Shahrezad Sundays: The Land of Fire and Its Food: Part I

March 1, 2010 § 4 Comments

Now that I am in the US, people often ask me if I grew up on a farm or in the country back home “doing all this stuff” I do now – butchering, hunting, putting up food. The answer to that question is “No.” I didn’t grow up in the country or on a farm – I grew up in the city of several million people, which, at the time, was the capital of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, now an independent state nestled between Russia, Iran, Georgia, and Armenia, and enveloped by the two ranges of the Caucasus mountains in the region known as Transcaucasia.

Roughly half the size of Wisconsin, Azerbaijan boast the population of over eight million people, and its primary language – Azeri – is closely related to Turkish – so much so that people can easily understand each other when traveling between the two countries, although it shares some fair amount of vocabulary with Arabic, Russian, and Farsi.

Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, or “the city of winds,” is a beautiful, ancient city on the Western shore of the Caspian Sea, once known for its rich multi-cultural landscape during the Soviet times. Situated on the Apsheron peninsula, whose soil is incredibly rich in natural oil and gas, Baku was the site of one of the original oil booms, and it was here that the Nobel brothers made much of their fortune. So rich is the land of the Apsheron in natural gas, that, in some places, the flames shoot up from the ground and never go off. It is for that reason that Azerbaijan is known as “The Land of Fire,” and it is no accident that it was at one time one of the centers of Zoroastrianism.

With its location in the very crossroads between Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan has seen several major conquests from both sides, and was at one time or another a part of the Russian and Persian empires, as well as the empire of the Alexander the Great, all of which have added layers upon layers of cultural traditions, as reflected in the food, the language, and the general mentality. The Arab conquests were responsible for introducing Islam, which is now the country’s primary religion, although the general population is mostly secular.

I am not a great historian of my country, however, not the least because the Azerbaijani history books were re-written several times in my twenty-three years back home, following the changing of the political regimes. If you wish, you can further explore the history of Azerbaijan here (this website, incidentally, features the picture of the apartment building immediately next to the one where I grew up – I passed this very monument every day for many years, and it was also where I would meet up with boys when I went out on a date).

The other question people ask me here, especially when I tell them that I love and relish the Wisconsin winter with its abundant snow and cold temperatures, is whether it was cold “wherever you grew up.” Once again the answer is no.

The “wherever” in question, namely, the Apsheron peninsula, is known for its harsh, arid semi-desert, with the summer temperatures spiking above 100 on a regular basis. So dry it is in fact, that, when I was growing up, rain was a rare and special thing, let alone snow.  With this little precipitation, the domineering color palette was made up entirely of browns and yellows – a far, far cry from the lush, almost tropical green of the Driftless summers. It is for this reason that most of my memories of home include the background of searing heat – think Death Valley – and the dull, monochromatic landscape, peppered by the oil rigs too close for comfort to public beaches.

And then there as was the sea. The city would get so unbearably hot in the summer, that my mom would always take a vacation from work every July, and we would spend it going to the beach pretty much every day. I loved the sea. The Caspian sea – the largest lake in the world, is salty, but not as salty as the ocean, so swimming with your eyes open is not a problem at all. I miss it to this day, as I miss the sturgeon that dwells in its waters with its black caviar, smoked sturgeon logs, and sturgeon kebabs (not that we would have those very often). I even miss the salty smell of the sea brought by the ever-present wind, mixed with the odor of the oil refinery fumes.

The most dramatic feature of home, in my mind, however, is the food – similar to Turkish, Persian, Georgian, and Armenian, if you are familiar with that sort of thing. Let me just tell you that it was beyond amazing, and because of the scarcity of the suitable ingredients in this country, and because I am relatively committed to eating locally, can be extremely challenging to reproduce here in Wisconsin.

Where do I even begin? Let me just begin by saying that Azeri farmer’s markets are the thing of a legend. All throughout my childhood produce was not sold in stores but had to be purchased at a market like that. Baku markets are huge, and there are about six major ones in the city. There you could find everything from homemade pastries, candy, yogurt, cheese, bread, pickles, and preserves, to the most incredible selection of fruits, nuts, spices, and herbs. There’s a good reason that I find bland American salads practically unpalatable unless they are spiked up with a large amount of garlic, feta, and strictly homemade dressing. Back home, you see, the salad would be either bunches of herbs that you’d eat straight-up with your hands along with your meal – with the most popular being cilantro, scallions, water cress, and the local purple basil – or a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers. Though lettuce would appear in the spring, it would normally be served with a ranch-like homemade dressing (at least in my experience), and I never really liked it anyway. It is, indeed, the herbs and the spices that I miss the most – the selection back home was so vast, that creating complex, deeply savory flavor combination was a no-brainer, and you didn’t need to drown everything in hot pepper to add some excitement to your plate. In fact, I don’t remember people ever eating hot food like people do here. That’s why, with the unlikely exception of wings and crawfish etouffe, I have a profound distaste for hot peppers and all things hot, trying instead to impart the flavor to my food with the use of onions, garlic, herbs, and spices.

And then there was fruit – think all of the fruits of Wisconsin and all of the fruits of California coming together, except they were fresh and succulent back home, in the way only local food can be (while my immediate climate was indeed, quite arid, only a short drive into the mountains would yield a complete change of landscape, with brown foothills turning to dramatic green slopes and picturesque valleys scattered with orchards, while a trip down south towards the Iranian border, with its sub-tropical climate, would reveal citrus plantations). I grew up gorging on pomegranates, persimmons, tangerines, kumquats, endless varieties of grapes, sweet and sour cherries, quince, you name it. (Although we didn’t have bananas when I was growing up, so to this day I find bananas quite exotic).

The food item I miss the most, though, is alycha – a special variety of Caucasian plum you wouldn’t be able to grow in Wisconsin – tart when green, yellow or red and slightly sweet when fully ripe. Every year in early May I would wait impatiently for it to appear at the markets and on street corners, where it was sold by a glass as snack alongside roasted sunflower seeds, and as soon as it began to show up (and it was quite expensive early in the season), I would buy some and take it home and eat it right up dipping it in salt (to this day, salt-and-sour combo is among my favorite flavors). Once it became ripe, people would cook it into tkemali – a chutney of sorts to be served alongside meat dishes, or add it to just about anything, including soups and stews. It was also used to make a very tart fruit leather, that, again, was used in cooking or eaten as a snack. One of the first things I wanted to have on my trip home in 2007 was that very thing (known as “sour lavash” by association, with “lavash” being the name for the paper-thin local bread). I really miss it.

Because nearly all produce was local, grown in greenhouses for part of the year, cooking was always seasonal. When the produce was abundant and cheap in the summer months, most people would put up endless jars of jams, preserves, pickles, and eggplant caviar (a relative of babaganoush) for the colder winter months to come. (Interestingly enough, my mother didn’t do any of that, and it wasn’t until I came to the US and owned a farm of my own that I taught myself how to make all of those things).

I guess in the US it takes a certain arugula-loving progressive foodie mentality (or, perhaps, also a homesteader/farm mentality) to be eating locally and seasonally, but back home it was the way things were. For that reason, I want the readers of this blog to understand that my food philosophy is what it is not because I am any of those things in particular, but because that was just the way I grew up, and I can’t think of food in any other way.

To Be Continued…

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§ 4 Responses to Shahrezad Sundays: The Land of Fire and Its Food: Part I

  • Mel says:

    Wow, you really paint a beautiful picture of your homeland. The markets sound so vibrant and exciting, I’d love to visit them. Great insightful article!

  • Paula says:

    I’m looking forward to reading your next installments. 🙂 I belong to a Greek dance troop and, in the past, the group has done shows featuring dances from Azerbaijan. Even though we haven’t done them since I’ve been with the group, I’ve seen taped performances – they’re beautiful!

  • A says:

    Hi Sofya,
    I loved reading the description of the markets and food. I know how you feel; I grew up in Tashkent and still remember the markets with the cornucopia of fruit, veggies, dairy products, meat, sweets, breads, etc.
    I noticed in you pictures that you use a lot of cast iron in your cooking. Do you think it would work well for a rice dish like Plov? I have enameled cast iron pots but they just don’t work right for that sort of dish. Also, where did you get your cast iron skillets/pots?
    P.S. I’m adding a link to your blog on my blog (www.annasrecipebox.wordpress.com)

  • Sofya says:

    Hello Anna,

    Thanks for linking to me! I am all too happy to reciprocate.

    Now, I have never made plov myself – back home they had something called “gazan/kazan” and it was a special vessel and I can’t remember what the metal was, though I suspect it was aluminum, which is not good to cook in at all! I have no idea if cast iron would work for plov because I never made plov myself… I kind of don’t think it’s a good choice though, if I was to guess, because I can see how it would burn too fast. But you can always try! I would follow this link:
    http://www.azcookbook.com/layered-rice-pilaff-with-dried-fruits-chestnuts-parcha-dosheme-plov/
    and ask the author what vessel she uses for this. Looks like what’s in the picture is a non-stick pot of some sort.

    I buy stuff by Lodge (it’s a brand) – it’s very inexpensive – $10 for medium skillets, $7 for the small one, $25 (maybe) for the large. I have two medium, one small, and one large skillet, and that’s just exactly how many I need, but that’s just me.

    I also have 2 of their dutch ovens – one enameled, one just plain cast iron ($50) – I would not recommend buying the plain cast iron one unless you are going to be making lots of no-knead bread, but even that apparently works in the enameled one. Although I’ve used it a bunch, it does tend to impart a bit of a metallic flavor to dishes that need to be stewed or braised, especially if they include tomato/wine/acid, which is often the case with my food. That was the reason I got myself the enameled one (they make one of those too, for $70). I now cook a lot of my stuff in that enameled one.

    They also come in the form of the so-called “grill pan” – a small square pan with ridges on the bottom to imitate the grill marks like the ones you get on a grill. I don’t have one of those.

    They can always be found at Walmart supercenters, among other places.

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