take place at ground level. Even now, without the building even being finished, the equipment was churning away. Hundreds of bunches of oregano were drying above our heads, their sweet smell filling the space around us.
He had, he said, collected recipes for adjika from all the old women he knew, amalgamated them and created a generic version with a long shelf life. He handed me a jar and I examined it. Here was a list of ingredients. At last I could find out what went into adjika: “hot pepper, coriander, basil, celery, dill, garlic, walnut oil, saffron, salt, water”.
I looked up at the oregano above me, which was noticeably not on the list. He clearly was not revealing all of his secrets either.
“You should be able to eat adjika on the end of a knife,” he said, opening the jar and offering some to me. It was saltier than homemade adjika, oilier too, that might explain its longer shelf life. But it was still as warm and pleasant as late afternoon sun on your face.
“Freedom is more important than food,” he said, and pushed five jars of his adjika across the table to me.
He led me over to the machine that was crushing his pepper, and I blinked as the fumes bit into my eyes.
“You can use adjika for everything: if you put it on a chicken, a proper chicken, not a frozen one, if you put it on a chicken then you will be with your wife as if you had just met yesterday,” he said, with a laugh and flick of the eyebrows.
“It is like the diamond of Abkhazian cuisine, because all our sauces, made from walnuts or from whatever, they all must be made with adjika, it gives the piquancy that makes you want to eat them.”
He said he was now exporting a million jars of adjika to Russia a year. Sadly, though, Abkhazia’s dubious legal status meant exporting it anywhere else was harder. I asked him if he would compromise on Abkhazian independence if he could sell five million jars. He shook his head. “Freedom is more important than food,” he said, and pushed five jars of his adjika across the table to me. I should take them to London, he said, and publicise his product there.
A couple of days later, I stood weary in Heathrow Airport, waiting for my bag to come round on the carousel. It was packed full of adjika: a jar from my landlady’s mother, another from Seda, one from the blonde, as well as the five jars from Jirikba. It was my biggest haul yet.
Every suitcase coming round was black, just like mine, and every bag had little swooshes of colour designed to distinguish them from each other, just like mine. This was taking a long time, and I began to worry that my bag and its precious cargo had been diverted and I would never seen it again.
And then I smelt it, the smell of Abkhazia. The adjika, even from inside the bottles, was calling to me as my bag was about to plunge down the conveyor onto the carousel. I picked it up to lug it home, enough bottled sunshine to last the long months before my return.
Where to get adjika?
You can buy “adjika” in Russian/Eastern European shops in the UK and (presumably) in Brighton Beach and other Russian spots in the US. However, it is filth, just tomato puree with a bit of chili and garlic in it. You may as well buy Doritos-brand salsa for all the kick you’ll get out of it.
That Amtsa brand of Abkhazian adjika (pictured in the photo) is good. It’s from the factory mentioned in the piece, but you can only find it in Russia and, allegedly, Armenia. There is also (caution: entering a minefield here) Georgian adjika, but the Abkhazian claims to have invented it are credible, and besides the Georgian version isn’t as nice. For the real deal, you’ll have to visit Seda in Sukhum. Or the woman next to her in the market.
[Part 1 of a 2-part series. View the second part, where Bullough gamely tries the sauce of their enemies here.]