Azerbaijan

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Our next globetrotting destination, and the last remaining country whose name (at least in English) begins with the letter A, was Azerbaijan. As you can see on the map above, we had already explored this tiny corner of the world (known as the Caucasus) when we visited its neighbor Armenia in July. The two nations are not on friendly terms, and one of the things we hoped to learn this weekend was whether Armenia and Azerbaijan share more than simply the disputed border between them.

Jess got the ball rolling on Friday night by baking tendir coreyi, a delicious flatbread sprinkled with sesame seeds, in preparation for breakfast on Saturday morning. Here it is, just out of the oven:

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The next morning, Jess whipped up the remainder of our delicious breakfast: pomidor cigirtmasi, or fried tomatoes mixed with scrambled eggs. Along with the tendir coreyi, black tea, and some raspberry preserves, this made a tasty and traditional morning meal:

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Almost immediately after finishing our delicious breakfast, we got to work on two Azerbaijani recipes for lunch. The first was a Russian-influenced salad called paytakht salati, which you can see on the left in the photograph below. The salad contained a tasty mixture of potatoes, radishes, peas, carrots, cucumber, pickles, and eggs in a (fairly) light sour cream sauce. You can see my whimsical toadstool (made from a tomato and a hard-boiled egg) sitting on top of the salad, as the recipe instructed. I also made a creamy yoghurt soup called dovga, filled with various herbs like dill, scallions, cilantro, and spinach along with some chickpeas and rice. I had also picked up some lavash, which is another popular kind of flatbread from that part of the world:

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That afternoon, while I stepped out to complete some unavoidable errands, Jess assembled a nut-free baklava, made with sesame seeds, and set it to bake in the oven. While most Americans associate baklava with Greek cuisine, it is popular in the Caucasus, too. In 2009, Azerbaijani bakers were responsible for creating the largest piece of baklava ever recorded, which weighed about three tons. An hour later, Jess pulled our much smaller pan out of the oven and drizzled it with some oh-so-important honeyed syrup:

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More delicious food was still ahead, however, as we walked across the Longfellow Bridge and visited a restaurant on Beacon Hill called LalaRokh for dinner. The family who owns the restaurant originally emigrated from a region of Iran that is also called Azerbaijan and that borders our country of interest. Our first sample of real Azerbaijani cooking looked exactly like the tendir flatbread that Jess herself had baked the night before:

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After enjoying the bread, out came the appetizers. I had ordered the dolmeh kido, a zucchini stuffed with flavorful rice and beef, while Jess got the borani-e garch, a dish of sautéed mushrooms and polenta mixed with yoghurt. They looked so enticing that we forgot to take a picture! For the main course, I had a lamb dish called ghormeh sabzi, on the right, while Jess’s eggplant and tofu bademjan is on the left. Bon appétit, or, as they say in Azerbaijan, nush olsun!

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After a quiet walk back to the apartment, we tried some of Jess’s baklava for dessert. Although I knew perfectly well that there were no nuts in the baklava, the strong nutty flavor of the sesame seeds presented quite a psychological challenge. But it was worth it! The pastry was sweet and delicious.

Later that evening, we watched a German/French comedy called Absurdistan (2008), filmed entirely “on location” in Azerbaijan. The trailer is below.

We weren’t sure how much a film like Absurdistan would be able to teach us about real Azerbaijani culture, but the authentic scenery (unlike the plot) was rather charming.

On Sunday morning, Jess got to work making another batch of pomidor cigirtmasi. Meanwhile, I snuck a piece of baklava and put on a 2012 concert recording of Azerbaijani mugham, an improvisatory style of traditional music that UNESCO has placed on its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Breakfast turned out to be even better than the day before, as this time Jess had toasted the flatbread before serving it.

(In case you are worried that Absurdistan had inspired me to become a lazy-husband-in-training, Jess was in charge of breakfasts and dessert this weekend, while I did the planning—and much of the work!—for our lunches and Sunday dinner.)

Later that morning, we watched a short clip featuring some of the food and architecture of Baku, the capital city. The narrator introduced us to the historical areas of the city as well as the sleek, modern architecture that has sprung up nearby.

We also enjoyed a longer video that showcased some of the country’s regional cuisine.

For lunch, we enjoyed more of the payhtakht salati and the dovga from the day before. As you can see in the photo below, the soup had thickened overnight in the refrigerator, so we added some water to our bowls before heating it up:

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That afternoon, we took advantage of the fine autumn weather to check out Herter Park, located on the banks of the Charles River in Allston. As far as we know, the park has no connection to Azerbaijan, but it made for a pleasant outing.

Returning to the apartment, I got to work preparing our final Azerbaijani recipe: a dill pilaf, or shuyud plov. In addition to the rice, Azerbaijani pilafs also feature an eggy crust formed at the bottom of the pot. Scraping this crust from the pot when the pilaf was ready turned out to be a big pain, but it added some crunch to the dish:

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After dinner, we wrapped up the weekend with a couple of videos relating to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, which was hosted in Baku because a group of Azerbaijani singers had won the previous year. First we listened to the country’s unsuccessful 2012 entry, below, and then we watched an episode of the BBC program Panorama that exposed the widespread political corruption afflicting Azerbaijan even while it was hosting the popular competition.

All in all, our weekend in Azerbaijan introduced us to an assortment of exciting culinary and musical traditions while also educating us about some of the problems facing this former Soviet territory on the border between Europe and Asia. While Azerbaijan remains the bitter enemy of Armenia, we noticed that both cultures prefer to flavor their foods with fresh herbs like dill rather than with spices. Both also use a lot of phyllo dough, not to mention yoghurt and dried fruits. The moral of the story? Food brings everyone together!

–Derek

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2 thoughts on “Azerbaijan

  1. On March 7, 2015, we returned (in spirit) to Azerbaijan for an evening of fine music and food.

    Fargana Qasimova

    The singer Fargana Qasimova was concluding her weeklong intercultural residency at Brandeis University with a public concert of Azerbaijani mugham—the traditional musical genre that UNESCO has named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Qasimova, the daughter of famed mugham singer Alim Qasimov, has now become a renowned interpreter of this beautiful music in her own right. The four musicians who accompanied her, also from Azerbaijan, performed on a number of traditional instruments such as the kmancha (a type of spike fiddle) and the tar (a plucked lute).

    After this breathtaking concert, the audience was treated to a sumptuous buffet reception from Fiouna’s Persian Fusion Cuisine in Boston. Jess and I enjoyed a barberry rice pilaf called zereshk polo—not so different from the plov I attempted above—as well as some pita bread and an eggplant dip called mirza ghasemi. Jess also got to try the stuffed grape leaves, which had disappeared by the time I reached the buffet!

  2. Pingback: Bosnia and Herzegovina | Globetrotting at Home

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