The best dishes of Azerbaijan Food tells you the story about my fascinating food experience in Baku, and lists my top favourites dishes of Azeri cuisine.
What do you know about Azerbaijan? I certainly didn’t know much until a week or so ago. But because I thrive on discovery, and delving into the unknown is what makes travel exciting to me, I didn’t think twice when I was presented with a last-minute opportunity to join a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city.
The amount of things I’ve learned about Azerbaijan, its culture and history, is overwhelming for such a short trip, but in this post I just want share a few highlights from my first encounter with Azerbaijan Food.
Food is an important cultural component of many societies around the world and when I visit a new destination I pay a lot of attention to what people eat, how they eat it, and what happens around food. One afternoon during a tea break between a late lunch and an early dinner, my host and new friend Zeynal said “Did you know that in Azerbaijan we keep feeding our guests even when they’re full?” I smiled back – as someone who was born and raised in Sicily, in the deep south of Italy, I can relate well to cultures where food has an emotional spin that goes far beyond its mere biological function.
So, how does Azerbaijan Food look and taste like?
Follow on for the highlights of my culinary experience in Baku. Just a little disclaimer though, this is by no means a comprehensive guide – in fact, there’s a big variety of dishes to try, but only a limited amount of lunches and dinners you can have in just three days. I do hope, however, to spark your curiosity about Azeri cuisine, and why not, to inspire you to travel to Azerbaijan to discover its rich gastronomic patrimony.
Raw Vegetables and Herbs
Any local restaurant will serve you raw vegetables and herbs among other appetizers. Like many people, I was already familiar with tomatoes and cucumbers, and apart from their freshness I had no surprises here. As I was eager to try something that I hadn’t tried before, I grabbed some tarragon (estragon in Azeri) , which is extensively used in Azerbaijan food preparation. It’s amazing how what looks like a common piece of grass can give off such a rich, aromatic flavour: a bitter component, a sweet one, and a hint of licorice-meets-anise.
There’s no shortage of great, fresh vegetables and herbs in Azerbaijan. Some studies have actually listed the quality of these vegetables and their inclusion in the local diet among the reasons why Azeri people are among the longest living in the whole planet.
Our friend and award-winning chef Teymur pointed to the white cheese with his finger and said “you have got to try that one. You will love it!” – Motal cheese is produced in the Caucasus mountains and it is made from sheep and goat milk. Sometimes a mixture of both.
Fundamental to the flavour and uniqueness of consistency of this cheese if the maturing process. This cheese is matured inside a sheepskin and hung to dry. Its taste and texture distantly remind me of feta cheese. Due to its strong, salty taste Motal cheese is best enjoyed in (very) small quantities. Unless you are these guys. They eat it by the spoon full.
Pomegranate is a popular ingredient in local cuisine. This is a gorgeous salad I enjoyed in Baku. Served as a cube on a lettuce leaf, it was made with boiled potatoes and local form of mayonnaise, and topped with pomegranate grains. A delicate taste, and definitely a great presentation.
Mangal salad (also spelled as Manqal)
To a lover of aubergines like me, this salad could not pass unobserved. When it was brought to the table, I noticed some similarities with the Sicilian caponata. The similarity was only in the looks as the preparation of the two dishes and their taste considerably.
In the mangal salad Aubergines, peppers and tomatoes are roasted on an open flame, or grilled on a “Mangal”, the name for the azeri barbeque. Subsequently the skin is peeled and the vegetables chopped in cubes and mixed with olive oil, vinegar, salt and, sometimes basil. Mangal salad is best enjoyed with bread (tandir bread was my favourite) and why not, a piece of Motal cheese.
Lamb Sadj (also spelled as Saj)
When this Sadj was served, a number of “ohhhh” and “mmmhh” were heard at our table. I swear I wanted to take a picture that could make it justice, but on the other hand I didn’t want to delay my fellow diners. After a couple of shots I realised my photos weren’t going anywhere and I gave up at the first semi-acceptable frame. Then I sat and ate.
Sadj is actually the name of the pan, but the term is used to define the dish itself: lots of lamb and vegetables including potatoes, green peppers and my beloved aubergines, cooked in guyrug (fat from the rump of a local breed of sheeps). My tip is, when you’re finished with the meat and the vegetables, get your hands on a piece of bread and sponge it into the tasty, oily guyrug.
Fisinjan (also spelled as Fisindjan)
Meat in a sweet dark sauce made with plums, pomegranate molasses, walnuts, red onion, salt and sugar, and served with pilaf rice on the side. A sweet, exotic taste, the memory of which is making me hungry right now!
Fisinjan is a recipe of Persian origin – which says a lot about how the history of Azerbaijan has shaped its cuisine – and it’s a popular dish in Iran too. I was lucky enough to have chef Teymur Shixaliyev cooking his very own version of this dish for me.
To prepare fisinjan Teymur first prepared some handmade lamb meatballs and boiled them for a couple of minutes, then made the sauce. He used a hot horseshoe, following a traditional Azeri way of cooking. He heated the horseshoe on an open flame and dropped it in the sauce to make it boil, and – I was explained – to make the sauce darker.
He then mixed the meatballs with the sauce, He also made a delicious pilaf rice cake by wrapping the rice in a bunch of lavash flatbread.
Small dumplings with a filling of lamb served in an aromatic soup made with fresh herbs. The version cooked for us by chef Teymur Shixaliyev was simply amazing. I heard that not everybody is able to make good dushbara, so if you want to eat the real deal, do yourself a favour and pay Teymur a visit at the Orient House Restaurant, in Baku
Tea and Novruz Pastries
Tea is the Azeri’s national drink and you will drink it in the morning, after lunch, or at a proper tea break in the evening. I visited Baku during novruz, an important Azeri festivity that celebrates the coming of spring, and my tea was served with novruz pastries shekerbura and pakhlava. The green sprouting wheat in the picture is called semeni in Azer. Semeni is a typical novruz ornament, it symbolises the spring and the rebirth of nature, and it is seen in many flower pots, plates or glasses, in people’s homes and around town.
Bread is a fundamental of Azeri cuisine, and goes with most main courses. Along with standard bread you’re usually served several types of flatbreads. One of my favourites was tandir chorek, or tandir flatbread. The fact that the word tandir sounds similar to the Indian and Pakistani tandoor is not a coincidence. It’s more or less the same concept, and more or less the same type of oven too.
My other favourite was the qutab. Qutab comes with different fillings, including spinach, cheese and pumpkin. In my opinion pumpkin qutab wins!
Another popular flatbread is lavash. This one is commonly used to wrap kebabs.
The Azeri, like every peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the middle east and southern Asia, take their kebab seriously (and I don’t blame them at all). If you’re used to think of kebab in terms of fast food or street food only you’re perhaps turning your nose up now. I say don’t be fooled, the Azeri eat shishlik (the local word for kebab) at weddings, plus you can find kebab even in the menu of the best restaurant in town. I tried several kebabs, including the lamb (lula) kebab and – I couldn’t miss this one – the aubergine kebab. They were both gorgeous and made with first quality ingredients. The aubergine kebab is a tasty concept: a grilled aubergine cut in the middle and filled with sheep fat. If you’re not vegetarian, you’ve got to give it a try!
The best dishes of Azerbaijan Food article was written by Inspiring friend Emanuel Siracusa.
For more reading on Azerbaijan Food, and Azeri cuisine and Azerbaijani recipes, check http://www.news.az/recipes
Disclosure: As part of my collaboration with Nelson Carvalheiro I was invited to Baku, Azerbaijan by BEGOC, the Baku European Games Organising Committee, on a fam trip ahead of Baku 2015 ()
The European Games is a multi-sport event for athletes from all over Europe and is held every four years.The Games are owned, organised and regulated by the European Olympic Committees.
During my visit I ate at the following restaurants:
?irvan?ah muzey restoran? (https://www.facebook.com/shirvanshakh/)
Orient House Lounge & Restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/OrientHouseLoungeRestaurant)
Art Garden (http://artgroup.az/art-garden/)
All the opinions expressed in the post are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my hosts.
Emanuele Siracusa is a freelance photographer who is passionate about crafting engaging travel, culture and lifestyle related visual stories.
Given that Azerbaijani culture and language is Turkic in origin, it's not surprising that its cuisine also carries a strong Turkish influence. Doner kebabs are so prevalent on Baku's streets that you'd swear they were Azerbaijani by origin.
One thing is certain though. Azerbaijanis like their meat, with shashlik (barbecue) as the style of choice. One meal took us on the tour of the animal kingdom with seven different types of shashlik – ground meat, sturgeon (served with narsharab, a pomegranate sauce), beef, veal, lamb, pork, and even vegetables. As our friend joked, “See, we Azerbaijanis can make shashlik out of anything!” Although the meat was perfectly grilled, we were thankful for the plates of vegetables and fresh herbs to help balance our intake of flesh.
Luckily for our bodies, there's more to the Azerbaijani table than shashlik.
Favorite Azerbaijani Foods
A warm soup made from plain yogurt, cucumbers, spring onions and occasional bits of ground meat. Although it's meant to be a starter, we found refuge in it as a light dinner.
Think large, Turkish-style ravioli stuffed with ground lamb. Served with plain yogurt – and if you are fortunate, a light chili pepper sauce – they are delicious.
Grape leaves or vegetables stuffed with ground lamb, rice and spices, eaten with plain yogurt and ground pepper. Our best dolmas experience: the small, grape leaf variety served by our home stay family in the hills of Lahic.
Beluga caviar is still king. Although its quantities are dwindling in Azerbaijan, caviar is still a big industry. The government controls the caviar business, but somehow a little bit always escapes and finds its way onto the black market. The best place to find it is at Taza Bazaar in Baku. From the moment you enter the market, you'll hear hushed whispers of “caviar, caviar” from the shadows as middlemen sidle up to you. Follow them to small makeshift tasting rooms whose coolers are filled to the brim with caviar tins. Sample 5-6 varieties at different prices. The 113 gram pots run from $25-$55, depending upon the type of fish and grade. Our favorite was Beluga caviar – smooth and the least fishy of the lot. No small wonder it's the most expensive.
Refreshing, thinned-out yogurt drink, often flavored with dill and other herbs. It's pronunciation is similar to the favorite neighborhood theocracy, Iran. So much so that when a young boy in the market asked Audrey “Do you like ayran?” she responded, “I don't know. I haven't been there yet.”
A thin pancake whose varieties come stuffed with meat or with spinach and greens. Delicious alone, but if you find yourself at Chudo Pechka, get creative and team the green-stuffed with the baklijan (eggplant and garlic in sour cream) for your very own Azerbaijani veggie wrap.
Not the traditional dry halva you are used to, this regional variety resembles a pie with crunchy layers drowned in a sweet syrup.
Although Turkish in origin, bakhlava has made its way to Baku, with some of the best served up by the local outpost of the Turkish bakery Gulluoglu. The rolled cylindrical variety are full of pistachio nuts, inside and out. Not too sweet, incredibly fresh, and terribly addictive.
The following traditional Azerbaijani dishes evaded our taste buds, either because of short supply or the wrong season.
Azerbaijani-style miniature manti. Teaspoon-sized mutton, onion and coriander filled ravioli served in a stock. This dish is common in the spring, so we just missed it during our summer visit. Travelers headed further to Central Asia, don’t despair. You'll get your fill of dushbara in Kyrgyzstan, where they are called chochvara and served in a spicy, tomato-based broth.
Potatoes, chick-peas, vegetable and fatty-mutton stewed with fresh tomatoes or saffron. We're told that you are supposed to soak the juice up with the bread first and then mash the solids into a paste before eating. For some reason, every cafe we tried seemed to be out and offered us shashlik instead.
Word of caution: Some restaurants, especially in the regions, will present an extensive menu, leaving the customer excited by the possibilities of choice. Tame your excitement. More often than not, the only things actually available are shashlik or dovga. For some reason, waiters don't find it necessary to explain “we only have 3 of the 600 things on the menu” up front. Only when they take your order, do they deliver the bad news, leaving you grasping for alternatives.
Photo Essay – Azerbaijani Food and Markets
Recommended Baku Restaurants
- Chudo Pechka: Next to Sahil Metro station on Bul Bul street. An international chain that is Turkish in origin, Chudo Pecka churns out savory and sweet pastries, kutab, pizzas and doner kebabs all day. Pay at the cashier first and then take your receipt to one of the half dozen or so food counters to collect your grub. Extraordinarily inexpensive compared to every other food option in Baku…a blessing for budget travelers.
- Anadolu: On Rasul Rza Street #5 at the corner with Azerbaijan Street. Probably the best street doner kebabs in the city. Inside, Turkish and European dishes are on offer for reasonable prices.
- Anur Restaurant: E. Elizada Street #3, close to the old town on the same street as Mozart Cafe. Good manti.
- Gulluoglu Bakery: Istiqlaliyyet Kuc #35. Heavenly and addictive bakhlava!
- Restaurant “PLANET”: Mehseti Sreet #3, tel.: (+99412) 4234378. A ways outside the city center. It has a nice garden setting with delicious shashlik and live music.
About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and Instagram.
Filed Under: Food, World Cuisine GuidesDestinations: Azerbaijan, Caucasus Published on: