As if playing with playdough…
Since the main ingredient is dough, everyone could put their own touch on hangel as if playing with playdough. The dough could be made thinner or thicker, filled or empty; it was topped with all kinds of ingredients; and based on the geographical conditions of the people making it, together with their cultural backgrounds, the dish took on different names and local flavours.
I lived in Kars for ten years between 2001 and 2011. This place was unlike anywhere I had lived or visited before. It wasn’t just its wide streets, splendid stone buildings, and vast, unbroken pastures, which gave one a feeling of ‘no limits’, its people were also different – both from anyone I’d known up to then, and from each other. The sounds, words, sayings, pleasures, laments, traditions, and political and social practices were rich and varied to an extent you wouldn’t expect to encounter in a tiny city.
Of course, it was possible to observe traces of this diversity in the food and drink culture. By 2005, the perception of ‘threat’ – a relic of the Cold War era – had fallen into relative decline in the region. In parallel, thanks to the efforts of local governments, many national and local non-governmental organisations and key individuals, the distant Kars in people’s minds seemed to come closer. Meanwhile, although the Orient Express had not become popular yet, the requirement to obtain permission from the military to visit the ancient city of Ani had been abolished, and Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow (which was set in Kars) had already been published.
The number of people going to Kars increased rapidly, as reflected in the festivals, exhibitions, music videos and movies shot by famous artists; this led to the opening of new food-and-drink and accommodation enterprises. This is where I became acquainted with hangel, the subject of this article, after the KAMER Foundation – which is based in Diyarbakır, Turkey, and supports women’s participation in economic life while taking into consideration the cultural background of the cities in which they work – opened the Kamer Kitchen and Cafe in Kars, in 2007.
I don’t think it would be wrong to say that hangel was a dish made only at home up to then. And I think there may be several reasons for this: First, it was thought to be pointless to try to find this taste outside of home since the most delicious hangel was made by mothers and grandmothers at their kitchens. In addition, because hangel is not stuffed with meat like mantı, it might not be considered a ‘palatable' dish to be included on a restaurant menu.
On the other hand, at least in Kars, it is possible that the dexterity and feel required to work the dough into the ideal consistency for a delicious hangel have not developed enough among the male chefs who have been managing the kitchens of local restaurants for years. This could be another reason why hangel came late in getting onto local restaurant menus. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not my intention to reinforce the judgement that unfairly follows women working in the culinary industry that ‘women can only be pastry chefs’ or the prejudice of ‘men can’t make dough as well as women’. However, it is important to emphasise the role of women as transmitters of tradition and memory regarding food production and home cooking.
Hangel, come have some and play
Hangel has a special place on the palate of everyone from Kars that I interviewed for this article, without exception with also an emotional component. One interviewee talked about making hangel while in prison by soaking the insides of bread in water and kneading it, then rolling the dough with a mop handle and boiling it in a samovar; another described not being able to take it anymore and breaking his fast for hangel during Ramadan; someone pointed out that because of its accessible ingredients, hangel is featured on everyone’s table – rich and poor alike, regardless of class – and in this respect it could be considered the most ‘socialist’ dish.
Since hangel is served in a huge tray (sini), with a sauce of yoghurt and pan-fried onions poured over it, almost everyone has memories or anecdotes about all sorts of tricks they played in hopes of getting the oiliest and most yoghurty part for themselves.
One day, a woman made a huge tray of hangel with clarified butter, garlicky yoghurt and onion, and brought it to her husband. Just as he was about to dip the spoon into the tray with pleasure, the woman said, ‘Hang on there, tell me, how much did you love me before we got married?’ The man looked at the dish, with the oily part in front of his wife, and said, ‘Come on, I loved you so, I loved you so much that my head was spinning like this tray (bu sini gibi herrenirdi),’ rotating the hangel so that the oily part was in front of himself.
There is debate over taste among the different communities living in Kars, and it includes an ethnic aspect. The common opinion is that hangel is the ‘national’ dish of the Terekeme people (a local Azeri ethnic group). And the Yerlis [Locals] are known to be quite self-assured about hangel, even though they are said to roll out the dough a bit thick. They also say that the Azeris use a bit too much egg, and that no one can brown the onions as well as the Kurds.
Hangel or Tatar böreği?
These conversations revolving around hangel get longer and longer, crossing the border to reach Kars’s neighbour, the city of Gyumri, Armenia – but with one difference: in Gyumri they call hangel ‘Tatar boragi’ (Tatar pastry). The dough is prepared the same way; cut in the same shapes; boiled the same way; and also served the same way, topped with fresh yoghurt or kurut (called չորթան [çortan] in Gyumri) and onions. When I dig into it a little I understand that this dish actually came to present day Turkey with Tatars who migrated from Turkestan and Russia, as a variant of mantı—an umbrella term for a collection of similar dishes.
So, how is it that this dish, after wandering through many cities as far away as Yalova, and which arrived in Erzurum with the name ‘Tatar böreği’, become hangel in Kars, and ‘Tatar boragi’ upon crossing the border?
Looking at the history of migration around the region can give us an idea of how to answer this question. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Terekeme and Azeri communities from the Borçalı and Ağbaba regions of Georgia and the Molla Musa region of Armenia settled in Kars; they called the dish hangel, which was an adaptation into the local dialect of the name for the dish in the places they came from.
The words and expressions used in Kars and Gyumri were known to be especially concentrated around culinary culture and food production practices. The Armenians of Kars, who were forced to leave their homes during what was known as the time of kaça-kaç – whose name has remained unsettled – brought the dish they knew as ‘Tatar böreği’ with them on their way across the border.
Since the main ingredient is dough, everyone could put their own touch on hangel as if playing with playdough. The dough could be made thinner or thicker, filled or empty; it was topped with all kinds of ingredients; and based on the geographical conditions of the people making it, together with their cultural backgrounds, the dish took on different names and local flavours. Yet still, hangel speaks to those who want to hear, without accepting the familiar patterns imposed by nation-state borders…
For the dough:
2 cups water or milk
3–4 cups flour
For the sauce:
3–4 cloves of garlic
1–2 tablespoons of tomato paste
Kurut (dried yoghurt) or yoghurt
To make the dough, combine one cup of milk, two eggs, salt to taste, and as much flour as necessary. Knead the dough until it is quite stiff, then leave it on the countertop to proof. Once it has risen completely, cut the dough in half with a sharp knife and then divide it into balls.
If using kurut rather than fresh yoghurt, add water to it so that it begins to rehydrate, and meanwhile roll the dough into a phyllo. On a floured surface, first cut the phyllo into ribbons, and then cut the ribbons into stamp-sized squares.
Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water on the stove; salt the water and boil the dough squares briefly. Pan-fry the onions in clarified butter; when the onions are cooked, add one to two tablespoons of tomato paste. Drain the boiled dough squares in a colander or simply ladle them out onto a tray. Pour the now creamy rehydrated kurut over top and mix. Serve with the tomato and onion sauce.
Translation by Janine Su
- Orhan Pamuk, Kar, first edition (Istanbul: İletişim Publications, 2002); Snow, trans. Maureen Freely (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).
- Herrenmek: A word used in the local dialect to mean ‘to return’.
- The Yerli is an ambiguous ethnic category in Kars constructed by those who define themselves as the first Turkish and Sunni settlers in Kars in reference to their Ottoman and even earlier heritage, in order to differentiate themselves from the Kurds, Azeris and Terekemes in the region. Please see Zeynep Kübra Sarıaslan, ‘Pamuk’s Kars and Its Others: An Ethnography on Identifications And Boundaries of Ethnicity, Nationalism and Secularism’, unpublished master’s thesis, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey, 2010, 45–49.
- Kurut is the name used for dried yoghurt in the Eastern Anatolia region; it is made by straining and drying yoghurt.
- Ahmet Caferoğlu, ‘Kafkasya Türkleri’ [Caucasian Turks] in Türk Kavimleri [Turkic Peoples] (Ankara: Türk Kültürünü Araştırma Enstitüsü, 1983).
- Different varieties of this dish are known; these are called khinkali in Georgia, xengel in Azerbaijan, and hinkal in Dagestan. The use of khingel is also seen in Kars.
- Within the scope of this project, the Kars City and Culture Research Association published a book along with a documentary film. The project titled Beraber Az mı Tuz Ekmek Yedik (Haven’t We Shared Much Salt and Bread) was carried out and coordinated by İhsan Karayazı and Armine Avetisyan and focused on the similarities between Kars and Gyumri cuisines. For the book in scope of the project, see: Beraber Az mı Tuz Ekmek Yedik (Ankara: Kars City and Culture Research Association, 2017).
- This is a local term that refers to the mass population movements that started before and continued after World War I. In some places, the events are also referred to as wartime mobilisation (seferberlik) or kaç ha kaç.