Pop the kettle on – tea drinking tradition in Azerbaijan

As the popular local saying goes –  “Çay nədir, say nədir”, which can be translated as ”when you drink tea you don’t count the cups”. Chai, as the beverage is called locally, is an essential part of Azerbaijani culture and no social event can do without a few cups of a fresh brew.

tea

Tea accompanied by typical Azerbaijani sweets – pahlava and shekerbura. Source: Steve@ynfah at pinterest.

How to have it

Tea is usually drunk hot in pear-shaped glasses and can be topped up with a slice of lemon  or a sugar lump, never with milk. Interestingly, you will often see people putting a sugar cube into their mouth and sipping tea through it. Apparently, this habit has its roots in the middle ages when rulers, afraid to be poisoned by their enemies, believed that any malicious substances will react to sugar. Tea is very often mixed with thyme, mint or rose-water and accompanied by jams (varene), cookies, candies or dry fruit.

azer170

Tea is drunk in Azerbaijan anytime and anywhere. A few tables set up in the forest and a samovar make a field ”chaikhana” (teahouse). Khanbulan Lake, Lankaran region. Source: azerb.net

Tea plantations

Chai in Azerbaijan is not only drunk in copious quantities but also cultivated.

tea plantation

Tea plantation in Lankaran region. Source: Kids Britannica

The beverage has been enjoyed in the country for centuries but the idea of tea growing was first raised only in 1880s, when some of the local farmers realized that the combination of warm and humid climate, the Caspian Sea, rich vegetation and the Talysh mountains create favorable conditions  for cultivation. The development of tea industry on a full-blown scale began in late 1930s. Over the following years tea growing had been continuously intensified and improved. Unfortunately, the socio-political events that took place in 1988-1994 resulted in a major slowdown of the industry. However, recently the efforts have been made to revive the large-scale tea production in the country. Today tea is produced mainly in the south-eastern regions of the country including the districts of  Lankaran, Astara, Lerik, Masalli, Yardimli and Jalilabad.

Where to drink tea in Baku

All over the city you will find lots of places serving quality tea. The most atmospheric ones are located in the Old Town, and among them are Kishmish Club and Qiz Qalasi Tea House. The first one is located in a basement on Kichik Qala Street and serves tea accompanied by dry fruit and nuts (kishmish means raisin).

Baku_Drink_Kishmish_1

Kishmish Baku. Source: Hg2 Baku

The latter one is situated in a lovely garden just next to the Maiden Tower (Qiz Qalasi). Worth visiting especially in the summer time.

qiz qalasi

Source: thetravelmanor.com

Useful links:

The flavours of Azerbaijan

Tea growing in Azerbaijan: the present and prospects by Visions of Azerbaijan.

Ancient traditions of tea drinking in Azerbaijan. Trend.az

Food and drink in Azerbaijan World Travel Guide

Unknown Azerbaijan…Tea at Sheki Blog

Qabala Jam Festival

Expat Edna – How to drink tea with jam in Azerbaijan

Hirkan National Park and Lerik – exploring the land of Talysh

Late summer and early autumn are perfect seasons to venture to the subtropical areas of southeastern Azerbaijan. The drop in temperatures, which can easily reach over 40’C in the peak of the summer, and lower humidity allow to make the most of the regions’ unique nature. Whether you’re into outdoor activities such as hiking in the mountains or fishing, or just want to chill on the beach, here you will certainly find something for yourself.

Lerik, Azerbaijan

Lerik. Source: wikimedia commons

Hirkan National Park

Hirkan National Park, located on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the south-east Azerbaijan, was established in 2004 and is one of the most beautiful nature spots in the country. The name of the park, Hirkan, is derived from the ancient name of the Caspian Sea and a tribe that used to inhabit the area. The park encircles fragment of the Talysh mountains that stretch to northwestern Iran and are famous for its pristine nature and breathtaking landscapes. The area is very rich in animal and plant species. According to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, there are 150 kinds of trees and shrubs in the Hirkan forest, of which 36 are endemic. While the  mountains don’t exceed 1000m in height, they are distinguished by original vegetation cover. Forest in the lower part is predominantly composed of chestnut-leaved oak, ironwood, hornbeam, black locust, Hirkan fig and Caucasian persimmon. With the increase of altitude ironwood and chestnut-leaved oak decline and get replaced with beech forests. The richness and diversity of the local flora provides an ultimate environment for many animal species, among them Persian leopard (called as well Caucasian leopard), lynx, wild cat, badger, wild boar, roe deer, sika deer and raccoon.

persian leopard

Caucasian leopard. Source: treknature.com

Lankaran tea

The humid and warm subtropical climate of the region provides a perfect condition for tea growing. When traveling around the area you will surely encounter tea plantations and factories – some of them allow visitors but call in advance to avoid disappointment. Along the main road you will see as well many people selling local tea, which is often cheaper and of better quality than the one available in shops.

tea plantations

Lankaran tea plantation. Source: azregionaldevelopment.az

Talysh community

The region is inhabited by Talysh people, an ethnic group of Iranian origin, indigenous to the area, which stretches all the way to Iran. Anthropologically they belong to the Balkan-Caucasian type of the European race and speak their own language that belongs to the group of the Northwestern Iranian languages. Interestingly, the Talysh elder are among the oldest in the world – many of them have surpassed the age of 110.

talysh elder

Talysh elder. Source: Azer.az

Some practical information

Hirkan National Park

The entrance to Hirkan National Park is situated on the main road leading from Baku to Astara, more or less half way between Lankaran and Astara. Once you’re in the park, you will see lots of little ”tea houses” (these usually consist of a samovar and a few plastic tables set up in the forest), which serve delicious local tea mixed with thyme.

hirkan lake 2

Khanbulachay Reservoir

Khanbulachay Reservoir

Shortly after the entrance to the park you will find a descent leading to the Khanbulachay Reservoir – a definite must see. It’s a beautiful artificial lake created in mid-1970s for irrigation purposes. Ask the locals for advice on hiking routes. There are some beautiful walks in the forest just left from the first human settlements you will encounter on your right side after entering the park. The ladies living there for a few Manat will be happy to serve you tea, compot and some nibbles.

Accommodation

Along the way to Lerik there are lots of guest houses where you are able to rent a small house with a bathroom. The houses are usually situated along the river in the forest. In most cases they serve meals (breakfast, lunch or/and dinner). They are a good base for hikes or trips to the surrounding villages.

Useful links:

An article on the longevity of Talish people by Azerbaijan International 

Hirkan National Park – The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of the Republic of Azerbaijan

The visions of Azerbaijan: Hirkan, home to the leopard


Eating Baku – a guide to the city’s best restaurants

Whether you travel on a budget or have got some extra cash to splash, below you will find a brief introduction to the best of Baku’s restaurants. This is just a short list, which will be updated and expanded in the future to ensure you always get the ultimate dining experience.

BUDGET

Araz –  one of these places where even a tourist will feel like a local. Araz cafe is very popular with young foreigners, especially with the ”hippy” expats or travelers on a tighter budget. It offers a good choice of both Azeri and international foods, decent wine and beer. Recommended whether you just want to drink some tea or spend a few hours sipping beer with friends. Great location for every weather but especially pleasant in the summer when you can sit in the garden overlooking the Fountain Square. Open 24/7.

Darya Fish House – this large restaurant is situated in the fishing village just of the Bibi Heybat Mosque. You can eat here a well prepared local fish accompanied by traditional Azerbaijani starters while looking over the Caspian Sea. Tasty and cheap.

Imereti – arguably the best Georgian restaurant in Baku. It offers a great choice of typical Georgian food, and decent wine too.  On hg2 Baku you will find the old address but the restaurant was moved to 6 Rasul Rza a while ago.

imereti

Cabbage with nuts by Imereti FB

Cudo Pecka – a chain of bakeries located around the city offering a variety of sweet and savoury Azeri pastries including pahlava and qutabs. There’s one in Azerbaijan Avenue, very close to the entrance to the Old Town, and another next to Nizami metro station.

In Baku you will find as well lots of shaurma places where you can eat for about 2AZN, well 3AZN if you top it up with ayran. Also, there are plenty of places offering local delicacies such as meat and vegetable qutabs or pirazhki filled with potatoes, which are sold for about 20-30 kapik/piece. Family bakeries often sell as well pastries resembling Georgian khachapuri. Look for those in the back streets of Targova (there’s, for example, a small bakery on Rasul Rza Street; follow the street up north moving away from Targova).

qutabs

Qutabs. Source: flavorsofbaku.com

MEDIUM

Tosca Cafe & Enoteca – one of the most popular Italian restaurants in Baku. Tasty Italian food in the beautiful setting of the Baku Boulevard.

Sultan Inn – there are a couple of them in Baku but try the one in the Old Town, located on top of the Sultan Inn boutique hotel – it has a little terrace overlooking the Caspian Sea. Very good Azeri food and wine.

Sumakh – located a bit further away from the city center but definitely worth the extra effort – excellent Azeri food in a modern interior.

sumakh restaurant yenimemar.az

Sumakh restaurant

Fayton – Great choice of traditional Azeri dishes. Interesting, slightly elegant but very warm and cozy interior with lots of traditional objects including music instruments, samovars and carpets. Great place for an autumn or winter lunch/dinner. Might get a bit loud when there’s live music.

Sahil – situated one floor above Tosca. Very good Azeri restaurant with beautiful  views over the sea and the boulevard.

STEEP

Kaspia – at the Four Seasons Hotel – delicious grill and sea food from the Caspian Sea and not only.

kaspia

Kaspia, Four Seasons Hotel

Scalini – situated in front of the Hyatt hotel, Scalini offers a good choice of Italian dishes, including fresh pasta, decent pizza and… octopus carpaccio – to name a few. In the adjacent building there’s Scalini Lounge where, for a change, you can stop for the English fry up or Yorkshire pie.

Chinar – a very fancy place next to Baku’s Funicular. They serve Asian cuisine (Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Singaporean) and offer a great choice of cocktails, also non-alcoholic. On the weekends it’s advisable to book in advance. On Friday and Saturday evenings there’s usually a DJ playing electronic lounge music.

Chinar baku3d.az

Chinar by baku3d.az

OroNero – this restaurant, located in the Marriott Absheron hotel, offers tasty modern Italian food. We recommend to choose a table on the spacious terrace overlooking the Boulevard.

Art Garden – good Azeri food in the beautiful setting of the Old Town.

Art Graden

Art Garden, Baku

UNIQUE DINING EXPERIENCE

Mugham Club – called by the Hg2 Baku  ”one of the world’s most atmospheric restaurants”. The restaurant is situated in a two storey caravanserai in the Old Town and offers a unique dining with live Azeri music and dances.  A truly beautiful interior.

Mugham Club by hg2 Baku

Mugham Club by hg2 Baku

Besh Barmag – the mythical Five Finger Mountain

Besh Barmag is a 382m high hill situated along the Quba highway, just over one hour drive north-west from Baku, overlooking the Khizi Rayon and the Caspian Sea. It used to serve as a natural fortress protecting caravans traveling along the Silk Way route, and today it’s a popular tourist and pilgrimage destination.

Besh Barmaq

by Etibar Jafarov

Sacred mountain

Besh Barmag is a holly place and important pilgrimage site for people from all over Azerbaijan. At the foothill of the mountain there is a mosque where many vehicles stop to donate money, and on the way to the top there is another holly place where for a small donation pilgrims receive a personal blessing usually performed by whispering prayers and having their shoulders touched a few times with a stone. Most of the pilgrims are women who come to the shrine to ask the pre-Islamic deities for blessings for their families. On a few trees that grow along the path leading to the top tourists will see colorful stripes of cloth tied to its branches signifying prayers or wishes of the pilgrims, a common practice across Central Asia.

Mosque, Besh Barmag. Image by Etibar Jafarov

Mosque, Besh Barmag. Image by Etibar Jafarov

During the visit pilgrims gather in the picnic area close to the peak where they share tea and food. Sometimes the pilgrimage is celebrated by ritual lamb/sheep slaughter – an act meant to ensure God’s protection and blessing – which is later cooked over open fire.  This ritual is still common in rural areas of Azerbaijan.

Besh Barmag. Source: wieland.wordpress.com

Besh Barmag. Source: wieland.wordpress.com

Getting to the top

Besh Barmag  is particularly interesting on religious holidays, especially during Ramazan, when increased numbers of pilgrims visit the site. However, be prepared that on these occasions the site gets very crowded and the climb to the top might take more time than usual. Also, the path leading to the top of the rock consists of narrow and slippery stairs and ladders so make sure to wear appropriate shoes and avoid going there on rainy days.

Fragment of the path leading to the top. Source: http://outofthefryingpanhendo.blogspot.com/

Fragment of the path leading to the top. Source:http://outofthefryingpanhendo.blogspot.com/

Useful links:

1000 amazing places blogspot

 

 

Dancing the night out – clubs in Baku

Besides food and dining (more about it in our future post), music and entertainment also make the nightlife scene of Baku.  New clubs  and lounges have been popping out like mushrooms and today you won’t have any problems in finding a good place to spend a memorable night out. Below are a few of the most popular and largest venues in the capital.

Clubs

Pasifico Lounge & Grill

Pacifico Lounge & Grill

Pasifico, located on the boulevard, very close to the Park Bulvar shopping center, is among the most popular party venues in the city. It’s modern, it’s chic and sought-after by many locals and expats. They serve a wide variety of alcoholic drinks and a choice of Latin American dishes such as ceviche or rodizio style barbecue. There is also a large outdoor terrace with a view over the Caspian Sea open for dancing and dining. Remember to dress smartly as otherwise you might be turned down at the entrance.

Music: A combination of electro and ”mixed up” popular radio hits; guest DJs

Eleven

Eleven resto

A roof top restaurant and club at Park Inn hotel. They offer a good choice of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and tasty food including sushi. Excellent views. On the weekends there are often concerts of popular local singers signing a wide variety of songs from Frank Sinatra to Russian and Turkish pop. Dress smart.

Music: popular radio hits; live music by local singers

Opera Sky

opera sky terrace

Situated on the 29th floor of Azure Shopping Center Opera Sky offers some of the best views over the city. In June they also opened a spacious terrace. Good food & wide choice of drinks.

Music: popular radio hits; live performances; guest DJs

The Public

A newly opened venue. Located a  10 minutes walk from the Fountain Square, just on the beginning of Nizami Street.  A paradise for fans of ”real” electronic music.

Music: electro by resident and guest DJs.

Hezz Club & Restaurant

hezz

A well established Baku club. There is also a restaurant with a sushi bar and a choice of European dishes.

Music: a bit of everything – popular radio hits as well as electronic music.

Something different

Baku Jazz Center

jazz

Not many people know that Bakuvians love jazz and every autumn the city organizes Baku International Jazz Festival, at which perform some of the best local as well as international jazz artists. Throughout the year, however, you can also enjoy live jazz concerts at the Jazz Center.

The Room

A small wine bar just off the Fountain Square offering a great variety of both local and international wines. Very popular with local expats. On Wednesdays they host Italian aperitivo evenings with free mediterranean buffet and spritz. The atmosphere is very relaxed and friendly, and you will quickly get acquainted with most of the people in the room. After a few drinks there might be a spontaneous dancing!

DOs & DON’Ts – customs and traditions in Azerbaijan

Like every country, Azerbaijan has its own set of customs and traditions. Being aware of them will definitely make traveling to the country more effective and will spare visitors any potential misunderstandings with the locals. In this post you will find some brief information about the most common and interesting local habits but don’t be too stressed about remembering all of them – foreigners will usually be cut some slack!

Greeting 

Handshake

manwomen

When introducing yourself to local women keep in mind that Azerbaijan is a Muslim country and it might be considered inappropriate for men to shake hands with ladies. This applies especially to the countryside where society is usually more conservative than in Baku. Handshake rules in business environment are usually much more relaxed but – just in case – always wait for your female companion to stretch her hand first.

Also, never shake hands across a doorway as it’s considered bad luck!

Kissing on the cheek

Source: Cora Poage

Source: Cora Poage

As a rule, in Azerbaijan men don’t greet their female friends with a kiss on the cheek. Again, be especially careful about it when in the countryside as you might upset the family of the girl.

On the other hand, you will often see men greeting each other in this way – this is seen as normal.

Public displays of affection

Azeris are a fairly progressive Muslim society, yet still public displays of affection are considered inappropriate, even in the center of Baku, so don’t be surprised if  you get scolded by a local when ”smooching” your other half on the street.

Fashion

Azeris are quite liberal when it comes to clothing. Especially in the capital, you will notice girls wearing a lot of make-up, short skirts and ultra high heels. People usually care about their appearances a lot and they always make sure that their outfit, shoes included, is squeaky-clean. In  a bad weather you will often see men and women pulling out their cleaning rags to wipe their shoes off the mud.

Shorts

shorts

According to Islam, the modesty requires men to cover their legs thus shorts aren’t well received. However, as everything in the country, this is also changing very fast. Only a few years ago wearing bermudas in public places was seen as offensive. Today however, lots of young Azeri men choose this  garment on hot summer days when temperatures can easily hit 40’C. Still, try to avoid it in the countryside.

Food

Sharing

Local people will always offer to share their food with you and you are supposed to do the same, even if you know that the answer will be negative.

Sacred Bread

tandir

When walking around Azerbaijan’s cities and villages you will often see stale bread hanging in the plastic bags on a tree or piled up somewhere high. Azeris never throw away bread to the rubbish bin as it’s considered offensive towards those who go around hungry.

Personal questions

People in Azerbaijan will be interested in your personal life so be ready to get asked lots of direct questions about yourself even from the people you barely know (e.g. regarding age, marital status, children etc). While in some countries it might be considered intrusive, here it is seen as a genuine sign of interest and concern.

Other local customs

Don’t wear shoes in the house – take them off as soon as you enter and you will be offered  a pair of slippers instead.

slippers

Never whistle indoors as it’s bad luck!

Don’t blow your nose in public.

Men should give up their seats to women and older people.

Only man can sit in the taxi next to the driver. Women can afford that only if the driver is a relative.

Useful links:

http://morganstuart2010.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/cultural-customs/

More on cherishing the bread in Azerbaijan