Azerbaijan lies at the cusp of East and West. Once a stop on the Silk Route, its traditional culture coexist peacefully with modernity, both in terms of culture and architecture. It is also a land of great natural beauty, boasting mud volcanoes, burning mountains, and ancient petroglyphs.
Azerbaijan’s cuisine is equally intriguing, each region boasting local specialties and ingredients. Dishes are always served with condiments and chorek (bread), each bite a burst of flavor. The array is diverse — from hearty soups to flavored rice, char-grilled meats to stuffed vegetables, freshly caught and baked fish to caviar from the Caspian Sea. A typical meal can last hours, starting and ending with hot chay (tea). Azerbaijan may be a new country, born after the fall of the former Soviet Union (1991), one still finding its own identity, but it is a dream destination for a food lover, replete with flavors that remain a secret to the rest of the world.
Some dishes you must-eat in Azerbaijan
You may have had stuffed vine leaves filled with meat and rice in various Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, but no one takes it as seriously as the Azerbaijanis. Dolma comes from the Turkish word ‘dolmak,’ meaning stuffed or filled. Dolma is a stuffed vegetable (the traditional trio is tomato, aubergine and pepper called ‘Uch Baji’ or Three Sisters) that is initially hollowed and then filled with a stuffing, or a leaf (grape or cabbage) and folded with the same ingredients. The stuffing usually consists of rice, minced meat, and a variety of herbs. For a meat-free version, ask for ‘yalanchi’ (false) dolma. There are over 50 variations. Dolma-making was included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2017 because, in Azerbaijan, the skills are transmitted from generation to generation, transcending ethnic and religious boundaries.
Plovs (pilafs) are the mainstay of Azerbaijani cuisine. There is no occasion complete without a plov, either filled with various combinations of meats, fruits, nuts, herbs and vegetables. The crowning glory is the shah plov — a hearty base of saffron basmati rice, layered with meat, dried fruits, encrusted in flaky lavash (a flatbread), and then steamed to mouthwatering goodness. When serving, a hole should cut in the middle of the dish, and the plov then cut into portions. The flaky crust should unfold like petals, with steaming hot meat and rice in the middle.
This comfort dish is made with lamb, chickpeas, chestnuts, prunes and potatoes, slow-cooked for hours in a clay pot called a dopu. The term piti derives from the Turkish ‘bitdi,’ or ‘end of festivities.’ A person who finishes the dish says ‘bitdi,’ signaling they are full. A workman’s stew, one serving provides nourishment for a day. Piti is eaten in two parts. The broth goes with lavash, the solid ingredients make the main course.
Think stuffed half-moon pancakes to eat on the go. The word Gutab is derived from the Azerbaijani word for ‘layer.’ A specialty of Baku, a gutab is stuffed with cheese, vegetables, meats, or just herbs, and is best eaten with yogurt seasoned with sumac. The gutab dough is layered like a paratha and brushed with melted butter to brown on the pan.
Skewered, marinated meat cooked over charcoal… Yes, every food lover knows the concept. However, each Azerbaijani skewer offers diverse variety and flavors. Known as Shishlyk, the word ‘shish’ means skewer, and ‘kebab’ meat. Vegetarians, too, can enjoy a traditional kebab because many vegetables are also cooked in this manner (potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes and onions). The kebabs are grilled on a mangal (a special brazier used to barbecue). Kebabchis, professional practitioners, ensure every bite is juicy and flavorsome. Kebabs are usually served with condiments. Do try the amazing lyula kebabs made with minced meat.
The national soup may be a hearty kufta bozbash, but if you want something light, try a dovga. A dovga is made with yogurt (katyk) and a ton of fresh herbs – such as dill, coriander, mint, chervil and mountain parsley (when available). It is available in both summer and winter. In summer, dovga is served chilled, but in harsh weather, chickpeas and rice, and sometimes tiny meatballs, are added and the soup is eaten hot.
Chay and jam
When in Azerbaijan, do visit a local tea house or chaykhana, where hardcore tea drinkers play backgammon or smoke a shisha as they down cup after cup. The tea is served hot and black in small armudu (pear-shaped) glasses. Place a bit of jam from the bowl of murabba provided, then sip the tea through the sweetness. The most popular jams are made with walnuts, white cherry and quince. But the possibilities are endless.
All photos courtesy of Sharmistha Chaudhuri
This story appears in the May issue of SEEMA Magazine, check it out here