I’ve made it to my last ‘A’ country! I wasn’t sure what food from Azerbaijan would be like but I was eager to find out.
Azerbaijan is located on the European/Asian border and is sometimes classified as part of one continent, sometimes the other. It is often associated with the Middle East, though isn’t technically a Middle Eastern country.
The region that is now Azerbaijan has been inhabited since the Stone Age, though for a long time it was just a part of various empires, rather than being recognized as a country on its own. Azerbaijan experienced a brief period of independence from the Russian Empire after World War I. However, the country was forcibly taken in by the Soviet Union only a few years later. This is largely because the Soviets needed Azerbaijan’s large supply of oil.
Finally, in 1991, only a couple of months before the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist, Azerbaijan declared independence. Azerbaijan has experienced many problems since then, between conflict with Armenia and a military insurrection in 1993, leading to their current government.
Azerbaijan is a developing country though has a high rate of economic development and literacy and a low unemployment rate. Unfortunately, the current government has been accused of authoritarian leadership, causing the country’s human rights record to decline.
What Do People Eat in Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijani cuisine does resemble that of many Middle Eastern countries. It includes a lot of beef, lamb, and game, though fish and poultry are pretty common too. Camel meat used to be popular, though not so much nowadays.
Dishes usually feature a wide range of spices and fresh herbs, and saffron is especially common. This may be because saffron is grown on the Absheron Peninsula, which is located in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani dishes also feature plenty of vegetables, with eggplant and tomato being prominent. Rice and wheat flour seem to be the most commonly consumed starches.
Like in Middle Eastern countries, yogurt is a common condiment. I think I’ve said this somewhere before but I always think this makes sense, because so much of the food is heavily spiced and the yogurt provides a nice refreshing contrast.
What I Made
- Soyutma (Lamb Shank in Broth)
- Mangal Salad (Roasted Vegetables)
- Qutab (Stuffed Flatbread)
- Yarpaq Dolmasi (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
- Lamb Plov (Lamb and Rice Pilaf)
- Sharbat (Azerbaijani Lemonade)
Scroll down to read about other popular Azerbaijani dishes I didn’t make!
Soyutma (Lamb Shank in Broth)
Okay, so I know this doesn’t look like much, and technically, at least in terms of ingredients, it’s not. But believe me when I tell you it tasted amazing. Soyutma means ‘long and slow-cooked meat’ and it can be made with lamb or chicken. It is often described as containing meat, onion, and tomato, with a dollop of sour cream, but the version I made was much more simple.
I followed this recipe from Flavors of Baku because it seemed authentic. All you do is put a lamb shank (or multiple shanks depending on how many people you’re feeding) in some water with an onion and salt. You cook it until the lamb is falling off the bone. You can optionally add a potato towards the end, but I was serving this with mangal salad (next) so I didn’t. I did add the optional pinch of saffron though, and simmered for about twenty minutes more before serving. There was meant to be a garlicky yogurt to serve with this but I kind of forgot about it. Luckily, this was still delicious, even though it’s one of the ugliest dishes I’ve made so far.
I finally went to the nearest Middle Eastern grocery store to find lamb shanks, as well as a couple of other things for upcoming weeks. This was a really big lamb shank, so I got two meals out of it.
Mangal Salad (Roasted Vegetables)
Mangal salad is made from eggplants, tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions. The vegetables are grilled and then chopped and tossed together, along with garlic, olive oil, and fresh herbs.
I decided to follow the recipe from The Foreign Fork. First I had to broil eggplant, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Then I chopped them up and mixed them with raw red onion, mushrooms cooked with garlic and olive oil, toasted almonds, and cilantro. I was supposed to put the salad in the fridge to cool down before serving, but I let it sit out for about 10 minutes instead, so it was lukewarm. I ate it with the soyutma, above, and some leftover Armenian flatbread.
I was going to post a photo of the salad in a bowl but… it honestly just didn’t look very appetizing. And I can’t say I loved the taste either, even when I ate the leftovers chilled. I think I just don’t like cold eggplant. I don’t love mushrooms, but decided to include them in this recipe because they would be mixed with a bunch of other things, and they were fine. It’s just the cold eggplant I didn’t like. But that’s just me; this is a popular dish in Azerbaijan.
Qutab (Stuffed Flatbread)
These are yet another version of a filled flatbread. I have to admit, I love recipes like this, and so I have a tendency to immediately add them to my list of things to make when I see them.
Qutab can be filled with a range of ingredients, but I followed the recipe from My Cooking Journey which included onion, green onion, mint, cilantro, red pepper flakes, and paneer (I used feta instead). These were delicious but I felt there was not enough filling for the amount of dough. I halved the recipe but ended up only getting enough filling for two flatbreads instead of four. Still, I included the recipe here because the filling was really good. The feta may have been what made it particularly good, but I’m sure it would be delicious with paneer too.
Yarpaq Dolmasi (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
Here is something I knew I would be making at least once during this challenge: stuffed grape leaves. In most places in the Middle East, they are known as dolma, while in Greece, they are dolmades. The filling differs depending on where you get them, but rice and meat are common.
These Azerbaijani dolmasi are different from those in other countries because they are much smaller. Dolma usually come in a cigar shape, but the ones I made are tiny (or, at least, most of them are).
I followed an excellent recipe from AZ Cookbook which included a video, something I found particularly useful. I filled my vine leaves with rice, ground beef, onion, cilantro, dill, and mint. It took much longer than expected to roll them all. I had given myself extra time since I knew it wasn’t going to go quickly, but it still wasn’t quite enough. Luckily, I found they cooked through a bit sooner than the time specified in the recipe. I wish the stated prep time was as generous—only the most experienced dolma-maker is going to get these assembled in 15 minutes!
These dolmasi tasted pretty good, especially with the yogurt sauce. They are meant to be served warm, but I actually liked the leftovers cold out of the fridge. Up until this point I had only ever had Greek dolmades before, and I always had those cold. So I thought, why not try these cold too? I’m glad I did!
Lamb Plov (Lamb and Rice Pilaf)
Plov is considered Azerbaijan’s national dish, and is usually eaten on special occasions. It generally consists of rice, lamb, or chicken, and dried fruit, but there are many different versions. I liked the look of this lamb plov from SBS, so that’s what I went with.
You start by browning some lamb meat. Then you cook garlic, carrots and onions, and add cumin, dried apricots, chestnuts and water. My supermarket used to have vacuum packed chestnuts but, of course, when I wanted to buy them, they weren’t there. So I ended up just omitting the nuts altogether. The recipe never tells you to return the lamb to the saucepan (you remove it after browning) so I added it back in at this point and cooked until it was tender.
The rice is made separately, which may or may not be traditional. I cheated and used my rice cooker. I used a mix of beef stock and water for the liquid and added the saffron, stirred, and started cooking. The rice came out really well, though the saffron colored some areas strongly, where it stuck, while some of the rice was still kind of white. I remedied this a little by stirring after the rice was cooked. It tasted good, so I wasn’t too worried.
To serve, just put some rice on a plate, top with the lamb mixture, and sprinkle with parsley. Overall, this was good, but I think it was a little sweeter than I prefer my main dishes to be.
Sharbat (Azerbaijani Lemonade)
My final ‘dish’ is a simple Azerbaijani lemonade. There are actually many versions of sharbat across the Middle East and surrounding areas, and it looks like it may have originated in Iran. But I don’t mind making it again when I get there if necessary because I love lemonade.
I made this by loosely following the recipe from 196 Flavors. I used all the same ingredients but I didn’t want to get out my mortar and pestle to grind a few threads of saffron. Instead, I just added the saffron threads to the hot sugar water with the coriander seeds and left them there while the mixture cooled.
The end result was not overwhelmingly lemony, even though I added a little extra lemon juice. You could just taste that there was a little something else going on. I’m getting good at picking up on the flavor of saffron now, but I’m not sure I could detect the coriander. Regardless of whether the coriander was doing much, I did enjoy this drink a lot and look forward to making something like it whenever it next pops up!
Other Popular Azerbaijani Dishes
- Dushbara – small meat-filled dumplings cooked in lamb broth. Traditionally, every Azerbaijani woman should be able to make this dish, and the smaller the dumplings, the better.
- Lavangi – a whole fish or chicken that is stuffed with walnuts, dried fruit, and onions and baked.
- Kufta-bozbash – a soup made by cooking large meatballs in a simple broth with chickpeas and potatoes. The meatballs are each formed around a piece of dried fruit, such as a date, cherry, or plum.
- Badambura – a sweet, flaky pastry filled with almonds, sugar, and spices, especially cardamom.
- Shirin chorek – a sweet bread made with milk rather than water, and colored yellow with turmeric. This was traditionally baked for special holidays, but nowadays it is enjoyed more frequently, often with tea.
I found food from Azerbaijan to be delicious for the most part, though I really didn’t care for the mangal salad. I think my favorite dish was the ugliest: the soyutma. It was just really good. The qutab were up there too; I think they might be my favorite of the stuffed flatbreads I have made so far in this challenge.
Next week, I will be cooking food from the first ‘B’ country, The Bahamas!