Like with many Sephardic communities, Chanukah was never traditionally considered an important holiday for Kavkazi Jews, also known as “Mountain Jews” of the Eastern Caucasus Mountains from Azerbaijan and Southern Russia (primarily Dagestan). We’re a small community of Jews who traditionally speak a language called Juhuri, a derivative of the Middle Persian language that predates modern Persian.
According to our oral tradition, we came to the Caucasus Mountains from Persia and were part of the tide of Jews who were taken as captives to Babylon from Ancient Israel and flourished with the success of the Achaemenid-era Persians over the Babylonians. Our region came under the influence of Russia in the 19th century, when it was given to Imperial Russia by Qajar Iran under the Treaty of Gulistan, and then later incorporated into the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Despite Soviet rule, we have kept many important Jewish traditions and holidays. However, our community never celebrated Chanukah quite as extravagantly as in Israel or the West. Prior to 1837, there are no known sources that showcased any importance of the occasion to our community.
That said, when it comes to oil and frying, the Kavkazi Jewish culinary tradition is certainly not lacking!
One of the most iconic dishes of our cuisine is called kurze (pronounced koor-zeh). Kurze are little, braided, meat-filled dumplings, and are perhaps an influence that came to our region from East and Central Asia. Kurze are also known in certain cities as dushpere, but broadly speaking, kurze are bigger dumplings, while dushpere are smaller and may served in a soup, a dish that’s very popular in Azerbaijan!
When done right, these dumplings have a light and soft-doughy shell and a juicy, melt-in-your-mouth meat filling. The filling is traditionally made of ground lamb or beef, but you can also substitute almost anything you’d like. For a vegetarian option, perhaps try a cheese and herb filling.
In my experience, making kurze properly is a coming-of-age experience. Closing the dumpling in a neat, small pleated braid is what make kurze so special. I used to sit with my mother and grandmothers, watching them make rows upon rows of neatly-closed braided dumplings, and I would stress over my inability to close the dumpling as they did. To my exasperation, they would tell me, “In time, you will learn how to do it. It will come to you.” It seemed impossible at the time but one day in my late teens, I just started pleating them. Of course it takes some practice, but it is possible!
Kurze can be eaten right after being boiled, when they are freshly hot, and are often paired with a minced garlic and red wine vinegar dip to add a little tanginess to the rich flavor. However, a personal favorite of mine is fried kurze. Frying the boiled kurze creates a combination of crispy texture and juicy flavor and can be eaten as a snack, if you can resist having more than a few, or as a meal.
If you feel like increasing your dexterity this winter, kurze may be the new fried and oily addition to your Chanukah table!