One can talk about dishes of Turkmen cuisine for a long time and with pleasure. It is important not to indulge in doing so on an empty stomach, otherwise there is a danger to choke by slaver.
It's not by chance that the oriental hospitality has turned into a legend, and the Turkmen one is not an exception. Any guest is welcomed kingly, and, while treating him, they will lay the richest table. There is also a notion of guest of honour in the everyday vocabulary. He may be a respectable yashuli, an elder, or a popular musician, bakhshi, whose attendance promises a magic evening in the waves of enchanting sounds of dutar, a two-string instrument. He may be a guest from the remote country who visits a Turkmen family for the first time, or just an old friend with whom one wasn't in touch with for a long time. The guest of honour is served a special dish called "kelle-bashayak", or sheep's head.
Most of people I know, who turned up in the festive Turkmen repast for the first time, unwillingly felt uneasy when they saw a sheep's head fragrantly flavored on the dish. The rituality of the situation makes it impossible to refuse it, for one can offend the host gravely. At the same time it poses the problem of how to deal with such an exotic delicatessen. It goes without saying that for the traditional European cuisine an animal's head on the dish is quite unusual. And even if one overcomes all doubts regarding the palatability of skull looking at you with low-expressive glance, the genetic memory is still unable to suggest a slightest idea of how to start and what can be eaten.
From my long experience of enjoying the dainty I would definitely say that all of it can (and need to) be eaten. I do it every time I visit an old friend of mine. I would lie, though, if I told you that I was always entertained with sheep's head. This food is not for every day. It requires much time to cook. They eat it piping hot leaving no remnants. (It would be an absolute absurd to assume that sheep's head can be put to fridge for tomorrow and eaten again after warming over).
Both hosts and guests should get ready to the ritual meal beforehand. The guest foretastes the forthcoming feast and eats nothing to maintain the appetite strong. The hosts' concerns are much greater. The whole process of preparing "kelle-bashayak" takes five to six hours. By the way,ankly speaking, it is accuracy and duration of cooking this meal that make it possible to call it a dish for the guest of honour. In this situation, the host's respect for the guest is shown not by the richness of the table, but by the diligence and patience in the process of its preparation.
Patience is a separate issue. As a rule, Turkmen men have always boasted the best skills in preparing food. During any crowded repast outside the house in the area where big cauldrons are boiling up and braziers are blazing from saxaul wood, an experienced cook rules. It is a restricted are for women. The best cooks enjoy the popular love. To invite such a cook to family feast is considered a good luck.
However, in contrast to most of holiday dishes, "kelle-bashayak" is best cooked by women. Probably, it is the result of the women's natural ability to be patient. I would like to remind you that preparing a sheep's head is a long story.
My friend's wife, Mengli, is a busy woman. She heads the local administration of a small village on the suburb of Ashgabat. Moreover, she doesn't like seeing someone pestering her eyes when she works in the kitchen. For the sake of the special occasion, we were lucky to persuade her to demonstrate her own way of preparing "kelle-bashayak". Her grief was not long when she learned that her recipe would be published.
- If you want, you may write, she said. The main secret, however, is not only in how to cook and what procedure to follow. It is also important what to say and think of while doing it. Here, every hostess has her own method.
The most tedious part of preparatory work is cleaning the head. One should singe all hair by blow lamp, remove all soot and remaining hair by knife to make the skin soft and resilient. Ankle-bones of sheep legs, the indispensable ingredient of the dish, are subject to the same labor-intensive process. If everything is done hastily, one would likely spoil the food.
"Kelle-bashayak" should be prepared on the small fire for at least four hours. The saucepan must be deep and capacious so that the bouillon covers sheep's head. Flavoring may be diverse but fresh tomatoes, onions and pepper are obligatory. Salt is added in the end of the long process.
Mengli's know-how is making use of offal. Cleaning the sheep's belly is a matter long and labor-intensive process. The final result is worth wasting so much time and efforts. She places both head and legs in the offal, sews it and puts the future dainty into the saucepan. In the process of work she hums all the time and whispers something. It is the realization of all those secrets that cannot be described in the recipe.
From now on, one would wait, taking off the scum and adding flavors. The condition of bouillon is definitely the indication its readiness. By the moment of readiness it looks like hot jelly (it is similar to Russian galantine, Armenian hash).
First, the guests are served the hot nourishing bouillon. While they melt from the pleasure of swallowing the hot broth in combination with the hot loaves of chorek, the head sewn in the offal must cool down a bit, otherwise you can burn the oral cavity. This anticipation is not tiring.
As soon as the plate with red and orange bouillon is empty, an obscure roll from offal is put on the table. The host cuts the thoroughly cooked offal with his sharp knife and distributes its pieces among the guests. There is no time to be carried away with the delicious preamble as the main "hero of occasion", sheep's head, appears out of the cut "roll". The host easily cuts the pieces of meat off the bones by the same sharp knife.
For the one who is not used to seeing such exotic dishes would be advisable not to pay attention to the visual acceptability but to focus on how it tastes. The delicate well-cooked pieces melt in the mouth. Tongue is the most delicate part. It can be swallowed in the literary and figurative meaning of the word.
The look of the bald sheep skull cannot cause unfriendly associations any longer, since the state of fullness and hiccupping bliss come by this moment and the final part of meal, sheep brains, is perceived as a light dessert. Time has added its nuances to the centuries old process of eating the dish prepared for the guest of honour that, in my opinion, do not spoil traditions. I mean a weeping small glass of a crystal clear forty-degree alcohol international drink.
And now, one can relax, lean back on cushions scattered around dastarkhan, reflecting on what mysterious wonderful words said Mengli and what she thought about creating this culinary wonderwork.