Noxchi Eats Galnish

Today, we are having galnish. My dad, giddy like a child, teases my brother and I, while laughing at YouTube videos and simultaneously WhatsApping them to his friends, accompanying voice note explaining why exactly the video is funny. We all love galnish; I loved it more as a child, when I didn’t have to help clean up the kitchen afterwards. But I confess, there is something special about helping my mother out in the kitchen. Intuitively, I know what utensil to hand to her before she asks, or when to give her the salt or to check that the heat isn’t too low or high. I feel useful, and hungry.

Garlic, heavy salty bone broth, steaming pasta-like galnish and tender lamb: the way to any Chechen’s heart. Nothing feels more like home than galnish heaped high onto plates, with thick broth served in earthy mugs on the side. The galnish are skewered onto a fork, two or three at a time, and dipped into a garlic sauce which stays in the hollow center of the galnish. The slightly chewy texture of the galnish, the spice from the garlic and the hearty broth create a pleasant fullness and comfortable warmth in the stomach.

The meal is not even ready yet, but we are aware that for the next week, the garlic smell will linger. It will stain our hands, clothes, breaths. Just like a cloud of hotpot smoke stalks you home, or the stench of burnt popcorn persistently haunts dorm kitchens, anyone whose food demands submission to olfactory power knows there’s no point in trying to conceal the…fragrance. You learn to embrace the acridity, and possibly, love it in secret because it will mean you have eaten well.

Galnish, like its lingering smell, has followed Chechens around the world. I have had galnish in Grozny, Moscow, Zarqa, Los Angeles, Hamilton, and Abu Dhabi. I will find it in Paris during my semester abroad and wherever else I live after that. Galnish is delicious, yes, but it represents something deeper. Eating galnish and speaking Chechen are the two most consistent acts of rebellion that almost all Chechens incorporate into their daily lives. Holding on to such ancient traditions is open defiance against three centuries of attempted colonisation of the “free people” in the Caucasus, oppression that includes Joseph Stalin’s horrific mass deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan from 1943-1957, which the European Parliament declared as a genocide in 2004. Speaking Chechen is becoming harder and harder with subsequent generations of diaspora dispersing across the globe. Thus, cooking galnish is the most powerful way for Chechens to reconnect with their homeland.

As my mother recounts her university days in the nineties, I peel the garlic. Apparently, all the residents in the Moscow State University dorms instantly knew when Chechens were cooking – when the smell of crushed garlic seemed to invade the entire city. But the Chechens did not shy away –  they owned it. This smell became a vital link to a home that, at the time, was being bombed and depleted of every source of sustenance.

Chechnya’s situation has changed but the largely unwelcome scent of garlic has not. And neither has our food, which is still trailed by a potent odour. This stubbornness mirrors our love for our shared identity, and how confidently Chechens identify themselves as such, especially as a minority in Russia, where garlic in cooking is used with much less gusto.

Living mainly in the mountains, Chechen tribes used to perceive snakes as a serious threat, and believed that smelling like garlic would help deter the slithering predators. The garlic represents our national pride in that it does not come from a place of arrogance, but rather self-preservation and communal protection. The Chechens at my mother’s university were a diaspora, one of many navigating  potentially hostile environments, such as their university or perhaps Moscow in general.

Unfazed by the ignorance or racism of outsiders, they focused instead on the beauty of their culture, despite it seeming dangerous, or unwarranted, or unbelievable to those around them. They played eshars on car radios at full blast, did the traditional dance, lezginka, in the metro, and they ate galnish. Many Chechens were forced to leave their home, but they refused to bow their heads or allow themselves to be belittled.

I turn the stove on as my mother kneads the dough with assured pride. Making galnish counts for me as a religious process, partly sanctified by childhood sentiment and partly due to the awe I feel when watching someone make dough. The biblical example of Jesus transforming water to wine does not seem so far-fetched after having witnessed someone take flour and water then miraculously make a wholesome meal out of it, seemingly from thin air. I let the dough set. My mother rolls every fat little finger of dough into a gal. I imagine how many generations of women have cooked this recipe with their daughters.

Dinner is ready –  after hours of preparation, when the chefs (read: women) are all but about to collapse. We begin by serving the eldest guests. Respect for our elders is a cultural cornerstone, which could also be gleaned from seeing me trying to watch television at a relative’s house. Every time someone older than me enters the room, I must jump to my feet and wait until they are seated or I have been told to sit down. Although resembling an unnecessary exercise to the untrained eye, it is actually a traditional exercise of memory. It demonstrates the value we place on respecting our elders.

Respect also extends to our ancestors and their struggles. One difficulty that we thankfully no longer face is famine. It was not that long ago, however, when a working man’s daily wage included a mere glass of milk and crust of bread, as my grandma recalls. Or when under Stalin, my great-uncle remembers working at a flour mill, no longer able to bear his neighbours’ starvation. He ended up stealing all the flour and bread he could, and distributed it in his community, for which he was imprisoned for twenty years. The struggle of our ancestors is given the utmost respect, which can be witnessed in our kitchen. The traces of dough that form on our wooden table are scraped off with a knife and added to the rest of the flour –  not a single speck is wasted.

Memory is important. Our language has been butchered, the books burned down and land-mines placed in our mountains; the construction of collective amnesia is centuries in the process. We hold on to whatever we can.  Such as the story of Chechenits, a Chechen painter who was raised by a Russian general after his family was killed, the boy who despite his bizarre upbringing and lack of memory about his roots, held onto the threads of his identity, renaming himself Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenits. Chechenits is the Russian word for the Chechen; my last name, Shishani, also has the same meaning in Arabic.

When I was little, I would wish off the fuzzy dandelion heads, before blowing away the seeds to scatter elsewhere. I often feel that my family and other waynakh are like those wispy white dragonflies, having been blown to different corners of the world. One way back to our roots is though our food.

I am finally seated. I look around the table and I am grateful for what my parents have taught me about what it means to be Noxchi. I dig my fork into the galnish and dip into the garlic sauce. The first bite is always the best; a wave of doughy goodness and warmth . We enjoy the taste, but there is also a sense of responsibility within –  to eat it often, and to always remember where we come from.

Black Kitchen

The bacon sizzles in a silver pot on a spiral top that burns
To a tangerine orange beneath sweet cabbage.
Turn that stove down low, boy!

Collared greens unfurl to the size of elephant ears.
Let the water run rinsing them clean.

Hand me the knife from the drawer.

Get the strainer ready for rice.
Here are the scissors to cut the chittlins’.

They don’t smell as bad over rice,
Doused with hot sauce.

Seasoning salt is drizzled over
Honey-sweet ham.

It’s 6p.m. Time to make the cornbread.
Slices of Aunt Earline’s jelly cake

Lie like dominoes on a plate painted with porcelain roses.
Mama makes the wild berry kool-aid syrupy sweet.

Pork chops in a ceramic bowl
Sit sullenly next to store bought
Sweet potato pies.

I’m in my room writing poetry,
Waiting to sink teeth into chicken breast
While the Superfriends are on mute.

Y’all can come on eat now!

Artwork by Alice Andreini

Lunchtime Sketches

In this sketch series, we are immersed in a food notebook which (i) traces the elegance and whimsy of old, elaborately set meals, (ii) explores the new, foreign intricacies of a lunch at a Japanese restaurant near the Opera Garnier, and (iii) finally unpacks a tin box containing cookies that are key to the artist’s childhood memories. The result is a warm, intimate set of illustrations that use food as evocations and placeholders of learning, aesthetics and memory.

Sandra Paris is a self-taught artist based near Paris, France. She has exhibited in France, Italy, USA and Colombia.

The Berry Fish Pie

back when Grandmother had one breast and i had none
she helped me realize strange visions,
the particulars only a child conjured.
i asked for a birthday pie shaped like a fish
not a fish pie
but a sweet one.
i’d seen it in a movie about witches and kindness, pulled out of a wood fire oven.
Grandma imbued the pastry with stripes and flakes and berries

Raspberry, maybe? can’t remember the taste
but i held the photograph of me and berry pie, berry pie and i, and not her
i was wearing a blue dress, red berries were bubbling out between baked brown
i let her carry it because it was too heavy.
There was another visit, after the berry fish pie but before the
cherry chocolate cake
i was sitting at the small table for eating, my right knee brushing the back of the couch
i think my parents were there this time.
i watched Grandpa slipping fat and gristle from His plate to the dog
it might have had white fur with a large black spot
or maybe a labrador
Anyway, He slipped the fat to the dog, and then He barked at me– my Grandpa barked, not the dog– for wiping my hands on the tablecloth.
Then i was older, and i asked for a cherry rimmed chocolate cake for my birthday.
It was proper, just like little girls think they want.
my cousin was there, i think

she was young and blonde and cherubish, and had a flush on her cheeks just like those cherries.
This time, in the photograph, i held the cake between my Grandmother and i: a perfect succulent circle, with a fence of red. they were so perfect they looked like shiny wax. my Grandma’s curls were the color of a stony shell, or maybe a sprig of wheat on black and white film. not quite silver, warmer than that.

i didn’t even like cherries, but i liked the idea of liking cherries

Artwork courtesy of Studio Ghibli

Aunt Earline’s Jelly Cake

Ain’t betta than heaven.
It is Heaven.
She makes one exclusively for me every Christmas.
She’s as sweet as the cakes she makes.

My Aunt Earline is heaven.
Could teach them bakers at Piccadilly’s a thing or two.
She’s as sweet as the cakes she makes.
Four-layered halos,

Unlike what the bakers at Piccadilly’s make:
Slices of dry, tasteless desert wrapped in plastic.
My Aunt makes four-layered halos.
I can tell she slaved ova every crumb.

Delight concealed in a plastic seal.
Daddy prefers her coconut cakes
But it’s too messy. All them crumbs,
Shards of coconut on the counter.

But he doesn’t care; he’ll eat it anyway,
Hard icing and all.
Shards of coconut on the counter.
Takes more than milk to wash that stuff down.

On like it when the icing get hard.
Unlike the apple jelly on Aunt Earline’s jelly cake
I wash down with a cold glass of milk
While watching CNN in the den.

Will do anything for Aunt Earline’s jelly cake
Think I will call her tonight
Before Saturday Night Live comes on
And ask her to send me one by Federal Express.

Written by Shane Allison

Artwork by Wayne Thiebaud

The Hunt

A moment after midnight, the
black phantoms in the back
of my mind come hauntingly,
drawing rope around
my fists. My eyelids
are alert to the weight of darkness,
fearful that sleep has stirred
old memories. Gingerly,
my body collects lost symbols of
his language, long lapsed
into disuse. My skin talks a cold
June evening in a brown rocking chair, I
kept his hand off my bosom. My
languid fingers traced his worn-out
hand, making it hold lust back.
Never did this happen. Did it?
Or was my innocent strength unable to
push away his claws? A heavy overdose of
reality brings confusion. The sheets are warm. I
sleep this uncertainty off
with the feeling of inhabiting a new
house, I enter my body
under a new skin. In the distance I see
the vague animal outline, shrunken in fear.
Where is it going? I stay
here, x-raying the night. Watching him
yield to extinction. Lines are drawn
in my palms. A zigzag
of a silent struggle.

Artwork by John Clapp, “Into the Darkness”

Thinking Bout Frank Ocean’s Blonde

frank ocean

Considering that Frank Ocean’s Blonde album has been out for a couple of years now, there are plenty of articles dissecting its meaning and form. This review will instead detail the ways in which Blonde taps into the uncertain and poignant emotions of youth. I believe that what makes the album so special is that its rap can be best summarized as sentimental, which is sometimes a rarity for the genre. Blonde is lengthy but well worth your time as the perfect album for late nights and languid mornings. Listening to it now, having just graduated from college and stumbling into young adulthood with one foot in the nostalgic mire, it well encapsulates the transition into what? for a twenty-something like me. Frank Ocean balances the past, the future, and the gratitude for both good and bad experiences.

Blonde has a vulnerable start with a sparse tone, only a lone guitar populating the background. It’s simple and clean and gives Ocean the space to play with this sparseness for the album’s remainder.The track called Solo has remained a transcendent experience for me every time I hear it. Here, cussing is juxtaposed with a gentle organ, a surprising addition to a rap album, and small, sharp whistling accents. Ocean gives a spiritual performance as he moves from low to high, microcosmic to macrocosmic, and sings about the constellations. I remember my heart growing bigger than the sky as I made out with my second sort-of-boyfriend in his messy college room to Ocean’s blossoming run here. While I might not have been solo when I first heard it, the song represents a beautiful, bittersweet feeling of loneliness and desperation:

“It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire

Inhale, in hell there’s heaven

There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky

Inhale, in hell there’s heaven…”

Ivy is a wistful and earnest recalling of childhood and the beginnings of a young love story. He reminds us that we all eventually grow up, and the ways we learn lessons by tiptoeing through insecurities, bumping into them, getting surprised:

“I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me

The start of nothing

I had no chance to prepare

I couldn’t see you coming

And we started from nothing

I could hate you now

It’s alright to hate me now

When we both know that deep down

The feeling still deep down is good…”

In a more somber setting, we also receive a glimpse into the life of a young adolescent on the receiving end of a mother’s well-meaning but aggressive rhetoric about drug use and similar lifestyle choices in the phone-call sketch track Be Yourself: “This is mom: call me. Bye.”

Self Control is cheekily confident as Ocean boasts, “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight”, but once again manages to sound vulnerable due to the ambience of the instrumentals. Everything on this album, and particularly this song, is delivered with the confidence of someone just trying to figure it out, stumbling and skinning a knee, and then shrugging it off with cockiness in spite of the sting.

Blonde feels a bit like a speeding train towards the middle, rising in both anxiety and passion. It’s not so dissimilar to real life, when your heart rushes and rages but also sometimes feels like it’s full of ice. In my life, Frank Ocean’s Blonde was the background music to a long car ride down a dark winding road as some friends and I headed to the city with only our voices and the headlights. The songs highlight and narrate relatable highs and lows.

To me, Blonde is happiness and discovery. What it could mean for you, I don’t know, but I hope you’ll give it a listen.

Stand outs: Pink + White, Ivy, Solo, Siegfried

Surprise: Be Yourself


Written by Lillian Snortland
Image of Frank Ocean, shot by Nabil for Oyster Magazine.