We speak to the Afaunovs, who maintain the culinary traditions of their homeland during Ramadan
Breaking the fast Circassian-style: Beetroot soup, pineapple salad and tea
It might be convenient for brevity’s sake, but it wouldn’t be accurate to label Asker Afaunov as Russian, says the 25-year-old, who works in a Dubai film studio as a post-production editor. “We’re from a very obscure place in the North Caucasus Mountains, a tiny little area between Georgia and Chechnya, [close enough] to the border to get away with saying we’re Russian. But we’re not.”
Afaunov and his family are Muslims who hail from the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, a federal subject of Russia and home to the Adiga or Adyghe people, known as Circassians. The Afaunov’s hometown is Nalchik, the region’s capital.
“My parents and I always have my brother’s family with us, including my sister-in-law, who helps my mother cook. And we have relatives from our hometown joining us whenever we can, and guests. Ramadan is really a time of togetherness for us, and the more around the iftar table, the better,” Afaunov says.
Like most Muslims, iftar commences with dates and a glass of water for the Afaunovs, and then, like most Russians and Eastern Europeans – whether from the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus or Lithuania – they often dig into the famously sour, reddish-purple beetroot soup known as borscht.
“My mom is all about that soup,” Afaunov says. “In general, a variation of soup is always a must, whether it’s for iftar or just dinner. But my mother pours all her love into borscht. It’s her holy grail,” he says.
The recipes for borscht vary, but beets, vegetables and sour cream are always the main ingredients. “Sour cream is a really big deal for our cuisine, we use it in almost everything, and families make their own. When we visit our hometown, we are always given homemade sour cream as gifts,” Afaunov says. A popular meal for iftar is a chicken dish known as gedlibge or jedlibzche, cooked in sour cream and paprika. “We have that almost every day,” he says. It’s a dish children are introduced to early on.
A favourite of the family is nejinka salad, which resembles a cake. It consists of layers of pineapple chunks, corn kernels, boiled and shredded chicken, lots of cheese and boiled eggs. Between each layer is plenty of mayonnaise, and the top is sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, for texture. “I really love this salad,” Afaunov says.
Other dishes typically found on the iftar table include Circassian lakum, which is unleavened maize bread that is often fried, as well as chirjin, a bread made from corn flour. Peppers stuffed with minced meat and rice, and a crab salad would round off an iftar, but nothing is complete without a black tea to sip on, made in this case with salt, pepper, butter and milk.
“It’s a very traditional tea for us – it’s bitter, and it’s our national drink. We often drink it along with smoked cheese. It goes with savoury dishes more than sweet dishes, to be honest,” Afaunov says.
Dessert in general is not a “big thing” for his people. “We are not very dessert-friendly, and I think it’s a cultural thing,” he says. “We are not indulgent, everything is strict and simple and to the point, and that extends to the food. It’s nothing extravagant, so sweets are not necessary.”
Still, the family say they have a weakness for honey cake, which they like to indulge in during Ramadan, as well as a sweet compote drink made by boiling fruit with sugar. “It’s a very refreshing drink; perfect if you’ve been fasting,” Afaunov says.