The Foods of Azerbaijan, Part II

March 8, 2010 § 1 Comment

As you know, I come from Azerbaijan – the land of jasmine, pomegranates, and salty sea waters. And at all times that I was there, even during the typical Soviet food shortages, the local food – freshly grown and butchered, with its complex and pungent flavors, was among the best I ever had.

Traditionally, the food was prepared by hand, mostly by women, often working women with jobs to go to and children to take care of. Unlike here, eating out was not very popular, especially when I was growing up, and since there was never an abundance of frozen dinners, pre-cut vegetables, boxed foods, or other supermarket aisle staples, making food from scratch was the only way to go.

When I think back to that time, I realize it was a no small feat for a woman, entirely unaided by the kind of kitchen gadgets and appliances that grace every American kitchen, to churn out, day after day, labor-intensive dishes that often involved tiny hand-made dumplings and finely-chopped ingredients. Frequently, this was done after a day at work.

Grocery shopping too was an entirely different sort of experience. You’ve got to understand, back then (and still) you didn’t drive your SUV with all the kids strapped conveniently in their car seats to a Walmart super-center, where you would fill your cart with everything you need and then drive it all home. Women would usually walk to the market, often in heels, often with small children in tow, where they would browse carefully to find the freshest produce or the finest cut of meat and then haggle with the merchants over a price. They would then carry the heavily-laden bags home, often making a few more stops. It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything of the kind.

I can’t say I miss that part – but I do miss the food. I will forever miss the festive, fragrant Azerbaijani pilafs. The rice was first cooked in water, then steamed with butter and colored golden-yellow with saffron infusion. Traditionally, it was served ladled with a variety of sweet and savory stews, usually made with chicken or lamb, chestnuts, and dried fruit. No one in my family ever made this (gefillte fisch was a different matter), so I never really learned how. There’s some hope for me, though – another Azerbaijani-American blogger, Farida, has recently shared a recipe for a sweet-and-savory pilaf that I know I will be trying.

The other thing I miss sorely is the array of grilled meats, prepared on a special narrow rectangular grill called mangal, where the meat was suspended over hot coals with the help of extra-large, extra-thick iron skewers. While cooking and baking were primarily female domains back home, grilling was an area dominated almost entirely by men. I don’t know if this has to do with the outdoor nature of the activity, but, personally, I don’t remember ever seeing a single woman manning a mangal.

Kebabs, as they are called, were made mostly with different cuts of lamb, but you could also have them made with chicken or fish (usually sturgeon as far as I can remember). These were served simply, with heaps of lavash – a thin local flatbread, sliced onions mixed with sumac (a tart, dark-red spice), some pomegranate molasses called narsharab, and, in place of a salad, bunches of fresh herbs. Meat kebabs would often be accompanied by grilled tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. My personal favorite was lyulja-kebab, where a chilled mixture of ground lamb, onions and herbs was patted around a skewer, giving you a sausage of sorts. I actually make something of the kind at home in Wisconsin on my grill, and I will be sharing those with you soon.

The other thing to mention is an assortment of local flatbreads, baked in the so-called tandir ovens, usually on a commercial basis, where long, thin ovals of dough would be slapped onto vertical walls and baked over hot coals. With the utter disregard for the knife, the fragrant, soft loaves were often torn with your hands instead.

But what I miss the most is something called doner-kebab, which you might be familiar with. In Israel, they are stuffed in pita bread and called shuarma (I think), and in Bulgaria they called them dooner. You can get them in Europe, but they are never like the ones in Turkey or Azerbaijan, not as far as my picky palate is concerned. If you are not familiar with them, the meat – lamb, beef, or chicken – is roasted in one huge chunk made up of many slices skewered onto a huge vertical spit rotating next to an open gas fire unit. The entire time, the meat on the outside is being sliced off vertically with a large knife, so you end up with thin, well-grilled shreds, while the meat still on the spit continues to cook. The slices-shreds are then stuffed into flatbreads, along with some fried potatoes (that’s right), pickles, and tomatoes, and often the onion-sumac-herb mixture. It is then topped with a special local condiment called adjika – in this case a tomato-based thin sauce.

To Be Continued…

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§ One Response to The Foods of Azerbaijan, Part II

  • A says:

    This is making me reminisce about Tashkent’s markets and foods. Making me a little homesick for that food. I guess we were sort of neighbors there and sort of neighbors here, though we’re geographically closer now.

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