One of the most beautiful memories that I have brought back from Azerbaijan has been the Azeri passion for food and the warmth they extend to those who appreciate this passion. The warmth that envelopes you as the food bearers — be it the lady of the house or the restaurant server — place the food on the table and serve it makes you feel like a king about to feast!
I promise to make your mouths salivate and ensure that you dream about the wealth that is the Azerbaijani cuisine soon but before that, I do need to touch upon and introduce you to a fascinating experience that is part of the Azeri social fabric. This is the drinking of chai or tea, served with some local or homemade fruit preserve that they call ‘jam’.
The mention of tea and jam in the same breadth will probably remind you of the famous Do-Re-Mi song from the classic movie The Sound of Music. Which might make you feel I’ve forgotten to write ‘bread’. But rest assured I have not!
The first time I was served tea and jam was on day one, after a gut bursting lunch. As the little crystal glass filled with the dark golden liquid floated towards me, I couldn’t help but think that the Gods and Goddesses of tea are working overtime to woo me over to their side. How else do you explain a coffee lover stumbling upon tea recipes (and trying them), venturing to the southern part of India to walk through the tea estates in Munnar and then have a heart-to-heart with a tea sommelier and artisan!
Hooked at first sip, a chai affair
Musings and assumptions apart, I was hooked to the Azeri tea at first sip. Not only does it make you feel royal and at the same time is like a hug to your insides, the earthy and nutty flavours are often enhanced with herbs when it is brewed at home. And it is similar to the Indian chai culture.
Freshly brewed hot tea is served to guests — and family members — in pear-shaped crystal glasses called Armudu or simple glasses, cups and saucers. Served with lemon wedges, lumps of sugar (or sugar sachets) and the jam, there is a method to drinking this tea. Dunk a slice of lemon in your tea, scoop out some jam on one of the tiny serving dishes, then eat a spoonful of jam and sip the tea through that mouthful. As the flavours of the tea seep through the sweetness of your jam, you will be treated to a different taste altogether.
In keeping with traditions, tea is served continuously to guests to keep conversation flowing and interesting. In fact, guests are not allowed to leave a home unless they’ve had a glass of tea. Tea is served across Azerbaijan in cafes, restaurants or the traditional chaikhaanas that are frequented by men where they sit together to chat, read the newspaper or play backgammon while sipping on chai.
How is this chai made? Well, the Azeri tea is mostly brewed in a samovar, a metal container that is heated with coal or charcoal and a kettle placed on top to get the water to boil and brew the tea.
The jam, interestingly, reminded me of murabba. And imagine my surprise (or not!) when a bit of internet surfing revealed that in Azerbaijan, what was introduced as jam to us, was mürəbbə to them! Made of locally sources fruits, the murabba is the main dessert of every meal, a snack and is also used as a medicine in some cases!
Now, my sweet tooth tends to act pricey at times and I cannot tolerate sweet beyond a certain level. But during my stay there, I did sample some amazing murabba made of fruits like apricot, strawberries, sour cherries, watermelon crest (yes!)
Let’s talk desserts and halva
Mention desserts and other than the murabba, the Azeri dessert menu shows you an array of Europe-inspired pastries, each prettier and delicious-er than the next. I was treated to pastries from day one and it was pastries after breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, lunch, evening snack, dinner, late night snack! Whew!
But more important than these sweetmeats, are the traditional halvas and puddings which are to die for! Each and every morsel is an experience, the simple flavours creating a riot inside your mouth. Take for instance the gyumag (bread and butter pudding) and the firni (rice pudding), variations of which are seen in several Indian households. And then there is the shakerbura, a sweet pastry, crescent shaped that is reminiscent of the gujia eaten during the festival of Holi in India.
Luckily for Didi1 and me, we were able to sample the kings of Azeri desserts — the pakhlava and Shaki halva. Not just sample, we were able to watch an artisan (for that is the only word that can aptly describe the mastery displayed) at the Aliahmed Sweets store in Shaki.
Did I mention most homes have a bowl filled with chocolates to the brim kept as centrepieces on dining tables or the living room table? You walk around and just pop chocolates in your mouth — how on earth the Azeris maintain their waistlines and not have acne popping out is a miracle! I am still struggling to get into the pair of jeans that I had carried to Azerbaijan, wore for all of two days and then set them aside.
Well! All said and done, this chatter about sweets has been craving some halva. So while I go fight the battle of the sweet tooth, I hope you will be connecting with your travel agent to book that flight to Baku.
Don’t forget to come back next week for some more on Azerbaijan and its food. Meanwhile, check out the halva making process on From The Corner Table’s Instagram handle and Facebook page. Do go ahead and click the follow/like/subscribe buttons on all these platforms. Your support means the world (and some more!)
1 Didi – term of endearment for elder sister in several Indian languages
Photos: Rapti Bhaumick