Having been to a couple neighbouring countries of Azerbaijan, I conclude that the food of Azerbaijan contains elements of Turkish, Ukrainian, Uzbek, and Russian cuisines. I also see similarities with Iran and Georgian food – which I have tried but I have yet to visit those countries. Being a Muslim country, lamb and mutton are featured widely.
Azerbaijani food is simple and delicious. And each restaurant or someone’s mom will have their own delicious versions. So if you do not like something, try it again at a different place and you may be pleasantly surprised.
These are the food that I tried:
1. Lyula Kebab, which is similar to Turkish kofte. It is grilled minced lamb meat with spices. I drool writing about it. I tried this at Nargiz in Fountain Square in Bak and at Bizim Gabala restaurant in a small town on the way back from Sheki and before we reached Shamakhi. Both versions were delicious – flavorful and juicy.
2. Pilaf, pilaf, pilaf rice! There are so many types of pilafs (plovs) and I did not manage to try a couple of them that I wanted (fijandan plov which js made of chicken and pomegranate sauce and shah plov which pilaf rice wrapped in filo pastry). I tried the traditional pilaf of mutton meat at Fireza restaurant in Fountain Square. The long grain rice is seasoned with loads of butter and saffron. The mutton is cooked with sweet and sour dried fruits. Great mix. Two thumbs up.
3. Antrikot kebab, which is grilled lamb chops. We tried this at a few places and it was to die for. Crispy, aromatic meat properly salted with the crispy and melt-in-your-mouth fat. Yummmmm!
4. Lamb fat in everything and on its own. If the Ukrainians eat salo (chilled thin pork belly fat), the Azerbaijani grill chunks of lamb fat (guyrug kebab) to be eaten with grilled potatoes and grill these chunks of fat together with eggplants to give them flavor.
5. Various dolma of meat wrapped in peppers and grape leaves. Delicious.
6. National bread topped with coker (black seeds) baked in tandoor/clay oven with motal cheese (semi-hard fresh sheep/goat milk cheese) or any other fresh sheep and goat milk cheese, which can be crumbly and soft. The cheese and various vegetables will be served as appetizers. The typical vegetables are tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh dill, fresh mint, and fresh parsley. I love fresh dill with lamb-anything kebabs.
7. Thyme in their cay (tea) prepared in the samovar. Preparing tea in the samovars give the tea a unique taste due to the copper tube used in boiling the water. And the thyme gives it its best aroma. Our driver, Elnur, bought me dried thyme from a little girl in Cek and every time I opened my luggage, I can smell it. Beautiful! Raw walnuts and chestnuts in light syrup were served with the cay at Shirvanshah Restaurant. They also often serve jama with their tea.
8. Qutab with mountain vegetables from a streetside vendor outside Quba. Delicious!!!!!
9. Saj is a method of cooking and serving meat and/or vegetables on cast iron pot. Potatoes maybe added. I like the lamb saj I had at Shirvanshah Restaurant & Museum. It came with fried lavash (thin flat bread).
10. The lamb dumpling soup (“Dushbara”) is similar to Russian/Ukrainian varenikiy. It is delicious for a cold winter night. It was also very tasty because of the broth and the herb. Meat reference in Azerbaijani food usually refers to lamb. In Russia/Ukraine, most likely it would be pork.
11. Shekerbura is a flour based dessert filled with different nuts. It was a bit too sweet for me though. I had it at Qazmaq (Gasmag) in the Old City. I found the skin was a bit doughy.
12. Lavashana is a thin sheet of candy made of different fruits, such as pomegranate and different berries. It is supposed to taste a combination of sweet/sour/salty. Azerbaijani pomegranate is famous and widely produced, but I did not see it at markets. Perhaps it was not the season.
13. Manqal salad is roasted eggplant salad prepared with tomatoes and at times peppers. Fresh and delicious. I enjoyed both manqal I tried at Fireza and Derya Fish House. Picture above.
14. Grilled fish from the Caspian sea. It was fresh. We had the gray mullet. You can eat your grilled fish with sweet pomegranate sauce called Narsharab. I prefer my fish savoury and skipped the sauce (I tried a couple bites with the sauce). We were full from the meal, but it did not satisfy me the way lamb kebabs did! We went to a restaurant called Derya Fish House by the Caspian sea. These restaurants are popular in the summer.
15. Piti Sheki which is a mutton soup special to Sheki. It is always topped off with a chunk of lamb fat. We took ours aside and took out a layer of fat on top of the soup before starting to mix the soup.
I ate way too well in Azerbaijan. I love lamb and cheese and herbs and rice….everything! It is the food of sharing.