27 January 2012

Azeri Food

Azerbaijan is a strange and unique country. We could call it anything we wanted, really - Islamic, ex-soviet, Asian, Middle Eastern, European... this is a people and a land that doesn't fit easily into any category. It's a country that's over 95 percent muslim, with a language that's very close to Turkish and a regional identity that hinges on the silk routes and the desert - but it still feels extremely Russian. Vodka is the drink of choice. Borsht is on every menu. Old Ladas clunk down the highways. Women wear short skirts, policemen have fur hats.
Their food is a great representation of this mixture of cultures. Much was introduced during soviet rule, much influence has been taken from Turkey and Georgia, the desert and mountains play their part.
This is how every Azeri meals begins - with a cluster of dishes meant to accentuate and compliment the meal. Usually there's salty sheep's cheese, some kind of yogurt, goy (greens, typically parsley and scallions) and pickles. Sometimes there's plum sauce or choban (peasant) salad, in the mountains they serve a kind of tomato paste.
At a road stop along the southern highway, on our way from Baku down to the Talysh region, I had this bowl of stewed meat and qreçki, or split bulgar wheat. The landscape at that point was just beginning to green as we left the brown desert and the land began rising toward the Lesser Caucasus and foothill farmland. It was a dry dish, but delicious - the nutty grains didn't need anything but a pinch of salt.
The heart and soul of Azeri food is Shashlyk, in all its myriad forms. Lamb is the most popular meat, but there was also lots of baliq (sturgeon) near the coast and whole chickens - toyuq kebab - on the high plains. This was the best grilled meat I had: in the little mountain hub of Lerik, we stopped at a bright, airy cafeteria where the air was heavy with the scent of grilling meat. Outside the windows, the jagged border with Iran loomed, a series of snowy peaks. The waiter "suggested" I have these bits of fatty, well-seasoned lamb's haunch. Really, he gave me no choice - this was the dish he brought to the table.
Qutab was something we discovered pretty late in the country - we needed a quick bite to take on a long bus ride with us; this was the closest thing to the parking lot. In a dark, one room shack, I bought a small stack of these crepe-like things. They can be stuffed with meat, cheese or - a later discovery - pumpkin, but these were more basic and probably the most common. A thin layer of spinach and parsley is folded between two halves of extra-thin lavash, then heated up over a flame.
In poorer places, often the only available thing would be a kind of egg scramble. Sometimes the egg was mixed with oily potatoes and sausage, sometimes with spinach. The dish above was just tomato and egg, with a few bits of parsley.
If the bulk of many Azeri meals is kebab, the backbone is soup. Alongside borscht and chicken soups, there is dovga, made with yoghurt, piti, a lamb broth soup and düşbərə, shown above. The tiny, ravioli like dumplings in düşbərə are hand-stuffed with lamb and herbs, the broth is light, the waiters especially proud.

Also, I should re-mention paxlava and lavangi.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure qreçki is the same as гречка (grechka) or гречиха (grechikha) in Russian, so it's Buckwheat.

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