Beluga! the taller man said to us with a proud smile. He linked arms with his friend and implored us to take their picture, making the universal shutter click hand gesture. We'd just walked into the fish section of the Təzə Bazar, past a row of hanging dried river fish. Gold and silver skinned, they reminded me of watches in a pawn shop. After he was done posing, the man wrote his name on a piece of paper and handed it to us with his grin still in place. Facebook, he requested.
Təzə Bazar is, without a doubt, one of our favorite marketplaces of the trip. Located on an uprooted construction zone of a street, in a concrete block building with adjacent sheds and tarps, it looked stark. Inside, though, it was warm and welcoming. We were invited to take portraits, to sample the dried fruit and pistachios. We were invited to have some tea.
We were able to walk around slowly, taking it all in. There were no demands for our attention or aggressive salesmanship. We were implored only to look and appreciate, not to buy buy buy. The market was quiet with more vendors than shoppers, which added to the relaxed atmosphere. We felt safe, like guests. This display of jarred vegetables was amazing. Other stands specialized in pickled grape leaves for dolma. Some marinated in recycled coke bottles.
The man behind this stand plucked a sugar-coated dried persimmon off from a bunch and tore it in half with his thumbs. A walnut was pressed into the flesh of each and handed to us. We chewed on the delicious snack and he smiled with full understanding. It was a little bit of perfection. Azerbaijan, he said, referencing the origin of both ingredients and welcoming us to his country. At least that's how it felt.
These young men also provided us with an email address and mentioned, more then thrice, that they had some caviar for sale. Apparently, the roe dealing at the bazaar used to be much... well... fishier - with men inviting you down into the lower level to peruse their illegal stash. Now, it's legal and far more expensive.
That downstairs room in the main bi-level building is now the meat market. There are slabs hanging from hooks upstairs, but here it gets to the nitty gritty of it all. Huge meat lockers buzzed and the shiny metal tables gave an instant sense of sanitation at the bottom of the blood specked staircase. This woman sold the full works, tongues, trotters, et al. She put her hand to her chest to confirm our assumption that the large organs in the front were hearts. Then, of course, she welcomed us to take a picture.
Azerbaijan is famous for its fruit and while the full gambit was run, you could easily tell which season it was. They tried as best they could to get these squash into a neat pyramid like all the other produce. But its shape just makes things too tricky. The colors were extraordinary and most everything was polished to a sheen. Off to the side, there was a cafe and we sat for some tea. Waiting for boiling water to cool off really gives you a moment to take things in.
Word got around about us and we were greeted into rooms with our new nickname: Americas. It became a smiling contest of sorts. Merlin and I have rather big ones and people put up their best fight trying to out grin us. We walked around in a sort of happy stupor, pointing at all the gastronomic treasures. There were rices and dried herbs and vegetables and beans. Lambskin sacks kept dairy products cool and wheels of cheese added a saltiness to the air.
Food is just a part of what Təzə Bazar encompasses. There is a whole section, just as large, with hardware, home appliances and lighting fixtures. This area had more customers while we were there. Men tried out power tools and examined lawn mowers. Everything was kept neatly - the most orderly store of its kind I've ever seen. As we left, a man pulled a wagon loaded with fresh cheese through the extension cord department. We took more pictures and he even stopped a little to make sure we got a good one.