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A Newbie’s Guide to Azeri Cuisine #Chapter1

There is a lot of food culture that goes on in the home and in the community in non-traditional ways. Food is a lot more than restaurants.
– Eddie Huang (American chef, food personality)

For me, home is where food becomes an expression of love, a comfortable hug, a celebration, a new tradition, an experience, making it an extension of traditions that have been reshaped.

So imagine my delight when I realised that a large number of my meals in Azerbaijan were to be homemade or a mix of homemade/store bought, each meal planned with the intent of sharing more about the culture and traditions of a country and a family.

I’d gone armed with my list of ‘want to eat’; I just had to show it to my host sisters – Nurinj and Seva. They made it a personal mission to make sure I sampled everything and some more.

The passion that Azeris have for food is fascinating and familiar. With a culture influenced by various ethnic groups, dynasties and cultural exchanges, owing to the country’s prominent location on the trade route since ancient times, the cuisine is eclectic in nature. And familiar in the way food is revered, served, cherished and the tendency to feed guests until they are too full to move from their chairs! Reminds me of my mothers and aunties when they’ve guests for a meal!

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My first meal in Azerbaijan – greens, salads, breads and cheese!

A visual and sensory delight

Azerbaijan enjoys nine out of 11 climates zones, ranging from warm summer and very cold, very dry winter, all of which facilitates a fertile landscape and contributes variety to the cuisine. Greens, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried nuts, rice and its products, different types of breads, lamb, poultry meat and beef form the base of Azeri food.

Lunch and dinner are three course meals eaten at a leisurely pace. Starters include a variety of salads, pickled fruits and vegetables, a cheese platter filled with local cheese and the bread basket that lingers on the table until the last plate is cleared.

The second course is the main course – this is when all the dishes that have vegetables, meats, fish and rice are served piping hot (or cold).

The third course includes pastries or traditional sweetmeats along with tea and jam. Tea, of course, is not restricted to being a post-meal drink. Read my post Chai, halva & Azeri hospitality to know more.

The table is set with two plates, a side plate set above the main plate. Use the side plate for the salads, pickles and bread-cheese. Set it to the side when the second course is brought in. Also, those who are conscious about using a fork and knife to eat – I still tend to get confused between the hands – most of the meat and fish dishes can be eaten with hand. Just follow your hosts or ask the serving staff and they will be more than willing to guide you.

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Don’t let unfamiliar cutlery make you nervous. Copy your host, look around or ask.

I would have to live in Azerbaijan for more than a week to further explore the foods of Azerbaijan cuisine. And until that happens, here are some recommendations of traditional Azeri food that the Bhaumick sisters sampled and mostly liked. So snap out that bib, tie it around your neck and get ready to drool!

Breads
A staple of the Azeri cuisine, breads are made from different flours and steamed or roasted to perfection. While the flours give breads their unique taste and texture, breads are made more exciting with fillings of dried fruits and meats. These are similar to sweet and savoury patties.

Tandir baked breads are preferred – soft as pillows – with the idea being to place a basket of bread at the table so that each individual can select his/her piece of bread and place it next to their serving plate. Varieties of bread include flatbreads like tandir naan, lavash, səngək.

Cheese Platter
The breads, mostly bought piping hot from local shops that bake them constantly, are paired with local cheese like the very popular motal cheese. A mountain region product made from sheep and/or goat milk, the texture will remind you of feta cheese.

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A breakfast table set with eggs, cucumber/tomatoes and varieties of cheese.

The bread and platter of cheese – including some store-bought French variety – thick sour curd and homemade butter are served on a plate. Use your knife to scoop some cheese from the platter, spread on the bread of choice and gobble. It was pretty common for Raka – the elder sister’s name – and me to end up gorging on the breads and cheese. And since we did not want to miss out on the mains, you can imagine the state of our tummies!

Vegetables and Herbs: Salads/Pickled
Be it a meal at home or in a fancy restaurant, you will find plates of fresh vegetables and a second plate of herbs placed on the dining table. While the cucumber and tomatoes are familiar, it is the plate of herbs that throw up a surprise. I was fascinated when I first saw someone pick up a stalk of herb to munch on. Curious, I picked up stalks of tarragon and goy – startling green herbs found aplenty in Azerbaijan – to try.

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Ready to dive into the meal with the first course of greens – the pickles (far left), olives (far right), herbs and sliced vegetables.

Nothing could have prepared me for the explosion of flavours in my mouth. No one told me greens could pack such a punch! Also, let’s not forget to mention the exotically dark opal basil that stands proud in its purple glory amid the sea of green.

The plate of pickled vegetables/fruits, meanwhile, could make you wince at first bite. Soaked in sirkə (vinegar), these help digestion during a meal laden with meats. Whew!

Qutab/Gutab
Easily my favourite snack, I had various versions of this scrumptious dish. Putting it simply, the qutab is a stuffed and folded crepe. But there is nothing simple about it. This was one dish, other than the Shaki halva, that I saw being made from scratch. My oh my!

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Roll, stuff, cook…
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Brush with oil…eat!

The main ingredient is the dough made from flour, water, eggs and salt which is kneaded till it is stiff. Balls of the dough are then rolled out until they are as thin as paper. Or maybe thinner. Fillings made of meats or simple fresh herbs and cheese are sprinkled in the centre of the rolled out crepe which is then folded to form a crescent before being roasted. Once cooked, it is brushed with oil or butter, folded and eaten hot.

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Biting into a hot Qutab/Gutab.

My favourite was the fresh herbs and motal cheese qutab I tucked into during a break while driving to Qabala.

Dovga
The dovga is a versatile yogurt-based soup. It can be served hot or cold. It can be eaten any time of the day, as a meal or side dish. It is nutritious, tasty and filling. This dish reminded me of the Indian raita that is an accompaniment to biryani but the addition of rice (yes, there is rice in this soup), takes the soup a notch higher.

The dovga, a selection of cheese and breads were our comfort food late on a Tuesday night we returned to Baku from an overnight trip at 10.30 pm. Simple flavours, wholesome meal.

Dyushbara

Tiny little beef or meat filled dumplings shaped like little stars cooked in and served with a simple broth flavoured with saffron, salt and pepper. When I say tiny, I mean tiny. Like really tiny. Like four dyushbara fitting in one tablespoon tiny. Or tinier, with six fitting in a tablespoon!

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Starting a meal with dyushbara, some bread, cheese and greens.

I saw the latter stuffed in Seva’s refrigerator and was dumbstruck. “Why so small?” was my first question. The answer is simple – the dumplings are cooked in the broth so they have to be small or they won’t cook well.

This one kind of missed the mark for me taste wise but I would still recommend it. I had this dumpling soup at a restaurant at a pretty late hour and the dumplings had started to wilt and float in the broth. But you might get lucky!

Lavash Turshu
An honorary mention of the coolest and most colourful food eaten during all of the week I was in Azerbaijan is a must! We would have missed the lavash turshu had we not decided to venture out of Baku, towards the mountains. These colourful discs are like cheerful disco lights fluttering in the cool breeze and are bound to catch your eye when you drive towards Qabala.

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Checking on the lavash turshu and homemade jams.

What is a lavash turshu? It is a confectionary made of fruit that is cooked in vinegar and sugar till it gets a pulpy texture, then patted into a round or square shape and left to dry under the Azeri sun. Once it has dried completely and attained a leathery texture, it is packaged and displayed for sale. And no, you will not find this in shops. The fun-est part is that locals make this with almost any fruit they can lay their hands on! So I picked up flavours like pomegranate, alpha, kiwi, apple (green and red) and strawberry.  And a few of them remain safely tucked in the corners of my refrigerator, to be savoured.

There is more to the Azeri cuisine than what can be fit in a single post. And while I ponder on whether the food sagas will continue, could satiate your curiosity about this marvellous country by reading some of the previous posts.
Baku, a potpourri of influences #Chapter1 / #Chapter 2

Photos: Rapti Bhaumick & Raka Bhaumick

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