This chicken has a secret. Like so many chickens and fish in the Talysh region of Azerbaijan, it has become lavangi. All around the country, chicken lavangi is touted as a national treasure - the best poultry dish in a land full of cooked birds. While we were in Baku, we attempted to find a Talysh restaurant to get our taste of the food, but we never found it. Driving through Southern Azerbaijan, the birthplace of the dish, we knew we would have our chance to find out what the heck lavangi actually is.
I'm still unsure if the word references the stuffing itself or the fact that it is stuffed, but here it is: chicken lavangi. The stuffing is made mostly from onion, chopped walnuts and herbs, but can range in actual recipe. This chicken's stuffing tasted like an earthier, saltier pesto. Its consistency was close to an olive tapenade. Though, it was definitely something all its own.
We have yet to see lavangi in a restaurant, but that's been a lot of the fun. Roadsides in the Talysh region are lined with smoking tandirs. These clay ovens cook up lavangi and fresh bread. Signs illustrate the process, showing a bird with a stick through it dangling vertically over a flaming tandir - the moment before the magic begins to happen.
Locals must be aware of lavangi's almost mythic status in the country, as they knew exactly what we wanted as we approached. We were welcomed into the "kitchen" of these outdoor stands as fires were fed and tandirs were heated up. Always hoping for a warm version of the dish, we hulked around. Our noses tried to sniff out freshly emerged chicken or fish.
This was the tell-tale sign of any lavangi stand. Out on the road would be a glass display case with a chicken, a fish and some bread hanging overhead. We never did get that warm one. But maybe no one ever does?
The river fish doubled in size all plumped up, their skin crisped perfectly in the clay oven. I was particularly excited about lavangi because it was a national dish I could actually eat. In my -totally unbiased pescatarian- opinion, fish lavangi works better. The stuffing is right in there up against the flesh of one side and separated from the other by just a simple bone fence. It's much easier to get a nice forkful or pinch of meat and filling together.
We picked at the fish on the side of the road, using its newspaper wrapping as a plate, our fingers as forks and a warm loaf of bread as a napkin. This filling was lumpier, with bigger pieces of onion and walnuts and a little rice mixed in. It was flavored with a good deal of cilantro, possibly some thyme and made sour by bits of dried plum. Plum and pomegranate are common features of lavangi and the tartness reminded me of cranberry Thanksgiving stuffing.