If you’re looking for a short-haul foodie destination that has not yet been discovered by hordes of hungry tourists, head to Azerbaijan.
This intriguing country sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and its cuisine will impress and surprise you with its distinctive blend of Turkish, Iranian, Georgian, and Russian flavours.
Led by local guide Alish Ismayilov, I recently ate my way around the country over the course of a long weekend. We started in the coastal capital of Baku, with its UNESCO-listed ruins and sleek 21st-century architecture, before going further afield to rural villages backed by the soaring Greater Caucasus Mountains.
Four days is just enough time to get a taste of the country’s rich culinary culture. You certainly can’t eat everything, but follow the tips below and you’ll be off to a good start.
Breakfast in Azerbaijan is an important affair. Wherever you find yourself in the country, you’ll soon realise that the star of the show is always a straight-out-of-the-oven slab of tandoor-baked bread, around which a variety of components orbit.
Spreads usually include bowls of honeycomb, a white goat’s cheese that tastes a bit like feta, smoked cheese, sour cream, olives, butter and berries. Kuku, a frittata-style omelette that’s packed with herbs, is generally served in a skillet, as is pomidor-yumurta or scrambled eggs
If you visit the mountain region, head to Gabala Khanlar restaurant in the morning. There, a trio of lovely ladies called Gulsare, Natavan and Zulhujja make some of the crispiest, golden flatbreads from scratch.
On the Go
The ultimate street food has to be qutab (pancakes), which are always savoury and eaten with a salty yoghurt sauce and a sprinkling of tangy sumac. They’re wafer thin, shaped like half-moons and lightly stuffed with an aromatic minced lamb mixture, herby greens (spinach, coriander, dill, mint, spring onions and many more), sweet pumpkin or melted cheese. These ubiquitous snacks work well at any meal and, as I found, are simple enough to make. I recommend taking a masterclass with Gular at the banquet-style restaurant, next to Baku’s ancient Ateshgah or ‘Fire Temple’ – within 15 minutes, you’ll be rolling, filling and frying your own qutab over a piping hot saj.
Perhaps one of the most endearing elements of Azerbaijan’s culinary culture is its tea-drinking rituals. Whether I was in an Azeri home, at a café in Baku’s old city, or at a pitstop overlooking the undulating Caucasus Mountains, a pear-shaped glass of perfumed black çay was always popped in front of me.
The tea tends to be brewed in a samovar, over a wood fire, which leaves a sensational smoky aroma and it’s always served hot and strong. Alish’s theory is that “the stronger you take your tea, the more intelligent you are”.
An assortment of healing herbs (sage, oregano), spices like cinnamon, dried flower petals or rose water can be added to the black tea, with most local women guarding their secret infusions
I also learnt that it’s traditional to bite into a sugar cube before sipping your tea through these lumps of sweetness. The reason? In medieval times, paranoid rulers lived in fear of being poisoned and it was believed that sugar would react to any contaminated water.
If you’re wondering how many cups of tea is too many, this Azeri saying, translated by Alish, has the answer: “One is the rule; two is good for your health; you can’t stop at three; and four is just right. Should you go over five cups, well, you may as well have 15.”
Tea isn’t poured without murabba – preserves and compotes – being present. Azeri women pride themselves on their delicious conserved concoctions, made from just about anything that’s in season – from walnuts to watermelons, aubergines to apricots.
I’d travel back to the country simply to have another spoonful of the white cherry compote made by Alish’s mother Saida (more on her delicious food later). This will be necessary, when I run out of the jar of intoxicatingly fragrant rose petal jam that was gifted to me by Araz Manafli, a charming waiter whom I met at the Old Tea House in the village of Lahic. His mother made it, and he swears it’s good for the heart.
TOP TIP The aforementioned village of Lahic is definitely worth a day trip. This 2,000-year-old settlement clings to the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains and, in addition to the delightful Old Tea House, it’s famous locally for its Persian-based dialect and the talented coppersmiths that work there. Get in touch with local tour guide Kamal Aliyev (Tel: +994 51 817 2100) – if you’re lucky, his wife Nuriyye will make you a lamb and chestnut pilaf, bejewelled with pomegranate seeds.
There are apparently more than 20 different types of dolma in Azerbaijan. Depending on the season and region, these rolled vine or cabbage leaf snacks (popular across the Levant) are stuffed with an assortment of ingredients and then baked or steamed. You can order them at many local restaurants, but in the beautiful hilltop village of Basqal, a centuries-old settlement that is undergoing a restoration led by Fariz Khalilli, you have to try the local delicacy:
For these, beech tree leaves (which are smaller and have a more intense flavour than vine leaves) are stuffed with minced meat, rolled into thimble-shapes and left to cook in their own juices. They’re moreish enough to binge on as you might popcorn at a cinema.
I was invited into the home of Raziya and Nizami Mammadov in Basqal for a delicious lunch where bowls brimming with her famous pip dolma sat alongside neon-pink watermelon chunks, creamy potato salad with dill (influenced by the country’s Soviet past), and another Azeri specialty: ‘screaming stew’.
Yes, it may sound somewhat perilous, but chigirtma, which translates to ‘screaming’, is a spicy stew for which onions, egg, spices, chicken and/or mutton pieces are fried in oil before stock is added and the dish is left to simmer. I didn’t see Raziya make her screaming stew, which had a lovely lemony twist, but Alish explained that the dish is so called because of the sounds that the chicken or meat makes when it hits the hot oil.
On the Grill
The Azeri take on kebabs sees chefs and home cooks thread chicken pieces, liver, beef strips, loin chops and mouth-watering minced lamb onto long silver skewers, flame-grilling the meat over coals in a mangal.
After a visit to Azerbaijan, Alexandre Dumas wrote about them in The Three Musketeers, saying: “Any selfish person would keep this recipe secret – but I will provide you, dear reader, with the recipe of kebab: follow it and you will be thanking me for this gift forever.”
They are indeed good, but it was in the picturesque town of Gabala, amid a collection of road-side, al-fresco eateries surrounded by forest that I found something really special: dasharasi kebab, which translates literally as “kebab between stones”.
Azeri shepherds invented this dish – living high in the mountains meant finding innovative ways to cook lamb and one solution was to sear it in between two hot, weathered stones.
Yakub Shefiyev and his father Fazil are among the few locals who still cook this age-old delicacy, serving it at their riverside restaurant, Gulluce Ailevi Istirahet Merkezi (find Yakub on Instagram for directions: @shefizade_yaqub).
Visitors can watch the cooking process in the open-air kitchen. Following traditional methods, Yakub starts by frying pieces of sheep tail fat over a big, black stone. Chunks of fresh lamb – so flavourful that no seasoning is necessary – sizzle alongside the fat before he places sliced potatoes, peppers and aubergines onto the ‘grill’. An already-heated second stone goes on top of the ingredients and, after 20 minutes, a heady, meaty meal is ready to eat.
More about Mangal
Alongside meat, seasonal vegetables are often barbecued, too. And a summer vegetable dish that’s deserving of attention is the mangal salad.
Similar to a caponata, the main ingredients are aubergines, capsicums and tomatoes that are charred over hot coals, peeled, and chopped into cubes. They’re then mixed with chopped red onions, coriander, dill, olive oil, salt and pepper to make a smoky, sweet salad.
When I first met Alish over lunch in Baku, he claimed his mother’s version is the best. At the
end of my trip, I joined his family for a meal under the pomegranate and olive trees in his grandparents’ garden and sampled her famed dish. Like her white cherry jam mentioned earlier, it has to have been one of the most memorable foods I savoured in Azerbaijan.
Should you ever find yourself in Baku, I hope you meet Alish. Chances are, you’ll be lucky enough to be invited to dine with his family, who, like everyone I met in this beautiful country, embody an inherent and genuine spirit of hospitality.
To arrange a group or private tour in Azerbaijan, get in touch with Baku Sightseeing. Ask for Alish Ismayilov, if he’s available. Mention Spinneys magazine and receive a 10% discount on any tour booked from 1 September – 31 December, 2019.
WHERE TO STAY
For sumptuous accommodation, world-class restaurants, a sky-lit pool and a penthouse spa and fitness centre, head to the Beaux-Arts-style Four Seasons Hotel, which holds a stately position on a tree-lined boulevard in the heart of central Baku.
Alternatively, if you’re after spectacular views of the Caspian Sea and the chance to stay in the city’s famed, flickering Flame Towers, book a room at the luxurious Fairmont.
Meanwhile, local Azerbaijani brand Qafqaz Hotels & Resorts offers a variety of properties in Baku and further afield in Gabala. Qafqaz Sahil Baku Hotel is set near the coast, in the centre of Baku White City – a major urban redevelopment project. The Qafqaz Resort Hotel Gabala is surrounded by forest and is set against the backdrop of the Great Caucasus Mountains. Its sprawling spa complex is the size of a small village and there’s an on-site cinema and
WHEN IN BAKU…
Book a table at Sumakh – this old-time favourite restaurant serves contemporary versions of classic Azeri dishes. Order the tart, green cherry plum salad, which drips in pomegranate molasses; the chef’s specialty – a simple beef and tomato dish that sizzles with flavour; and a refreshing iced tarragon lemonade to wash it all down.
Lose yourself in the Icheri Sheher, or Old City – it’s a cobblestoned labyrinth of ancient mosques, palaces and hammams. In the area’s quiet courtyards, watch elderly gentlemen play nard (a board game similar to backgammon) under the shade of cypress trees. You can queue for qutab, or fresh bread, baked in hot clay ovens; or pull up a chair at a café for shisha and tea.
Marvel at the swooping, shiny white curves of the Heydar Aliyev Centre – named after a former president of Azerbaijan, this is one of architect Zaha Hadid’s most breathtaking buildings. The fantastical space houses art exhibitions, an ethnographic museum and a collection of Aliyev’s vintage cars.
Visit Baku’s Yasil Bazaar early in the morning – you’ll find fruit and vegetable vendors selling baskets of red, yellow and white cherries; piles of plump, juicy peaches; fresh hazelnuts; stacks of shallots; punnets of rosy red tomatoes; bags of spices such as sumac in every shade, from purple to burgundy; and Azeri tea, of course.
Surrounding the market’s central hall are shops stacked to the rafters with shelves of pickles, honey and preserves, and don’t miss the endless array of diamond-shaped baklava and boxes of baked treats.