By Nivi Shrivastava
Famous for its transcontinental geography and exotic landscape, Azerbaijan is as versatile as it gets. With vivid food customs and warm hospitality, the country offers a cultural mélange of cooking traditions that were introduced by neighbouring countries of Turkey, Russia, Iran, Armenia and Georgia. The unique cuisine of Azerbaijan might remind of you familiar tastes from home with the usage of spices like saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, and so on, but it’s an entirely different take on slow-cooked delicacies and rich recipes that are packed with flavours.
In the capital Baku, the most sought after place for a food walk is Nizami Street, a large pedestrian shopping lane in the downtown city known for its unique street cafes, tea joints, and specialty restaurants. Start with sampling the local flatbread Gutab, a signature Azeri dish that looks like a cross between a desi naan and paratha. A Gutab is made of soft all-purpose flour stuffed with ground beef or lamb mixed with crushed garlic, chopped fresh cilantro, and onion. For vegetarians, the meat filling is replaced with pumpkin or spinach, topped with cheese and pomegranate arils. Pair it with an authentic Azeri Kuku, a popular egg-based Persian frittata made with a mix of fresh vegetables like spinach, mint, herbs, and walnut served hot with yogurt sauce.
With a dedicated annual festival that attracts global tourists, the national dish of Azerbaijan is the saffron-laced Plov (aka pulao/ pilaf/ pilau), which is prepared in 200 different ways across different regions. Cooked in a pot using fluffy Basmati long rice grains and juicy mutton chunks, it’s often garnished with dry fruits or herbs. In the Azeri culture, rice represents wealth, and a noteworthy version is the Shakh (royal) plov prepared during festive occasions with a diverse flavor profile. The saffron-infused rice is covered inside a bowl lined with lavash (a thin and soft wheat-based flatbread) and a generous amount of dried apricots, plums, chestnuts, and raisins are added on top of it to create a unique blend of textures and burst of taste with every bite.
Medley of flavours:
A much-loved main course item in the cuisine is Dolma – the bite-sized bundles of fresh grape leaves stuffed with flavorful ingredients like ground meat, onion, rice, herbs, and a dash of seasonings like cilantro, dill, and mint, rolled together and steam-cooked to perfection. The general name for all Azerbaijani stuffed dishes is dolma, and the vegetarian version ‘three Dolma Sisters (Uch Badji)’ is made with eggplants, peppers and tomatoes, filled with the flesh of the vegetable and an herbaceous mix.
For non-vegetarians, a must-try dish is the Piti soup, a delicious slow-cooked stew made with mutton, chickpeas, onions, tomatoes, and dried plum covered by a thick layer of sheep tail fat infused with saffron water for rich taste and colour. Consumed during the winters in hilly Caucasus regions, Piti from the Sheki region in Azerbaijan is an experience to cherish. Cooked in a sealed crock pot called dopu, the Sheki piti is eaten in two steps – first, the bread is crumpled on a plate and sprinkled with a mix of spices, followed by pouring the piping hot broth from the pot to be relished as a hearty meal.
Azeri street bites:
Along the cobbled pathways of Azerbaijan street markets in Baku or Lahic village, you’ll be involuntarily chasing the whiff of juicy Doner kebabs and Shawarmas being prepared at roadside food joints. Popular as most preferred street foods, both Doner and Shawarma are Middle Eastern meat-based dishes and easy-to-carry meals. While Doner kebabs are made of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie served with rice or lavash (bread), the Shawarmas are rolls made of finely sliced mutton, chicken, turkey, beef, or veal alongside crushed garlic mayonnaise. The Tandir Toyug (chicken) and Tandir bread, as the name suggests are prepared in little tandoor stoves that are common in many parts of the country and are popular snacks.
The best way to end an elaborate Azeri spread is with an assortment of desserts and fresh fruit jams that are an integral part of every meal. Azeris women are known for their famous jam recipes using cherries, apricots, strawberries, peaches, apples, walnuts, watermelon, and even rose petals. Much like the sweet people, honey-dipped desserts like Pakhlava (layered pastry), Shekerbura (sugar almond pastry), halavs, and Badambura (nut pastry) are aromatic treats that you can’t miss. A popular version, Shaki Paklava (or halva) is made from rice flour, chopped nuts with spices, syrup, or honey.
End it with a tea party:
Interestingly, like Indians, the Azerbaijanis too are crazy about tea and are deeply connected to their much-loved national beverage Chay (pronounced as chai). So much so is the love for tea in the country that there’s a rainbow-coloured tea cup art installed in Baku at the most famous tourist spot in the city – the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. To show hospitality, Azeris serve black tea brewed with dried flowers and spices in pear-shaped glasses called armudu with a spread of sweets, jams, and sliced lemon. In many traditional chaykhanas (tea houses for men) one can find huge metal containers called samovars that are used for a never-ending supply of chay and conversations.