Anyone who knows about Russian food knows that it is not spicy. In fact, most Russians are extremely sensitive to spicy food, and even a bit of black pepper is too much. This past week, I was lamenting my lack of hot sauce or chili paste of any kind. I never realized I could miss Tapatio (or Tabasco, or Cholula) so much. For the last two years of college, I lived with two people who were so into hot sauce, they bought half-liter size bottles of Tapatio. Hot sauce was always around, and I never had to think about it. When I did think about it, it was only to buy harissa, the drier texture of which made it preferable for putting in yogurt.
I should have thought to bring hot sauce with me to Russia, but it seemed like an unnecessary thing to pack in my already-stuffed suitcase. For the past two weeks I've been missing it, wishing every time I fry eggs that I had something tangy, spicy, and salty to add on top. Enter аджика (ajika).
It's a little jar of chili paste. And it's actually spicy. It looked promising in the grocery store because it was labeled "по-абхазски", which means "Abkhazian style". Abkhazia is the partially recognized independent region of Georgia that has been a site of various political conflagrations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The politics of Abkhazia were not why this jar of chili paste was of interest to me; rather, Abkhazia's proximity to Georgia means that they eat spicy food there. Before buying, I checked the ingredients, and was sold on the first one: spicy red peppers. It turns out there's a wikipedia article about ajika, so if you're curious I suggest you read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajika
I can report that the taste of ajika does not disappoint. It's nicely spicy (about as spicy as a good harissa, and a little bit drier in texture than most harissa), salty, and has a finish like smoked paprika (although as far as I can tell from the label there is no smoked paprika, just basil and coriander and dill and other spices). I mixed some with olive oil and put it on my eggs this morning; it was delicious.
I also put some of the ajika-olive oil mixture on... cheese! That I fried in a pan! And it was delicious!
To give some context for my excitement about the cheese, I would like to remind my readers that current sanctions forbid the import of cheese to Russia. So think about all of the cheese that you normally buy in the U.S., things like cheddar, parmesan, swiss, mozzarella, feta, brie, etc., etc., and now imagine if the only versions of these cheeses you could get were poor imitations. As someone who adores cheese, this is a bit of a bummer. I put cheese in most of my food - queso fresco in enchiladas, parmesan or pecorino on my pasta, swiss or mozzarella on my sandwiches, more parmesan or feta in salads, and any cheese I have around the house on my toast, especially under some well-fried eggs.
I'd rather not eat something that I know is going to disappoint me, so instead of making do with imitations of European cheeses, I'm trying to switch to only eating varieties of cheese native to Russia and neighboring regions. I previously had tried this weird heavily smoked and salted braided cheese that is a tasty snack on its own, but too strong in flavor to put on other things. On my last grocery store run, I went out on a limb and bought a semisoft cheese that was marked as "soft caucuses-style cheese". It was a creamy off-white color and had a little give to it when squeezed through the packaging.
This is the cheese that I fried in the pan and ate with ajika. It has a slightly fermented but mostly milky flavor, and a soft but not overly-crumbly texture. What it reminds me of most is queso blanco but more fermented in flavor. (Now if only I had tortillas I could make bastardized enchiladas.)
I'm really pleased by these food developments. Just another example of how some of the best food in Russia is from Georgia or the Caucuses. Also a good example of how a little creativity is the key to cooking the kinds of things you like at home even when you're in a very different culinary environment.