The cuisine of Azerbaijan reflects centuries of various political and economic influences in the country – Iranian, Turkish, Central Asian and Soviet – which shaped the unique flavor of the local dishes. The particular topography and climate of Azerbaijan, with 9 out of 11 climate zones from subtropical to mountainous tundra, has also a major effect on the diversity and abundance of fruit, vegetables, pulses, herbs and spices the Azerbaijani cuisine is so rich in. Below you will find some information about the most popular Azeri dishes, but this is only a drop in the ocean of flavors and aromas in the country – for more, you will have to visit!
Pilaf, or plov as it is called in Azerbaijan, is a dish of the country’s Persian past. Although there are over 40 types of plov in Azerbaijan, it usually consists of three main ingredients: rice, gara (fried meat, dried fruit, fish or egg) and aromatic herbs including saffron. During Russian times, the rice cultivation in Azerbaijan disappeared and the dish started to be served only on special occasions. Today however, with the import of rice and reestablishment of rice paddies in the sub-tropical south of the country, plov has made a comeback on Azeri tables.
Dolma is another of Azeri staple foods. There are four main types of dolma served in Azerbaijan – badimgan dolmasi (stuffed aubergine), bibar dolmasi (stuffed pepper), tomato dolma, and yarpag dolmasi (stuffed vine leaves). Interestingly, in some regions there is also quince dolma. The main ingredients are usually mutton, veal or beef, white onion, rice and herbs such as coriander, rice, mint and dill. Once the vegetables are stuffed they are left to simmer for a few hours. The tomato, pepper and aubergine dolma are usually served together. The meal is always accompanied by cold qatiq (yogurt) and minced garlic.
Thanks to the Caspian Sea and abundance of lakes and rivers Azerbaijani cuisine is also rich in fish dishes, of which the most popular is Baliq Levengi – baked fish with traditional walnut filling, often served on special occasions such as Novruz, the Persian New Year celebrations in March. The filling is made of walnuts, onions, and paste from sour plums (sometimes replaced with fresh pomegranate seeds). Another way of cooking fish is by frying and serving it with narsharab, a thick, brown, slightly acidic pomegranate sauce.
A tour of Azerbaijan’s cuisine couldn’t be completed without a kebab. The streets are full of Turkish doner kiosks but for the real thing you need to go to a good local restaurant. Shashliks are prepared from ground lamb, beef, chicken, vegetables or sturgeon. Meat kebabs are always sprinkled with thinly sliced raw onions and sumac, a traditional Azeri spice of reddish-purple color and lemony taste, and wrapped in paper-thin flatbread, lavash.
When thinking about Azerbaijan, wine is probably one of the last things that come to mind, but this alcoholic drink has always been an integral part of the country’s history. The beginning of the wine production in the area is estimated at 2000BC, which makes it one of the first wine-producing countries in the world. Over the centuries more than 450 types of grapes have been cultivated in Azerbaijan, many of them autochthonous. Unfortunately, in the Soviet era the wine production in Azerbaijan had gone through difficult times – not only the quality of the drink had greatly deteriorated, but also many of the vineyards were destroyed during Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, the Armenian occupation of 20% of the country, and the economic and political disorders in the early 1990s. Luckily these days are long gone, and now a group of viticulture enthusiasts is trying to revive the wine tradition in the country. There is a large wine growing in the north of Azerbaijan, especially in the regions of Ganja, Shamaki and Gabala, however some 20km away from Baku, in the Fireland vineyard, you will find excellent wines that will satisfy even the most demanding taste. To ensure the quality today’s wine growers use state-of-the-art equipment from France and Italy. Currently there are more than 20 grapes grown in Azerbaijan among them Chardonnay, Viogner, Pinot Noir, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi. The locally produced wines are an excellent match for the local foods – Saperavi for lule kebab and Viognier for chicken and local fish dishes.
TEA & SWEETS
Tea and sweets are served in Azerbaijan for any occasion – whether you’re visiting friends or waiting for a business meeting you will certainly be offered a cup of chai that is usually drunk in a pear-shaped glass, armud, which helps retain heat. Tea is always served after the meal, and asking for a ‘cup’ before eating might stir a bit of controversy! The experience wouldn’t be quite the same without something sweet, so tea is usually accompanied by varenye, a very sweet preserve containing whole fruit. Apart from traditional flavors, such as cherry, fig or strawberry, you will find as well watermelon, olive, tomato or nut. The most popular local sweet is pahlava, a diamond-shaped pastry with layers of nuts, and halva. There are two types of halva in Azerbaijan – one is a moist, liquidy sweet made from butter, sugar and flour while the other is solid and prepared from nuts or sesame seeds.
This is just a tiny sample of what you can expect from Azeri cuisine – there are also 30 types of soups, a wide variety of bread, dumplings, turnovers, meat and vegetable dishes, cheese and more. The country’s cuisine has evolved a lot over the last 100 years due to the Soviet influence and today along the old style traditional Azeri foods you will find Russian stuffed cabbage (dolme kalam), stolichnaya salad (shredded chicken, carrots, potatoes, peas, and mayonnaise), vinaigrette salad or cakes, which are served during birthday celebrations or at parties instead of/along with pahlava. We hope this little tour of Azerbaijan’s cuisine has aroused some appetite to find out more and you will join us for a journey of discovery of local flavors.
See these links for more information and recipes: