Turkmen cuisine with Bayramgül Annagurban
and her recipe for fitchi

Melons in Turkmenistan

Eziz Annagurban

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan isn’t just one of the least densely populated countries in the world – it’s also one of the least visited. Bayramgül runs the website TurkmenKitchen.com, together with her daughter & photographer Mähri, to provide us with a rare insight in this Central Asian country’s food culture, where its 400 distinct varieties of melons are celebrated with Gawun Baýramy, or Melon Day.

What food did you grow up eating?
“When I was growing up, my mother often used gowurdak as a base for the meals she cooked. Gowurdak is mutton or beef that has been slowly cooked in its own rendered fat (tallow) and then preserved by allowing it to cool in the tallow. She would scoop out a large spoonful from the enamel pot and begin creating her hearty meals, such as unash (noodle soup) and batyrma (vegetable stew).”

Animal fat makes its appearance in cuisines from all over the world, often under different names. Gowurdak reminds of the French dish rillettes, traditionally made with different cuts of pork, such as belly or shoulder. When the fat solidifies after slow-cooking, it creates an airtight seal – preventing the meat (or fish) from spoiling by keeping oxygen out. Fat-capped food often keeps for months. 
“The by-product of tallow is known as jigirdek in Turkmen, or cracklings in English. It’s the solid material that remains after rendering out the fat. We eat it is as a snack or incorporate it in çörek, the Turkmen flatbread.”

Bread is rather important in Turkmenistan, isn’t it?
“Turkmens love their bread and meat, and a combination of the two is always a winner for us. What’s most notable about Turkmen dishes is that they consist of few ingredients, with seasoning limited to just salt and black pepper, and yet they are rich in flavour and leave you extremely satisfied.”

“But my favourite dish is actually palaw (pilav): steamed rice with fried carrots, onions and chunks of beef, mutton or chicken. It’s simple but so good – and arguably the ultimate Turkmen dish.”

Turkmenistan is largely covered by desert. The Karakum desert spans eighty per cent of its surface, where camel rearing is still an important source of income. 
“Dishes with camel meat are common in these smaller, desert villages. There even is a fermented camel drink called chal. It’s like sparkling water, but with a sour, milky taste.”

But the Turkmen drink of choice is tea, right?
“In a Turkmen home, a guest is always served tea before and after a meal. The tea, usually green, is accompanied by raisins, dried apricots and, most notably, kak, which is braided dried melon.”

Gelin Budu – Bride’s Thighs

TurkmenKitchen.com

"Gelin budu, or 'bride’s thighs', is the Iraqi - Turkmen name for these soft and golden, meat-stuffed croquettes. It has a delicious crust of kneaded rice!"

Bayramgül Annagurban

But unfortunately, Turkmenistan isn’t just about tea, peace and quiet. Turkmenistan became independent after the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, and has since been ruled by two of the most totalitarian dictators of modern history -  Saparmurat Niyazov (who passed away in 2006) and his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow since then. Turkmenistan is infamous for its issues with human rights. Freedom of press, or the lack thereof, is one of them. 
“My husband was a dissident journalist, which made us flee the country in 1998. We got political asylum in Bergen, Norway, but eventually settled in Prague, Czech, where we still live today. We couldn’t visit the country until 2012, but we’ve been back four times since then. All our relatives are still living in Turkmenistan, so it was great to be back. We were planning on going back this year [2020] as well, but we all know what happened.”

“For my husband and I, it has been very important to pass on our Turkmen culture to our children. They were very young when we had to flee, and cooking Turkmen dishes was one of the ways I could keep them connected to their culture. My daughter, Mähri, came up with the idea to document my Turkmen recipes, which I thought was a great idea. We eventually created the website, and that has led to such an amazing response! Many homesick, Turkmen students around the world thanked me for teaching them how to cook like their mothers used to.”

Fitchi

© TurkmenKitchen.com

The Dish

Fitchi is a hearty and delicious meat pie. It’s a recipe following the classic Turkmen philosophy: rich in flavour with few ingredients. Hard to find tail fat? Try clarified butter or ghee instead.
“Fitchi is actually a smaller, modernised version of ichleki – a shepherd’s pie that is baked under hot sand. Fitchi became popular street food in the seventies. It’s lost its popularity for a bit, but recently made a comeback!”

“It’s a popular choice for lunch and is widely sold in food stalls in bazaars, but also in specialised fitchi houses.”

Is there a vegetarian alternative?
“I would like to try making it with a spinach or pumpkin filling, but then it wouldn’t be called fitchi.”
 

The Ingredients

Filling
500 g
beef or mutton
50 g
tail fat (or any other animal fat)
1
onion
1/4 tsp
black pepper
8 tbsp
water
Dough
1 tsp
salt
300 ml
warm water
500 g
flour
Filling
1.1 lbs
beef or mutton
3 tbsp
tail fat (or any other animal fat)
onion
1/4 tsp
black pepper
8 tbsp
water
Dough
1 tsp
salt
1 1/4 cup
warm water
1 lb
flour

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 1 hour | Yield: 4 servings | Category: starter

  1. Grind or finely chop the meat, fat and onion. Add the salt, pepper and water, and mix it all thoroughly. Divide the filling into 10 equal portions.
  2. In another large bowl, mix all the dough ingredients together and work to a soft dough. Divide the dough into 6 large and 6 smaller pieces, and roll each piece between your palms into a ball. Cover the dough balls with a kitchen towel and allow to rest for 5 minutes.
  3. Grease 10 cm (4-inch) tart pans with butter.
  4. Roll out the large balls of dough to 15 cm circles and lay them in the pans. Add the meat filling. Roll out the smaller balls of dough to 12 cm circles and lay them over the filling. Pinch the edges together, and then go over the top of each pan with a rolling pin to remove any excess dough. Pat any leftover dough together and use it again (you should be able to get 4 fitchis from the leftovers).
  5. Prick the fitchis with a fork and brush them with water. Bake at 200°C (400°F) on the middle rack of the oven until browned in spots, 25-30 minutes.
     
< Dutch Abrikozenvlaai Thai Nam phrik >