Ramadan in Kyrgyzstan Round 2

Ramazan aiy kut bolsun, everyone, or Happy Ramadan! Ramadan, called Ramazan or Orozo in Kyrgyz, is a Muslim holiday that marks when the Quran (Islam’s holy book) was first revealed. It’s a time for fasting, self-sacrifice, and reflection. The timing of Ramadan changes every year, since it’s a lunar month. This year Ramadan began on June 6, and it will last between 29-30 days (the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan hasn’t announced the final day of fasting yet).

Fasting during Ramadan (sawm) is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, so in theory all Muslims should fast (with an exception for children and elderly people, pregnant and menstruating women, sick people, fighting soldiers, and travelers). A 2012 Pew Center survey found that only 53% of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan say they fast during Ramadan, though. Many Kyrgyz people don’t actively practice Islam or follow the Ramadan rules very strictly, but they still celebrate the occasion and participate in many Ramadan traditions. Someone who fasts one year might not fast the next – for example, my host dad Nurbek told me proudly that he fasted for the past 4 years, but this year he won’t fast because of the heat and the fact that the family is opening a new hotel. There’s no tension between those who fast and those who don’t, though; from what I’ve seen, people are respectful of both choices.

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The mosque in my training village

Given the timing of this year’s Ramadan, observers are fasting from about 3:30am until almost 9:00pm. (Fasting isn’t just about not eating, but it also means refraining from all food, drinks, smoking, and sexual relations from dawn to sun-down.) In some parts of Kyrgyzstan, temperatures regularly hover around 100 degrees, making Ramadan during the summer months a challenge; I’m constantly guzzling water in the summer heat, so I’m amazed at my host cousins and neighbors who are playing soccer and doing intense chores while fasting.

In some Muslim countries, it’s actually illegal to eat or drink in public during daylight hours. That’s definitely not the case in Kyrgyzstan, though in some areas (mostly in the south) it can be considered rude or strange to eat or drink in public. One of the advantages of my site change from Jalal-Abad to Cholpon Ata is that I get to experience the differences in north/south cultural dynamics, and it’s been interesting to experience the different ways Ramadan is observed in both parts of the country. Every one of my host family members in Jalal-Abad fasted (even the younger teenage girl), and my host parents often visited neighbors’ houses for iftar (the meal served after sunset). Most cafes in Jalal-Abad closed down during Ramadan last year, and I remember being shocked in the days immediately following Ramadan at how many people had come out of the woodwork to occupy public spaces. In Cholpon Ata, for comparison, because of the beginning of tourist season, most hotels and restaurants were just opening as Ramadan started. Only a cousin visiting from Naryn is fasting, but dinner starts when my host mom has finished cooking it, which is not necessarily after sundown; no one makes a fuss about waiting for him, and he joins the table (where a big bowl of water is waiting for him) when his phone alarm tells him it’s time to break fast.

My favorite Ramadan tradition in Kyrgyzstan is called жарамазан, jaramazan, which describes the caroling that young children (mostly boys) do during Ramadan. Jaramazan carols are a tradition unique to Central Asia, and some conjecture that the custom pre-dates Islam; when Islam came to Central Asia, the ritual of going door to door singing and asking for treats transformed into an Islamic ritual. Today, some kids go door to door, but I’ve only come into contact with jaramazan singers while sitting at restaurants. Here’s a video of some Kyrgyz boys singing the jaramazan song (they’re so dang quick and cute that I couldn’t snap a video of my own):

Contrary to the conception that Muslims are intolerant and demand strict observation of religious rules, I’ve been so touched by the patience and willingness of my host families to explain Ramadan and the unique way it is observed in Kyrgyzstan. At a time when Islamophobia is all over the news in America, I feel so fortunate to live in a Muslim country and have this chance to share what I see and learn in hopes of reducing hate and fear in this world. Ramadan Kareem!

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Kyrgyz Cuisine: Borsook

I’ve been fortunate to live with several host families with considerable culinary talent, and even more fortunate that my host moms are patient enough to teach me to make traditional Kyrgyz foods. Last week, my host aunt Venera was throwing a party for the other teachers at school; to prepare for the party, she came over to use our kitchen to make a bunch of salads and the ubiquitous borsook, fried bits of dough that get sprinkled over dinner tables at Kyrgyz parties. Here’s the play-by-play for making borsook:

Step 1: Prep the dough — камыр жасоо

Gather up the ingredients (6 cups grams flour, 4 cups of warm water, 100 grams of sunflower oil, 20 grams of yeast, 2 teaspoon of salt, 2 teaspoon of sugar) and mix them in a chara (the big yellow bowl in the picture below). Cover the chara with a few layers of tablecloths, but it you only have one, piling on some blankets or sweaters should do the trick. Let the dough rise for a few hours, then cut out chunks that are more manageable than the mountain you’ve made. “Soften” each chunk by rolling it in flour and kneading it for a few seconds.prepping the dough

Step 2: Roll out the dough (but not too much at once) — камыр жайюу

Every Kyrgyz household has a huge rolling stick; now’s its time to shine. After “softening” and flattening each chunk of dough, it gets rolled out nice and thin with the stick. After it’s been rolled, it gets set under a tablecloth. You shouldn’t roll out too many dough chunks at a time, because you can’t cut and fry them fast enough — the dough will harden, and your final product will suffer.

roll the dough

Step 3: Cut the dough – камыр кезуу

Borsook, in the Kyrgyz tradition, is cut up into square-shaped bits before it’s fried. (Compare to Kazakh baursak, which is rolled up into little balls.) My host aunt Venera was a speed demon with the cutting and slicing; her daughter Sako took her time and used the special “borsook cutter” tool to give the edges a cool design.

cutting the dough
special cutter borsook

all the dough

Much dough, such borsook

Step 4: Fry the dough — камыр кууруу

My host mom Cholpon fired up the kazan, the big cauldron thing featured in the picture below, to start frying the borsook. She explained that it’s best to use cotton oil to fry borsook because it doesn’t mess up the metal on the kazan. I had never heard of cotton oil before, but the kazan looks good, so I trust Cholpon Eje’s call. Cholpon Eje wasn’t a fan of the borsook bits with the decorative edges, chunks of dough fell off during the frying process and made the oil turn black. After several hours of frying (which involved the younger girls running back and forth between the main house and the outside kitchen carrying trays of borsook), everyone was kind of tired with the process – including the oil, which my host sister Aika described as “Coca Cola-colored.” The last few chunks of dough were cut in bigger slices; the size matters, because the end product has a different name: kuiymak.
cooking borsook
kuimak

Step 5: Admire the dough — камыр суктануу

And finally, the finished product. Light, fluffy, oily borsook. Aika had the job of spreading the borsook out to cool/dry/whatever on our guesting room table. Venera Eje took about half of the batch to her work party the next day, but the rest of it stayed in our kitchen and quickly ended up in our bellies. It’s laid out on guesting tables and can go sweet or savory; my favorite way to eat borsook is as a vessel for homemade strawberry jam.
final product
table of borsook

(Optional) Step 6: Experimentation in the name of Goal 2

One of Peace Corps‘ three goals is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” While I watched Cholpon Eje work her magic at the kazan, we chatted about American foods and recipes. I brought up donuts, but she didn’t seem too keen on the idea of a pudding-filled borsook. She got excited about cheese curds, though, so she sent Aika to cube up some cheese from the fridge. We tossed it in the kazan to see what came out… This was the result:
bad attempt at fried cheese

We ended up rolling the cheese into a kuiymak and calling it “borsook po-amerikanskii.” It tasted a lot better than it looked, and it warmed my heart to see my host family excited by the idea of deep-fried cheese curds. Midwestern cultural hegemony for the win!

Fast Food or No Food

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Kyrgyz people are quite comfortable with making sweeping, all-encompassing statements about their country’s culture. It’s difficult to explain that Americans don’t think about their country in terms of a collective national dish, dress, or dance. Even so, the question What is your country’s national meal? is one of the most frequently asked, up there with Do you have a boyfriend? and Are you married?

When I hesitate (usually to decide whether to skirt around the question with a basic discussion of diversity or to just say apple pie), people are happy to supply their own answer about American cuisine: fast food.

“Gamburger! Pizza! French fries!”

I try to explain that not everyone in America eats fast food every day (which, maybe, many actually do) or offer Minnesota-centric dishes as an alternative. I show pictures of delicious Tombs burgers (mmmm pretzel buns and sweet potato fries, how I miss you) in an attempt to convince people that not all burgers are fast food. BUT, sometimes it’s easier and can lead to a more fruitful conversation to accept the terms of your conversation partner and go from there.

My host brother Nurbolot had a lot to say about fast food, both in the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan. In an after-dinner conversation, originally meant to be English practice, he covered all his bases: fast food is not healthy, it’s oily and fatty and doesn’t have enough vegetables; worst of all, you don’t know whose hands have cooked the food. At first, I thought he was being poetic, that a home-cooked meal is more valuable because you love the person who prepared and served your sustenance for the next 6 hours. Nope, he clarified – they could have just not washed their hands.

It’s been a pleasant surprise to find that Jalal-Abad offers so much in the way of American-style fast food. Granted, “hamburgers” here means slices of meat from a doner-style contraption with grated carrot and cucumber on top and slathered in mayo – BUT, they’re cheap (less than a dollar), tasty, and I have yet to get sick after eating one from a street vendor. We’ve also got a few pizza joints, a hamburger/fries chain, and – my favorite – Bek Burger. Bek Burger is a 50s-style diner founded by two Uzbek guys who used to live in the U.S. They say they learned the secret recipe for true American fast food while in Chicago, and I think they are doing a true service to the citizens of this city by serving the tastiest chicken nuggets I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating (but maybe that’s just six months of living without my other guilty-pleasure-foods talking).

Gotta run, though, I have a lunch date with some volunteers at Bek Burger.

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Kymyz, or the Kyrgyz Word for “Not for the Faint of Heart”

kymyz itself

I had my first encounter with kymyz this weekend. For those unfamiliar with Kyrgyzstan’s culture of eccentric beverages, kymyz is fermented mare’s milk. This is one of those Kyrgyz foods that I had hyped up a lot in my mind — when people asked what the food is like here, I often responded flatly, “How tasty does alcoholic mare’s milk and sheep-face noodles sound?” After a few less-than-ideal encounters with other fermented dairy products in this country, I thought about pretending to have an allergy to kymyz to avoid trying it.

But I can’t miss out something so important to Kyrgyz culture, now can I?

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Sharing Leftovers in Kyrgyzstan

In the States as a child, I was often reminded of my “Clean Plate Club” membership and encouraged to eat everything I had been served. This was a common childhood memory among friends in college – most of our relatives had pushed us to eat entire meals, not to leave anything on the plate. This is probably because in the U.S., uneaten food, at least if it had already been served onto a plate, is usually thrown away. The “Clean Plate Club” comes at least in part as an effort to reduce food waste, but the United States is one of the worst offenders of wasting food: about 40% of food in America is uneaten and thrown out.

The pressure to eat everything on my plate in Kyrgyzstan feels very different from my days as a kid at my aunt’s house (hey Julie). It’s not so much “There are starving kids out there in the world!” as “Don’t you like my cooking?” My host mom piles mounds of plov or half a role of oromo onto my plate before I can defend myself. If I only get through half the dish, I’m questioned about whether I’m sick or didn’t like the food – what other reason could there be for me not finishing my meal?

For my first month here, I’ve felt guilty at the dinner table when I can’t finish all the food I’m served. But slowly I’m realizing that the pressure to clean my plate here is much different than at home – if there is food left, it will not be thrown away and wasted. Maybe it’ll be fed to animals on the street or on my host dad’s farm, maybe it will be added to another dish. Or, another person who hasn’t had dinner yet or didn’t get enough to eat will scoop it onto their plate.

This sort of food sharing is called geshik. It’s not just an act of kindness to share food with someone; it’s potentially a life-altering, character-shaping moment. To feed someone food directly off your plate is to transfer specific skills (polyglotism, athleticism) or character traits (sense of humor, kindness).

The other night, I sat down to my fourth plate of plov in a day and just… couldn’t. I nibbled a bit at the rice and chicken, but with three quarters of the food still on my plate, I wanted to leave the table. So, when my host sister Samira walked in, I offered to scoop everything from my plate onto hers. My host mother was thrilled – “Sami! Take it from Colleen Eje. She reads so quickly, she knows languages, she came to Kyrgyzstan, and so you can go to America!” and my other host sister, Albina, was jealous. “Can’t I have a little bit, Samira?” My host mother shushed her, saying, “No, you’ll just get married and have children and stay in Kyrgyzstan.” While there’s nothing wrong with that life path, I still think I’ll make sure Albina gets some geshik too in the next few days.

In Kyrgyzstan, don’t clean your plate; share the wealth instead.

mayo salad
pizza po kirgizski

The Yogurt Ball is Not Candy (Or, Hello Kyrgyzstan)

We arrived in Bishkek on Sunday morning, right as the sun was rising (although we were several hours delayed, I think this arrival time worked out better – both for first impressions and for working through jet lag). Current volunteers greeted our sleepy selves with borsok, deep fried bread nuggets, and kurut, dried yogurt balls — a confusing culinary experience on a normal day, let alone after 30 hours of travel and no sleep. We spent all day Sunday and Monday in training, and tomorrow we get to meet the host families we will live with until mid-June. I’ll be living and studying Kyrgyz with 10 other trainees in a village called Internatsional, and once a week everyone will come together in a slightly bigger village for other training.

Until today, I still hadn’t entirely processed that all this – working for Peace Corps, living in Kyrgyzstan – is really happening. Today, it’s finally feeling very, very real. I know that I have a loooot of hours of awkward crawling through Kyrgyz language and navigating the waters of what is rude/shameful/appropriate/expected ahead of me – but I am so excited to figure out the language and culture and share here what I learn.

I don’t have any photographs except those from my 8th floor room, since we couldn’t leave the hotel premises during our orientation in Bishkek. If you squint at this picture, though, you can see a Kyrgyz flag perched on the rolling hills.

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Cooking adventure

A few weeks ago, Necmiye Hanım – my Turkish teacher – invited me and Danny, the other student in my class, to her house. I initially thought we were coming just for tea and desserts, but we ended up staying for almost eight hours, not leaving until after 11:00pm.

In the afternoon, Danny and I helped Necmiye Hanım to cook karnıyarık, stuffed eggplant, and sütlaç, rice pudding. We volleyed vocab words and complex grammatical structures while stirring and chopping (though Necmiye admittedly did most of the work). Necmiye’s niece, Beren, hung out with us in the kitchen and tested us on our Turkish by asking “Peki bu ne?” (“And what’s this?”) to random objects around the apartment. Another niece of Necmiye’s, Merve, came a bit later – she’s in university in Alanya studying gastronomy – and chatted more casually with me and Danny. One of Necmiye’s students came as well; her English was fantastic, so we asked her for a few key words to fill out previous conversation points. We didn’t let chatting get in the way of finishing the food, of course.

Finally, it was time to eat. There were a few cultural tidbits to sort through, first. For example, remembering to pray after, not before the meal. Everyone must say afiyet olsun, basically bon appetite, and tell the cook “Ellerinize sağlık!” or “Health to your hands!” (I go back and forth about how to interpret this… Either: wow your hands are amazing for cooking this! Wonderful! Or, keep your hands strong and healthy so you can make me food in the future.) Also, the guests, not the host, must eat first. For me and Danny, this was a bit awkward, and we delayed taking the first bite, as Necmiye hadn’t come back in the room yet.

The meal was delicious. After finishing our food, we sat in the living room and chatted some more. Someone brought out a guitar; Danny was asked to play samba music and dance Brazilian-style; more family members popped in to meet the guests. It was a hoot.

Necmiye Hanım is so kind to have invited us to her house for a meal. I greatly appreciate her patience as our teacher, and I have learned so much in just two months. When we took the picture below, she couldn’t believe that Danny and I were so much taller than her – in class, we are always sitting, so she never noticed. Teşekkür ederim, Necmiye Hocam!!

into the oven
minced meat
water juice
sütlaç
ice buillon
stovetop
the dinner parti
danny collen necmiye

Leo’s is where the heart is

Here’s the last article I wrote for the student newspaper for this semester. Bittersweet, but I’m hoping to write another column next semester. Enjoy!

If you knew how many times since coming to Georgetown I’ve made it home for Thanksgiving, you might say I’m a bad kid. As a senior, I’ve managed to make the trek back to Minnesota only once.

Freshman year, I made what I thought was a noble decision to stay in D.C. That year, I enjoyed the company of hundreds of strangers in Leo’s for Thanksgiving dinner before returning to VCE to cry from homesickness for hours. As a junior, I celebrated Thanksgiving at Georgetown’s villa in Alanya—insert pun here about eating turkey in Turkey—but there, too, my heart ached for American stuffing and pumpkin pie.

This year, I’ve made the choice to stay in D.C. once again. But this time around, my family is coming to me. We’ll sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with a small gaggle of West-coasters and those unwilling to fork out the cash to fly home twice in the span of three weeks.

I anticipate that it will be a wonderful mix of dietary restrictions and cooking abilities. I absolutely cannot wait to make a mess in the kitchen, laugh at stories, and collapse in a food-coma with friends and family.

My excitement for this Thanksgiving in particular, I think, is based in my appreciation of the power of shared meals in building relationships between near strangers. I’m not at all worried that my purple-haired microbiologist mother will get along with a linguistics-obsessed roommate, or that my college-bound sister will find something to talk about with a sassy fellow Minnesotan.

Since coming to Georgetown, I’ve learned that food can both forge relationships quickly and lay the foundation for long-lasting, meaningful friendships.

Take, for example, my experience this summer on a Blue Cruise, a four-day boat tour of the Turkish Mediterranean coastline. I had no idea what to expect before boarding the boat, a small skipper called Mad Life. My friends and I climbed on board in the late afternoon with 13 total strangers from all around the world, and it was initially a bit difficult to find a common topic of conversation. In the half-hour leading up to our first meal, we sat in near silence staring across the empty table at the bizarre collection of people that found themselves on the same boat.

Thanks to the silence, we could hear Hakan, the trusty second-in-command, hard at work chopping tomatoes and cucumbers and cooking delicious köfte meatballs below deck. Once dinner was served, there was a split second of awkwardness in piling food onto plates, and then—poof!—the nervousness lifted, and we began talking and sharing incredibly intimate stories of our lives, our families, and our failures.

Over the course of four days, we spent many hours around the massive table situated in the back of the boat. There, we lingered for hours over bread and honey, eating and sharing.

It was amazing how quickly we dropped any feelings of shyness after the first serving plates came out on the table.

I’ll always think back on that experience fondly, but when the trees on Copley Lawn look more and more naked every day, it can be painful to think about such stories from summer. But we don’t have to embark on a sunny boating adventure to find another instance of community built in food. We just have to walk down Library Road.

You got it—let’s talk about Leo’s. At this point in the semester, hating on Leo’s has become a favorite pastime of freshmen, and sophomores are dreaming of junior year housing and the opportunity to throw off the shackles of a mandatory meal plan. Despite the commonly held view that Leo’s is where appetites go to die, in actuality, Leo’s is probably the greatest gift to Georgetown students for its capacity to foster bonds and create fond college memories.

I’m not exaggerating here. Some of the Georgetown memories I hold nearest and dearest to my heart happened in Leo’s. Only there could I talk for hours upon hours about my hometown, just how dirty Darnall is, and last week’s Problem of God class while chowing down on meat substitute ribs. There was nowhere better to spend Sunday morning to go over the previous night’s escapades and nurse a Burnett’s-induced hangover.

Now, I walk past Leo’s and see herds of freshmen exiting the building with their heads thrown back with laughter and joy. Sure, their jackets and hair reek of that classic Leo’s smell, but by God, they look like they’ve had an amazing time. It’s days like this that I wish I were a S.E.A.L.

So wherever you are next week, remember that Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be the only day of the year to experience that warm fuzzy feeling of food-coma and camaraderie. Appreciate the power of sharing a meal in your everyday life.

Next time you’re in Leo’s and it’s too crowded to occupy your own table upstairs, don’t be shy if a stranger asks to sit with you. After all, you never know what sort of bond can be forged over a bowl of Leo’s chili on a Chicken Finger Thursday.

The Joys of Campus Cooking

Here is another column I wrote for The Voice, a student newspaper at Georgetown. I promise I’ve never actually poured beer into salsa.

This is the first year I have had access to a full kitchen at Georgetown (sorry Village B, but size matters), and it has been a blast to experiment with cooking and develop a culinary personality.

Sriracha hot sauce features heavily in my food identity. Try any dish that comes out of my kitchen, and probability says you will ingest a healthy dose of Sriracha. I have to buy this stuff in bulk because of how I often I use it. Eggs, pasta, soup, meatloaf—you name it, and I’ve put Sriracha on it. Thus far, I’ve fortunately managed to avoid squeezing a bit of the good stuff into baked goods.

From time to time, I’ll peruse Pinterest to get ideas for dinner party menus. But really, I usually just throw things into a pan, turn up the heat, and hope for the best.

We live in an age with instant access to tens of thousands of recipes. At the click of a button, my computer screen will display 40 different ways to make the perfect pizza dough. A Google search for “chocolate chip cookies” yields more recipes than I would gander are even possible to bake in a lifetime.

Some of the more popular cooking websites are incredibly helpful tools for working in the kitchen. An algorithm counts how many eighths of a tablespoon of baking powder you’ll need to make a batch of pancakes for one, if you’re all alone and hungry for breakfast.

My mother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking certainly lacks that function and other high tech characteristics of these recipe sites. I’ll admit that The Joy of Cooking has not seen much use at our house in years, but the book sports an impressive array of marginalia from my mom’s years in graduate school. There are notes about adjusting the oven temperature and better instructions for mixing ingredients penciled in the empty spaces of the cookbook’s pages.

This advice is certainly helpful, but they pale in comparison to whispers about “the secret touch” or “secret ingredients” exchanged in the kitchen between generations of chefs.

In the world of digitalized recipes, the opportunity to customize ingredients isn’t encouraged. There are small check boxes next to each “correct” ingredient, a handy tool when you aren’t sure whether you already added the baking powder, but one which can stifle culinary creativity. While baking with a friend once, I suggested we add a dollop of Greek yogurt. “But it’s not on the recipe,” she said.

Her observation was true, but I’m not convinced that deviating from the recipe necessarily dooms a dish to disaster status. Martha Stewart leaves a lot of things out from her recipes, but that does not mean they should not be added to the mixing bowl.

Your grandmother’s cookies aren’t delicious because she followed the recipe to a tee. They’re delicious because she has a heavy hand when pouring in vanilla and because she has spent decades experimenting with flavors and butter-to-sugar ratios to make the recipe her own. Recipes become special when we tinker with them.

Of course, you can Google “secret ingredients” and find endless accounts of perfect additions that give unexpected flavor to any dish. Yet this misses a big point of so-called secret ingredients. It takes out a large part of the fun of experimentation. Google doesn’t get the message “Don’t add chili peppers to strawberry cake” across in quite the same way as taking a big bite of a foul-tasting baked good that you tried to give a bit of pizazz.

Because what if chili peppers in strawberry cake actually taste good? You won’t know unless you experiment.

The best meals I’ve ever cooked were always the result of this “Why not?” attitude. After a long night of dancing and sipping on Tombs Ale, “Why not?” was the guiding principle behind emptying the contents of my refrigerator to make the best mac ‘n’ cheese ever. Dumping a can of beer into the salsa bowl at a party (because “Why not?”) might not end up tasting as good as pouring beer into a pot of chili, but the process of experimentation is equally important in both cases.

So don’t be dismayed if your search for the perfect secret ingredient sometimes yields a less-than-delectable product. (This is college, after all, so someone on this campus will likely eat it regardless of its taste.) Rather, buck up and press on. Try different combinations, different additives, and different methods of mixing everything together.

Good luck, and don’t forget to invite me over if your homemade tikka misala turns out to be amazing.

Throwback: Khachapuri

I wrote this for a student newspaper at Georgetown, the Voice. I still suffer from Stockholm Syndrome for that cheesy, gooey cuisine….

Georgian cuisine is not for the faint of heart. Or stomach. Or digestive system. Georgia’s national dish is khachapuri, which literally translates to “cheese-bread.” It’s not as simple as a chunk of cheddar on some whole wheat: Each of Georgia’s regions (even the breakaways and autonomous ones) have their own interpretation of the recipe. After a two-week tour of Georgia, during which I ate almost nothing but khachapuri and watermelon, I’ve got the lowdown on my three favorite renditions of this cheesy wonder.

First up, we’ve got megruli khachapuri. Hailing from the Samargelo province in western Georgia, megruli’s circular shape makes it look similar to an order of Papa John’s breadsticks. Khachapuri uses a special cheese, suluguni, that gives it a taste entirely different from anything you’ll eat in the States. Suluguni undergoes an intense pickling process, which results in a dimpled texture and salty flavor. It’s like saltier, drier feta cheese melted on top of fluffy dough.

If you’ve managed to finish a serving of megruli, you’re probably ready to level up to imeruli khachapuri. Imeruli maintains the circular shape of megruli but an extra layer of dough seals the crumbly bits of cheese inside the khachapuri. I often saw it sold at corner stores among a selection of other cheeses and pastries.

My first experience with imeruli was at a one-room restaurant adorned with dried meat hanging from the ceiling. I had a few hours to kill as I waited for my minibus to fill—buses at this station leave when full, not according to a pre-set schedule. Giorgi, the restaurant’s proprietor, nodded at my order for a slice of imeruli khachapuri.

Clearly, I was a bit confused when Giorgi instead plopped down a cheese pie at least a foot in diameter. I shamelessly ate all but one slice, which I shared with the driver of the bus.

Somehow, my arteries were still functioning by the time I arrived in Batumi, a small, glittery town near the Turkish border. After frolicking in the Black Sea and wandering for hours through narrow alleys, my new Georgian friends Teo and Nanka told me, “You’ve got to try khachapuri.” Confused, I tried to explain that I already ate khachapuri (many times) and that I was not prepared to eat any more. “No, no,” they said. “Adjaruli is unlike the others.”

Before ordering, I had a vague image of what exactly I was about to eat—an open-faced bread bowl filled with cheese and egg. I foolishly sipped on tarragon soda as I waited for the adjaruli to arrive, unknowingly filling up precious space in my stomach.

In comparison to what was set in front of me, my mental image of the dish was a sad, black-and-white plate of something they might have served in Pleasantville. In reality, adjaruli was a head-sized, boat-shaped hunk of dough, hollowed out and loaded with cheesy goodness. The woman working in the back of the restaurant had lovingly cracked an egg over several inches of suluguni. Not wanting the egg to be lonely, the chefs also laid a hunk of butter on top of the yolk.

I tried my hardest to eat the whole boat of adjaruli, but I only made it through the bow. Clutching a third-trimester food baby, I stumbled out of the restaurant with Teo and Nanka, who were ready to follow lunch with dessert.

I somehow managed to consume half a serving of ice cream before collapsing on a couch for several hours, incapacitated.

Two weeks of eating this stuff wreaked havoc on my digestive system. It took a month to get over my fear of eating cheese again. Even so, during every subsequent trip to the former Soviet sphere, I make a b-line for the closest Georgian restaurant. I take pleasure in sipping juice from khinkali dumplings and biting into bean-filled lobani, but there’s a special place in my heart for an order of khachapuri.

Each bite of cheesy goodness recalls memories from bus stations and cafes perched on the Black Sea, of awkward attempts to decipher Georgian menus, and of all the people who helped me find my place during my time in Georgia. I have no idea when I’ll return to Georgia, but I already know what I’ll do first when I get there—find some khachapuri.