September 2014: The cuisine in Azerbaijan is influenced by neighbouring Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Caucasus region. Fast food chains and international restaurants are readily found in Baku, but in the rest of the country, traditional types of food predominate.
September is a great time to visit if you like the freshest food. Locally-grown vegetables, herbs and fruits are plentiful and full of flavour. There’s everything from pomegranates, watermelons and lemons to peaches, apples, plums and pears to fresh berries.
For breakfast, you’re likely to get a plate of cucumbers and tomatoes, salty white cheese, bread, honey, chay (tea) and possibly some eggs or khash, a soup made with cow’s trotters that simmered all night.
Lunch and dinner are usually preceded by a plate of aromatic green leaves and herbs. Chris and Medjid call it “grass.” Often it includes fresh green onions, chives, basil, parsley, mint, cilantro and dill. There’s always a plate of tomatoes and cucumbers, sometimes brought out whole, sometimes in the form of a salad called choban. Lavash (unleavened flat bread) and tandori bread are always abundant.
In some places, they bring out a tray with a variety of vegetables and condiment options and you pick the ones you want. The rest go back to the kitchen. Maybe you want pickled vegetables, white cheese, plain yoghurt or a Russian-style Olivier salad made with potatoes, eggs, peas, pickles and mayonnaise.
The main part of the meal might involve any of a variety of soups, like my favourite, dushbara (small seasoned lamb dumplings served in broth). There’s also a wide variety of plovs (rice pilaf), which may be served with meat, dried fruits, and herbs. Also popular are grilled kababs or shashlik made from mutton, beef, chicken, fish or seasoned, minced lamb (lyulya). I sometimes requested yogurt (qatik) to go with my lyulya.
Fresh fish (baliq) comes from the Caspian Sea and trout (farel) comes from rivers and inland fish farms. Black caviar, one of Azerbaijan’s most famous delicacies, has become a luxury item. Gone are the days when Chris used to buy it by the kilo.
Even many seasonings are locally produced. There’s salt from Naxҫivan, saffron grown on the Absheron Peninsula, black pepper and sumac. You find sumac on everything.
Black tea is the national beverage, sometimes served with fruit preserves like sweet cherries, sometimes with fresh mint or lemon.
Sweets and fresh fruit are popular dessert options. My favorite was shekerbura, a sweet pie stuffed with nuts and dried fruits.
This only scratches the surface of Azeri cuisine. Much more research will be required on future visits!