Sticky Porridge, Grandma's Beer, Country-Style Capers

What to Eat and Drink in South Ossetia

Their women brew beer, while their men cook meat. They tell fortune using a lucky coin from a pie, and can argue with Italians about the origins of pizza. We will tell you everything about the peculiarities of South Ossetian cuisine.
Ossetian pies and Georgian Khinkali (dumplings) are served there at feasts. Before eating, they pray to Uastyrdzhi, the celestial being, but celebrate the Christian holidays too. Food in Ossetia is one of the most important elements of culture. When guests come over, the hostess puts everything she has on the table, and if something is missing she borrows it from her neighbors. It is impossible to have a feast without food, though the main thing in it is not food but endless toast-prayers and a heart-to-heart talk. We chose the most popular dishes, but, as usual, they became only an occasion to talk about traditions, the Soviet past, and rural life.

Dzykka and Tsarvakhsidan. Transformer Dishes

Photo Vladimir Sevrinovsky
Dzykka and Tsarvakhsidan are the fattiest and the most high-calorie dishes in Ossetian cuisine. Thus, you don't see them often at feasts. It is difficult to eat a portion, and then continue eating pies and Khinkali. Moreover, both are transformer dishes.

The first half an hour after the hostess takes the pot off the stove, they are eaten like porridge - with a spoon or a piece of Lavash (soft unleavened bread, baked in tandoor). If you wait for a while, they turn into a sticky substance like a bubble gum. However, the Tsarvakhsidan stretches just a little bit, whereas a spoon of properly cooked Dzykka full of young cheese can be stretched for a meter (3.2 ft.). Sometimes, guests and hostesses have fun, competing to see who can stretch the warm substance more.

"Ossetian Slimy Substance is what we call Dzykka. In North Ossetia, they add sour cream to it so it doesn't stretch that long. Hostesses from the South don't put sour cream in it," says Aida Gagiyeva and shows photos on her phone in which she stretches the "rubber" porridge.
Video of Guram Karsanov
After a couple of hours, cooled-down Dzykka turns into casserole and is sliced into pieces.

Dzykka and Tsarvakhsidan look similar, like twin children, but if you happen to meet an Ossetian it is easy to find out is he from South or North Ossetia and whether he comes from a prosperous family just by asking about this dish. First of all, the Southerner will correct you - not Dzykka, but Zhykka. They call it Dzykka in North Ossetia. And secondly, Dzykka is an expensive dish, to make it you need young cheese. In South Ossetia, they got accustomed to cooking Tsarvakhsidan in the hungry 1980s.
"In Soviet times, you couldn't get local homemade cheese in Tskhinvali – all of it was sold at farmers markets in Tbilisi, and you had to go there to get some, and it was more expensive than cheese from North Ossetia. Now, cheese from the South costs 600 rubles (9 US dollars) per 1 kg (2 lbs.), and from the North - a little more than 200 rubles (3 US dollars) at the Vladikavkaz farmers market. The difference is in milk. In South Ossetia, there are mountainous villages with special climate. Even when it's hot the cool wind blows there, the vegetation is richer and juicier, so cow's milk tastes better and is valued more," writer Tamerlane Tadtayev recalls.
He says that in the 1980's even those families that used to make Dzykka using expensive homemade cheese began to make Tsarvakhsidan - a substance of melted butter and flour - more often.
"I liked when it was cold, not hot. I would come home, cut off a piece, put it on a piece of bread. It was some sort of a snack."
"In North Ossetia, they get these two dishes confused," says Venera Dudayeva. She grew up in a South Ossetian village where they call Tsarvakhsidan "Kharu." "Many people say, 'I'm going to make some Dzykka now,' but they make Tsarvakhsidan. My mother seldom made Dzykka because it was too expensive."
It is believed that Dzykka should be cooked in complete silence. It is a capricious dish that requires full attention. Once the hostess started cooking it, she should not be distracted, otherwise it will not work. Nowadays, Dzykka is always cooked for Kahts which is a family celebration honoring the arrival of a new male baby. Parents cook the substance, wait until it cools down and turns into a casserole, cut it into pieces, and give it to their numerous relatives.

Three Pies. Eat, Pray, and Change the Stuffing

Three pies, which are served at any feast, are a dish which has accumulated dozens of meanings for the people. The Scythians and Sarmatians, the ancestors of the present-day Ossetians, used to make these pies. The number three is sacred to them. It contains the following meanings: one pie is a symbol of God, the second is a symbol of the sun, and the third is a symbol of the world. Alternatively, three pies denote the three worlds: underground, terrestrial, and heavenly. This version explains the fact that exactly three pies are placed on the table for a celebration, and only two pies for a commemoration. Also, considering that Ossetian beliefs are based on paganism and Christianity at the same time there is an interpretation that the three pies symbolize the Holy Trinity.
"Ceremonial pies always come with cheese. They serve them by putting them on top of each other. The elder of the ceremony puts them apart so that God is convinced that there are really three of them. Then, he prays to the Most High before a meal, asking him for welfare and prosperity, takes a piece of the top pie, and passes it along with his glass to the youngest man at the table. The latter takes the piece, sips from the glass of the elder, refills it with just one drop, and gives it back. The elder again says a prayer, the pies are put on top of each other again and are cut into eight pieces only after this ritual. The piece with the broke-off edge goes to the youngest one. All conditions must be met, both the stuffing and the strict sequence of actions, otherwise the prayer will not be heard," says Alexei Chibirov.
In general, there are pies with cheese (Ualibakh), potato and cheese (Kartofdzhin), and meat (Fidzhin). Less common are cabbage and walnut (Kabuskadzhin), mashed pumpkin (Nasdzhin), sweet cherry pies, as well as the beetroots and cheese pie (Tsakharadzhin) which is loved by everyone (especially tourists!).
"Finns throw away beetroot leaves, they don't use them to cook anything. We know where to get them easily, so we make pies with such stuffing. As for cheese, it is more complicated. We had to use mozzarella to make pies when we would get together with my countrymen on the New Year's Eve," says Venera Dudayeva, who now lives in Finland.

The Lucky New Year's Eve Pie

Photo of Anton Agarkov
You have probably already realized what an important role the three holiday pies play in Ossetian culture. However, in South Ossetia there exists a less known but no less festive pie - Artkhuron.
"It is a huge nourishing cheese pie. It embodies two cults - the cult of fire and the cult of the sun (art means "fire" in Ossetian, and khur means "the sun"). It is prepared on the New Year's Day - Nogbon, and its preparation is accompanied by an important ritual meaning. Back in the day, they used to put grains or animal hair wrapped in tissue in the pie. If you happen to get a piece with such "stuffing," it meant you would have success in agriculture or animal husbandry. Now, the hostess puts a coin in the pie," says Alexei Chibirov who was born in the South Ossetia but lives in North Ossetia now.
The family gathers around the table in the morning of the New Year's Day. The older man says a prayer and cuts Artkhuron. One piece for each family member. The person who gets a piece of pie with a coin will be the happiest this year.
"Usually, my grandmother was the one who cooked this pie, and my father would say a prayer. We had a big family - 12-15 people would gather around the table, and I got the coin only once. I was 14 years old then. Was I happy that year? I don't really remember. In the early 1990s, my grandmother died, and the tradition died out in our family. There's no one else left in my family to cook Artkhuron," continues Alexei Chibirov.
In South Ossetia, the tradition has been preserved, while in North Ossetia they almost don't make pies with a lucky coin anymore.

Dzhondzholi. The Country-style Capers

A dzhondzholi tree looks like lilacs. There are villages with so many dzhondzholi trees in South Ossetia that if the Ossetians let them bloom, open-airs for artists would be held there. However, practical hostesses do not wait for the moment when the delicate sweet smell of white flowers spreads across the village. They harvest when the buds are about ready, but have not yet opened. One tree means ten 1-liter (0,2 gal.) or even 1,5-liter (0,4 gal.) jars of spicy snacks. What does it taste like? Sometimes, people say Dzhondzholi taste like capers.
"I was born in the village of Bikhar. It's not like there's a dzhondzholi tree in almost every backyard there, but we had one. In spring, my mother would pick the buds off the tree, add salt, put them in jars, and add a little vegetable oil and onions. These jars were kept in the cellar until autumn or winter, and then we would eat it with tandoor flatbread during the holidays," Venera Dudayeva recalls.
Авторство фотографии
Jars with salted Dzhondzholi can be found on almost every counter of any market in Tskhinval. The price of one is up to 200 rubles (3 US dollars). In North Ossetia, these pickles are almost impossible to find.

Lobbio for Hungry Times. And Aristocratic Attitudes

Beans with meat and herbs are the classics of Georgian cuisine, but you can order it in any Tskhinval pie bar.
"I used to live in Tajikistan. Once, when I was in college my classmates and I were sent to pick cotton. They brought us lunch - beans with meat - right to the field. I was so glad, I said, "Oh, it is Lobbio, a Georgian dish." Local Tajiks almost killed me for saying that, telling me that it was a Tajik dish and the word "Lobbio" was also their. They said that their ancestors and the ancestors of their ancestors used to make it. I was surprised. Well, they couldn't have lied – we were in a middle of nowhere," recalls Tamerlane Tadtaev.

Ossetians have many interpretations of Lobbio. They cook it with and without meat, with and without greens, and there is also Lobbio that they cooked in the hungry 1980s. "My mom cooked it without meat, adding pieces of fat instead. She used to say that this way it would be more nourishing. Who cooks it? Both men and women. Me, for example, I can't cook anything but scrambled eggs, but my brother's Lobbio is very tasty," Tamerlane explains.
Ossetians from the South easily adopted cuisine of the neighboring people, the writer adds, and not only that. "In Soviet times, when I was in high school, it was considered aristocratic to speak Georgian. Why? Because Georgians were highly educated, they had cool movies, music, and they knew well how to present themselves in the best light. It was believed that you should have had connections with Georgians otherwise you wouldn't have made it far in life."

You can't Amaze Your Neighbor With Your Wine. Children are Allowed to Drink Beer. Araka Treats Diseases.

"There are 24 houses on our street. Half of them have vineyards and a cellar with red and white wines," says Aida Gagiyeva.
They put homemade wine in plastic bottles and store it in cellars and storerooms. There are both traditionalists, who try not to give up on their father's technology, and enthusiastic experimentalists among the winemakers. In any case, everyone is proud of their wine. At the same time, there are almost no technical possibilities to make good wine, so do not expect much from such peasant wine. However, when you see a plastic bottle on the table, you shouldn't let your inner snob come out right away either. Sometimes, local craftsmen can pleasantly surprise you.

In South Ossetia, they try alcohol for the first time at an early age. And I am not talking about those stories where teenagers get together while their parents are away. Everything starts with Bagana - Ossetian beer. It is served during the religious holidays. They brew it in an iron vat over an open fire. Brewers are older women in the family, so do not be surprised when one of the Ossetians starts telling you that the best beer he tried was made by his grandmother.

Beer is served on the table in a wooden vat, the elder man says a prayer and gives the youngest person at the table the first sip. The youngest can be just a year and a half or two years old. It is a low-alcohol drink, only 1-2%, and it tastes like either kvass (traditional Slavic and Baltic beverage commonly made from rye bread) or cocoa.
"My mom used to make beer for small feasts in an iron pot, and for large ones in a vat outside. Why I loved the Ossetian holidays? You were allowed to drink beer. When it is hot, it tastes like coffee and has no effect. However, if you let it sit for a week, then, having drunk it, you could have gotten drunk. I used to work at customs. I was an adult already, and there was this girl who brought us a few bottles, and it was so heady that I got drunk off just one glass," recalls Tamerlane Tadtayev
Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky
The traditional Ossetian beer is thick and has a dark brown color. It came to Ossetian cuisine from the Nart saga. The legend has it, the warrior Uryzmag saw a bird peck at hops in the woods. Then, the bird fell to the ground. He brought it home and told his wife Shatana about it. The woman decided to leaven the barley wort by hops. That's how Bagana appeared.

This beer is served only for the holidays. As for Araka, it can be served any day, the men explain. It is known to treat diseases, they also give it to neighbors who come to visit.
"I first tried Araka when I was trekking the Greater Caucasus Ridge. I was about 13 years old. We were climbing the pass, got wet, and cold. They poured me some Araka into a small chamois horn so that I wouldn't get sick. I drank one, drank another one, got drunk, and went to bed in a tent. I woke up and didn't even have a runny nose," continues Alexei Chibirov.

"I tried Araka many times, but I don't like it. I like whiskey, even though it's the same thing. I don't actually have very good memories with Araka. I would get sick often as a child. Once, I was taken to the doctor in Tbilisi who prescribed me grape juice every day. I was capricious, refused to drink it, and they had to pour it into my throat. When my grandmother died, my mother and aunt were dealing with the funeral arrangements, and accidentally poured Araka instead of grape juice into my glass. It was a huge glass! And I was about two years old. I screamed, I was afraid, they poured it into my mouth by force, I remember as if I had been poured kerosene. My mother tells me that my eyes went out and I started dying. There was a local dude, a witch doctor or someone who was believed to know how to jinx or to heal people. He spat at me, and I opened my eyes," Tamerlane says.

What to Add To Meat And Dough

Авторство фотографии
Tuag is a cherry plum sauce for meat. Tsakhton is a white hot sauce for potatoes. The first one is borrowed from Georgians, and the second one is the Ossetian sauce. Both are popular in many families.
"My mom would boil cherry plum and pour it in mineral water or lemonade bottles. Sometimes, they would put it in three-liter (0.8 gal.) jars. It's a good seasoning for meat
Tsakhton is more common than Tuag, and it takes no more than five minutes to make," says Alexei Chibirov.
"I like spicy food, so I make Tsakhton. You need green pepper leaves and some sour cream. The leaves are compressed, cut into pieces, and mixed with sour cream. The proportions depend on your personal preference. Then, you smear the sauce on bread or eat it with baked potatoes. You can also put the leaves in a jar and store it until winter. You can find such jars at the farmers market here next to Dzhondzholi and dry adjika (hot, spicy but subtly flavored dip)," explains Aida.
However, the interlocutors add, neither Tuag nor Tsakhton are the most popular dishes. Everything that is made of dough and meat is much more common for Ossetians.

One Cauldron and Three Dishes

Photo of Anton Agarkov
Ossetian cuisine is simple and laconic. Spicy and hot sauces, appetizers like Dzhondzholi, and desserts are what have been borrowed from Georgians. Although, any hostess in South Ossetia cooks Lobbio and can tell you that her grandmother used to make it back in the day. She will also say that boiled meat in a cauldron is our food.
"Ossetians used to live in the mountains in difficult conditions, there was no way to be creative with food. Everything was nourishing and very simple to make. They would cut the calf carcass, boiled it in a big cauldron, and add salt. And that's all. Now, we usually cook meat in a regular cooking pot on a stove," explains Aida Gagiyeva.
Photo of Anton Agarkov
As for the big feasts when the whole family gathers around the table the meat is cooked in a large cast-iron cauldron over fire outside. For example, for the St. Uastyrdzhi holiday. "According to the ritual of preparation for a meal, it is customary to cook and serve three right ribs and the head of a sacrificial animal stabbed and cooked according to certain rules for the religious holidays," adds Alexei Chibirov. More often, calf meat is used, less often - lamb meat. This simple dish is made by men. They then use the remaining broth for another famous dish in South Ossetia – Ostroe (spicy) - which you can find in almost any pie or Khinkali bar.
"Pieces of meat, potatoes, vegetables, and spicy broth. This soup is cooked in the same cast iron cauldrons that they use to cook meat," describes Aida Gagiyeva.
Photo of Anton Agarkov
Ostroe is a "brother" of a Georgian dish called Ostri. There are more than a dozen ingredients in it, from spicy peppers and tomatoes, which make the broth red, to pickled cucumbers, herbs, and butter. Ostroe has less ingredients than in popular Ostri recipes. And they cook it differently in different Ossetian eateries. Sometimes, it is a very thick soup, and sometimes not as much. In the latter case, the main taste is in the broth.


Photo of Vladimir Sevrinovsky
Tatara is a Georgian nut-free Churchkhela (candle-shaped candy). Grape juice with flour is probably the only dessert that is more or less common among the highlanders.
"They serve it at any feasts. When I was little, we used to eat it in any form - when it was hot, warm, or frozen jelly," says Tamerlane Tadtayev.
Alas, there are not that many places where you can buy Tatara in South Ossetia. However, if you go to one of the villages in the autumn after the grape harvest, the hostess will prepare this delicacy for you if she is sympathetic to you and feels like cooking it, of course.
© 2019 Caucasus Explorer
This travel guide was created by Caucasus Explorer. Our company conceived this project to respond to the hospitality of the highlanders and, at the same time, to support the urban development of Tskhinval and help preserve the traditional way of life in the villages.
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