Main dishes and table traditions of the Volga region Tatars
The culture of the Tatars of the Volga Region combines the traditions of several nations: the Bulgars, who built a state here in the 10th century, the Central Asian Turks, who brought Islam to these lands, and the motley multinational army (we used to call it Tatar-Mongolian), who destroyed the Volga Bulgaria in the 13th century and built a new state on its territory.
Tatar cuisine was influenced by almost all of its neighbors: Russians, Chuvash, Mari, and Bashkirs. Vigorous international trade also brought its own fruits – new products, spices and dishes. And, of course, an important role in the Tatar cuisine has always played traditions of Islam.
Ash – ritual feast
Translated from the Tatar word ash means “food” and, in particular, “soup”. And it is also the name of the tradition of a ritual feast. Modern Tatar Muslims hold ash in honor of nikah (marriage ceremony), the birth of a child, in memory of relatives, during sacred holidays. Usually, ash is celebrated in a family circle. Each Muslim family decides for itself when to hold it, but it always begins in the same way – with a recitation of the Koran.
The obligatory participant of any ash is an elderly woman respected in the community (for example, abystai – wife of a mullah, a Muslim priest), or a man who can read the Quran in Arabic. Sometimes, on special occasions, it is the mullah himself who can give a short sermon. The Quran and hadith (traditions of the words, actions and deeds of Muhammad) are listened to before the start of the meal, but already seated at the table. There is silence in the room, interrupted only by the recitation in Arabic. This is the most important part of the asha and its main meaning.
A Tatar woman. Wikimedia Commons 18th century
There is no alcohol at the asha: it is forbidden by Shariah . All food is halal That is, it is food allowed to Muslims. But what to serve, each hostess decides for herself. Chak-chak, kosh-tele (literally, “bird’s tongues” – crust of dough fried in oil), various cakes made of yeast dough, dried fruit are likely to be on the table. Koymak (pancakes) may be present.
The table must be plentiful and prepared in advance. By the time the guests are seated, there are already fruit, berries, fresh or salted vegetables, pastries, sweets. Modern tradition allows the presence of fish and meat snacks, such as smoked fish or kazy, i.e. horse sausage.
Until now, ash, like any Tatar feast, began with tea. Nowadays, before serving hot dishes, compotes, juices or water are placed on the table.
A hot meal begins with soup, and most often it is tokmach – noodles in chicken broth. The noodles should be very thin. Now the tradition is gone, but it was believed that a good bride must be able to slice noodles “into a cobweb.” Moreover, out of two brides could choose the one who cut noodles thinner. The tradition of teaching girls from an early age to roll and cut noodles was characteristic of both Muslims and Kryashen, baptized Tatars.
After the soup is the second course, which is often a large pie Gubadia (tat. göbädia) or zur-belesh (tat. zur băleş). Zur belesh is filled with potatoes, meat (goose or beef) and onions. Before the end of the 19th century, when potatoes were unknown to the Tatars, they used to put grains, most often spelt. It’s a hearty and very elegant pie
The balesh is supposed to be eaten with a spoon: since there is much less dough than plentiful stuffing, first the top “cover” is removed, and these pieces of dough are portioned out on plates instead of bread. The filling is placed next to it. After that, the bottom layer of belesh is distributed, soft and soaked with juice from the filling; many consider it the most delicious part of the pie. The bottom of the belesh is given to the elderly guests, such as the abystai.
In the final part of the asha , before tea is served, potatoes and meat (beef or chicken, boiled or stewed) may be brought to the tables. Potatoes are a modern innovation, a tribute to the habit of eating meat only with a side dish. Until the 20th century the table was just put meat sliced into pieces and served to guests, the fattiest parts went to the most respected of those present.
Ends with a tea party. Here came the numerous sweets, which were on the table from the very beginning of the meal.
The meaning of ash is not only to feed the guests, but also to observe religious traditions. Therefore, another obligatory part of asha is the distribution to each guest of sadaqah, gifts in honor of Allah: they can be handkerchiefs, pieces of cloth, bars of soap or other small things. The reciters of the Koran receive more substantial gifts than others.
In addition, each guest takes with him a guest from the table (kuchtәnәch). Ash is served in such a way that after it there is always enough food to distribute to the leaving guests. Therefore, one can return from ash with a piece of cake, fruit, chak-chak or kosh-tele – whatever the hostess wraps up.
It is believed that tea was brought to the Volga region by the Mongols when they conquered the Great Bulgary, in the 13th century, but this drink took hold in the 17th century, when the Russian Empire established trade relations with China. At the beginning of the 18th century, tea in Russia could only be bought in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan.
In the 19th century in Kazan there were already five large tea houses and 27 shops, where pressed tea from China was sold. If in the 17th century tea was very expensive and only drunk in well-to-do families, while ordinary people took it as medicine or on holidays, by the 19th century tea drinking had become a part of the Tatar life, and the samovar was almost the main item in the house. Ethnographer Nikolai Vorobyov wrote that if a family sells or pawns a samovar, it means that they have reached complete poverty and are ready to lose the most valuable things.
Tea party at a mullah’s house. Ufa province, 1911 Community “Old Tatar photos Iske sultәrәr” / “Vkontakte”
Tatars always drank tea very hot, almost boiling. This tradition has been preserved even today. Milk was also supposed to be added warmed up, so that the temperature in the cup remained high. Often, to save brew and add flavor to the tea, herbs were brewed together with the tea: oregano (materushka in Tatar, in some dialects yylyut ), thyme and St. John’s wort. There was no sugar in tea: it was eaten only in a snack not to spoil the taste of the drink.
The traditional tea table was very abundant: butter, honey, kabartma (dumplings made of yeast dough), the already mentioned kosh tele and chak-chak, nuts, dried fruits, marshmallow made of apples and berries. According to the rules of hospitality, anyone who comes to the house must be fed, but the meal may be limited to an endlessly long tea party with the serving of sweets and pastries
Tea itself is also part of any traditional meal. Tatar writer Rabit Batulla in his study of Tatar cuisine “Tatar dastarkhany”, 2009 gives the following sequence of dishes in the ancient feasts:
Tea Belesh Shulpa (tokmach) Some second course, for example fried chicken Kalzha (large boiled pieces of horse or beef meat) Rice or millet soup Some second course, for example fried fish Karta (boiled horse entrails) Beshbarmak Tea Fried mutton Kullama with salma Fruit Kumys (honey or Buza Buza – low alcohol drink from millet, buckwheat, barley, etc. ) After a long pause, tea was served again.
According to Batulla, this order of serving dishes has been preserved in the Mishar villages of Mishari – a subethnic group of Tatars in the Volga and Urals region. to this day.
The people’s love for tea is reflected in Tatar proverbs and sayings, such as “I drank tea – summer came upon my soul” or “When a woman learned tea, she forgot about yarn”.
This is a huge cake made of unleavened dough with several layers of fillings, which was traditionally baked at weddings. There are different kinds of gubadia: the sweet one is served with tea, the meat one is served as a second course. Today gubadiya is served with rice, while until the 20th century the multilayer sweet filling consisted primarily of berries and dried fruits. However, dried fruits were an indispensable ingredient of meat gubadia, too. Some ethnographers mentioned that they were considered a talisman that could protect the newly-weds from bad omens.
The indispensable ingredient of gubadiya today is kort, specially prepared curd: it is stewed on fire for four-seven hours, mixed with sugar and butter. The result is a brown, crumbly, sweet mass, which has a very long shelf life and a distinctive flavor of melted milk. A few centuries ago kort used to be taken on long journeys: it is very filling and does not spoil for a long time.
Gubadia with kort, rice, egg and raisins © Egor Aleev / TASS
The number of layers in a wedding gubadiya is not accidental: it symbolized the number of days the young husband can stay in the house of his wife and her parents after the wedding. The fact is that in many villages the wife moved in with her husband not at once: first the husband stayed for a few days at her parents’ house, then came on Thursdays for a few weeks, and only after that the wife moved to her husband’s house. Such separation had an economic significance, too: the bride price was not always paid by the groom’s parents at once. So the wife would go to their house only after her family had received everything that was fixed in the pre-wedding agreement.
Tatar women in the kitchen. 1860 British Library
Thus, there could be from five to nine layers in a gubadiya. At the wedding it was solemnly cut on the groom’s side (usually by his father). This was done in one slow movement to open all the fillings at once and to check how the cake was baked. It was not an easy task to bake all the layers evenly in the village oven. If the gubadia remained soggy on the inside, they started baking a new one right during the wedding. After the feast, it was divided according to the number of guests and given to them as a present. If the gubadia was made at the first attempt, it was divided into four parts, one of which was sent to the groom’s house (for those relatives who could not come to the wedding), and the rest was eaten at the wedding feast
Before cutting the gubadiya, the groom’s father had to cover it with a towel and put money on it – a kind of rite of redemption of the pie.
Today Tatars perceive gubadiya as a treat for tea, and the filling in it consists of a layer of kort and sweet rice with dried fruits. But no wedding can do without it. Neither is it without chak-chak .
Chak-chak, tiny pieces of pastry fried in butter and glued together with a honey glaze, is the most famous Tatar dish.
According to most ethnographers, the Tatars inherited the recipe for chak-chak from the Bulgars. It requires only local products: it contains neither dried fruits (which are brought from Central Asia) nor special spices. Only honey, butter, eggs, milk and flour.
Tatar ethnographer Kayum Nasyri in the 19th century cited a Bulgarian legend, according to which the khan ordered to invent a new feast for his son’s wedding. But not a simple one, but a festive, easy-to-prepare, non-perishable, tasty, nourishing and such that the soldiers could eat it on the go. According to legend, a dish that meets all conditions was invented by the wife of a shepherd.
Girls with chak-chak. Bulgarian Museum-Reserve, 2017 © Egor Aleev / TASS
At the wedding, the khan endowed the chak-chak with all sorts of symbolic meanings: the abundance of dough balls denoted the numerous offspring the newlyweds would have; the pieces glued together represented the bond between the spouses; the golden color of the dish represented the shining of coins; the speeches of the couple were to be as sweet as honey, and the shape of the dish – a slide – was a wish that things would only go up for the young.
Nasyri may have added on his own, but chak-chak has become a firm part of the wedding tradition – a modern Tatar wedding cannot do without it. Chak-chak plays the role of a Russian loaf as well: after the wedding ceremony, the young couple is brought out on a towel and bitten on both sides. Whoever has the biggest piece in his mouth is in charge of the house.
While gubadiya for weddings in different villages could be cooked in both the bride’s and the groom’s house, chak-chak was always made at the bride’s house. It is considered a woman’s dish. It was also divided into four parts, like gubadiya, and a quarter was sent to the groom’s relatives who were not present at the wedding.
The name chak-chak, some experts trace to the name of a character in the polytheistic pantheon of the ancient Bulgars. It is pronounced as Chagy or Chaga, and this character is allegedly responsible for the family hearth and prosperity. But this information is unconfirmed – most ethnographers still tend to believe that the name of the dish comes from a similar-sounding Tatar word, which translates as “a little” (pieces of dough are very small, chak-chak collected from many small “little pieces”).
Kazy and other dishes made of konin
In the traditional Tatar cuisine, horsemeat (tat. җylky ) was very important. Islam forbids eating pork, so the main types of meat for Tatar Muslims are lamb, beef and konina. Unlike pork, lamb and beef, the eating of horsemeat is not clearly regulated in Islam, so different Muslim peoples deal with this issue in different ways. Horse meat is eaten not only by the Tatars but also by the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Bashkirs, Uzbeks and many other peoples who originally were nomadic and lived in the steppe. A horse gave them everything: food, clothes, harness, and a house (they covered their yurts with horse skins). But Arabs and Turks don’t eat horse meat: for them a horse is first of all a companion in a battle, it is shameful to use it for food.
Khazy © Sara Yeomans / CC BY 2.0
The steppe tribesmen, including the Tatars, have always separated horses for horseback riding, for warfare, for work and for food. Of course, they did not eat racehorses and draught horses. Special horses were bred for the table (they were called җylky). As a rule, young mares of two to four years old were used for food. The fat under the throat was used to make an analogue of salted lard, and the meat was used for stewing, roasting, curing, and cooking broth. The insides were also prepared in a special way and eaten.
Tatars. English engraving. About 1880 Getty Images
There’s not much horsemeat on the modern Tatar table: beef and poultry are more available and widespread in the Volga region. But the Tatars continue to make beshbarmak of it, stew meat and make the famous kazy, horse sausage. Many call it kazylyk, but this is not quite correct: kazylyk is only the stuffing for making sausage.
Traditional recipes suggest using meat from the peritoneum with the addition of pieces of fillet. The meat must be very fatty – about %. It takes a long time to prepare real kazy: it is dried for about three months. Just a century ago, kazy was eaten constantly, at least in well-to-do homes; today it is more of a delicacy.
Goose and duck meat is very popular in Tatar cuisine. It is added to fillings for meat pies, fried, boiled and baked. Festive variants of echpochmak (the famous triangular pies with meat and potatoes) include goose or duck, not beef at all. Some ethnographers argue that waterfowl have sacred significance in Tatar culture.
Tatar feast of goose feathers. Sakhaevo, 1998 © Viktor Vonog / TASS / Diomedia
The goose played a very important role at weddings. It was served as the final dish of the main meal, before the final tea party. The goose symbolized prosperity; in some villages, money for the newlyweds is still collected when the goose is carried out.
The cutting of the goose was done by a specially appointed person: it could only be a man, and he was chosen by the bridegroom’s side. A special ritual knife (long and wide) was given to him, and the man was to cut the bird into pieces so as not to damage the bones (it was considered a bad omen).
The process of cutting was often accompanied by comments. For example: “Bride, you flew a lot, I will cut off your wings. When the relatives come, do not stand with your hands down (the left wing is cut off). Groom, so your arms won’t be long – I’ll cut them off for you (the right wing of the goose is cut off) . So that your eyes do not look elsewhere – I will cut off your neck (I will cut off the neck of the bird). So that you will not go anywhere without your wife, I will cut off your legs. And so on
After that, the participants of the feast were handed out the bird in a strictly defined sequence: each part of the carcass had a different meaning. In different villages there are different interpretations of what role different parts of the bird would play in family life. For example, in one village the head of a goose was cut off “so that the wife would not go over her husband’s head” and the wings were cut off “so that the husband would be faithful in the family”. Very often the bride had to eat the wing: as in Russian ritual tradition, it symbolized the departure of the girl from her native home.
It is also difficult to imagine a modern Tatar wedding without a goose baked whole. But today it is simply a tribute to tradition and an expensive ceremonial dish.
Images: Cooking in a Tatar family. Lithograph by Friedrich Wilhelm Goedsche. 1835 Science Museum London / Diomedia