On chilly winter days a few things can be as comforting to Azerbaijanis as gathering around a table to enjoy warm and satisfying pasta dishes, khemir khorekleri (dough dishes), that come in a variety of forms and shapes.
Take khengel, for example. Khengel is a versatile category of pasta dishes that branches out into numerous delectable variations. There is, for instance, yarpag khengeli (leaf shaped khengel), also known as guru khengel (dry khengel) or suzme khengel (drained khengel) – drained pasta in the shape of diamond or square, boiled in salted water, drained and topped with meaty or meatless additions. Or, when squares of pasta are cooked in a flavored broth and served as a nourishing hearty soup, it becomes sulu khengel (brothy khengel).
There is also khengel that comes in the shape of half-moons stuffed with either meat (et khengeli), with farmer cheese (shor khengeli), or butternut squash (gabag khengeli) – staples of the northwest – boiled in salted water and served with butter and piquant sauces and condiments, including garlicky yogurt, garlicky vinegar, or hot pepper relish ajika, or even pomegranate juice, to drizzle on top to exalt the taste.
A warming winter comfort food, yarpag khengeli is one of the most popular pasta dishes from the versatile khengel category. In this dish, drained square or diamond shaped pasta leaves (yarpag means “leaf” in Azeri) are piled onto serving plates, drizzled with butter, then topped with delicious shallow-fried ground meat and kicky garlicky yogurt sauce. In a variation of this recipe, the pasta is topped with soghancha, fried onion or soghancha-gayganag, fried onion with scrambled eggs.
In the west, in place of yogurt, dried yogurt, gurutç is used for the garlick-infused sauce. Gurut comes in the shape of balls or cones – it is first softened in warm water then crumbled to form a smooth paste. Mix it with crushed garlic – the taste is unbelievable! In the west, khengel is often topped with fried young chicken in place of meat.
Here’s the recipe for the family favorite! Let’s make pasta with ground meat and yogurt topping together!
Pasta with Ground Meat and Garlicky Yogurt Topping (Yarpag Khengeli)
2 ½ cups all-purpose, plus extra for kneading and thinning the dough
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup water, at room temperature
Wide wooden table or a granite countertop, to roll the dough
Long, thin wooden rolling pin
¼ cup butter (more for lean meat)
1 pound ground (500 g) lamb or beef
1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
Ground black pepper
About ¼ butter (less or more to taste; optional)
Garlicky yogurt sauce (mix plain yogurt with crushed garlic – as much as you like, to taste)
Step 1: Make the Dough
In a large mixing bowl, put the flour and salt, and stir to combine. Make a well in the middle and break the egg into the well. Gradually add the water and stir with your fingers, until a rough ball forms. Dust a clean working area generously with flour. Scrape the dough onto the surface. Press any loose dough pieces into the dough and knead the dough, punching it down with your fists, folding it over, and turning, until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. If the dough sticks to your hands, add a little more flour, but do not overdo. Shape the dough into a ball, put it back in the bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and allow to rest for 20 minutes before rolling it.
Step 2: Roll the Dough
(For dough rolling pictures see HERE).
Transfer the dough ball onto a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle the dough with some flour. Slightly pat on top with your hand to flatten, then begin rolling with a thin rolling pin, rotating the dough with each rolling, until it is about 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter. Now, sprinkle the circle with some flour and spread it evenly with to cover the entire surface of the circle (this will prevent the dough from sticking to the rolling pin and tearing and will also make it easier to roll). Begin wrapping the near end of the circle around the rolling pin at a slight angle from you. Wrap the circle till the very end, then turn the dough so that the rolling pin is parallel to you, and unwrap the dough swiftly (you will notice the circle getting thinner with each unwrapping). Continue in this manner, sprinkling some flour on the dough and on the surface and spreading it with your hand, with every few wrapping and thinning steps, until a thin (about 1/16-inch / 1.5 mm thick) 26-inch (60-cm) circle.
Step 3: Cut and Shape the Dough
Using a sharp knife, cut each circle into 2-inch (5-cm) squares, by first cutting it into parallel strips, then cutting the strips across. Or, cut the dough into diamonds by first cutting it into parallel strips 2 inches (5 cm) apart from each other, then cutting the strips at an angle to form diamonds. Sprinkle some flour on a large tray and arrange the pasta squares/diamonds on the tray in one layer. Leave aside to dry while you prepare the topping.
Step 4: Make the Meat Topping
In a medium frying pan, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the ground meat and cook, stirring frequently, until the juices have evaporated and the meat is light brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the onion and fry together, stirring frequently, until the mixture is nicely browned, about 10. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (I also like to add some powdered dried safflower or turmeric to give the meat mixture a nice yellowish hue. But it is optional.)
Step 5: Cook the Pasta
Meanwhile, fill a large saucepan with 15 cups water. Add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil. Gently drop the pasta into the pan in small batches. Using a large slotted spoon, gently stir to separate the pasta squares. Cook until the pasta is tender but not too soft or mushy, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pasta from the pan or gently turn the contents of the pan onto a large colander to drain the pasta. Arrange the pasta on a large serving platter.
Step 6: Serve the Pasta
If you wish, melt the butter and pour it over the pasta. Spoon the ground meat on top. Serve garlikcy yogurt sauce in a bowl, to pass around and to add to individual khengel servings to taste.
To enhance the flavor of the meat topping, sometimes a scarce pinch of saffron powder, steeped in little hot water, is added to the ground meat towads the end of cooking.