As is often the case in my life, before coming to Azerbaijan one of the main things I was excited about was the food. While I will always bitch about the Turks for putting mint in my Tzatziki, I can no longer deny my love of Eastern cuisine.
Staying in Baku and being sucked into the expat bubble, I was getting a little bit frustrated eating steak and sushi every night with all these undiscovered culinary delights on my doorstep (first world problems, I know.) Luckily, over the last few days I’ve had the opportunity to branch out a bit more and sample some local gems.
Here is a guide to some of my favourite Azeri treats.
Don’t tell the Greeks, but Azeri dolma is my new favourite thing. Vine-leaves stuffed with lamb, but with less rice than the Greek ones (or none at all) They’re so subtly aromatic and juicy and the natural (slightly ripe tasting) yoghurt goes perfectly with them. They’re often served in a little pot with a lid on, and dipping fresh bread into said pot is my new second favourite thing.
Even if this leaf-based omelette thing tasted like crap, I’d have to love it with a name like that. Luckily, it tastes amazing and is actually really good for you. More herby than a western omelette, Kuku is traditionally Iranian, and can also be made with potatoes or chicken. You’d have to be kükü not to love it!
Qutab are like little tacos, either filled with meat, greens, cheese or pumpkin. I first tried them from a little doorway vendor in the old town, and they are still my absolute favourite. People say there is camel meat in them, I’m pretty sure this is like an Australian drop-bear thing, but even if I have been eating camel all along, if this is what it tastes like then I’m OK with it.
Probably one of the most unappealingly named dishes in the history of the world (I think lobscouse may just about beat it to the post, go Wales!) I didn’t have high hopes for plov. Expecting some kind of gruely slop I was pleasantly surprised to be presented with a plate of rice cooked with apricots and lamb. The oil from the lamb and apricots stops the rice being too dry and the sweetness of the fruit really compliments the lamb. In Azerbaijan they have a special breed of sheep which has a big fatty sack (sounds fit, right?) and they traditionally put chunks of this fat in dishes to make them extra yummy. It may help to not think about what you’re eating. Alternatively, man up and accept that if you’re eating a dead animal in the first place you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.
I’m definitely not going to start debating the origins of baklava, but the Azeris spell it with a P and seem to eat quite a lot of it. For those of you unfamiliar with this eastern delight, it consists of layers of nuts and pastry drizzled in syrup, and unfortunately for my waist-line, it can be bought by the kilo…
Chai and jam
While I was doing my research for this trip, I read a famous Azeri saying ‘When you drink tea, you don’t count how many cups.’ While I didn’t really catch the proverbial element of the saying, I was sure that it meant I would feel right at home here.
As most Azeris are Muslim, even if they don’t practice, chai houses are far more popular than bars among locals . Traditional chai houses, like the kafeneion of Greece, are typically the male domain, and excepting the touristic cafes in Baku, women would not be allowed to enter.
Chai is served with sweet homemade jams, and often with a selection of paklava, dried fruit and nuts. I was intrigued by the little chocolate cubes we were served in a cafe on the boulevard, only to find that they were in fact portions of Mars bar!
Where to eat:
Cizz-Bizz in Baku’s old town ticks all the boxes. Squeezed in among tacky tourist restaurants, Cizz-Bizz is surprisingly cheap, and most importantly attracts a local crowd. The plov was incredible, and the service was not as bad as most places we visited. Order a variety of dishes and eat meze style.
Xalca is part of Baku’s new carpet museum and has a trendy bar vibe. I popped in for a glass of water and ended up staying for a feast. I did not regret it. Best dolma of the trip and great views of the boulevard. Funky Azeri mugham music was a little bit too loud, but definitely better than the Abba megamix that they changed it too, probably for our benefit!