Viet Nam News
by Hương Liên
Why go to Azerbaijan?
Most of my friends asked me this question when I told them I would be visiting this country in the Caucasus.
To be honest, up until a month ago, I didn’t know much about the area. As I am always keen on discovering new places, I didn’t think twice when I was offered the opportunity to go.
I didn’t regret it. The country impressed me with its rich culture and history, and in particular its food.
As our guide explained, after centuries at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, Azerbaijan has adopted a range of dishes that include influences from Indian, Chinese, Turkish, Iranian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. While incorporating so many different traditions, local food has remained distinctive and unique.
For Azerbaijanis, food is an important part of national culture and is deeply rooted in the history, traditions and values of the nation.
I have enjoyed several delicious Azeri dishes during this short trip. I’ve highlighted four delicacies that have impressed me the most – Pilaf, tea with jam, pomegranate salad and Lavash Turshu.
Plov, or pilaf
Pilaf, or rice, is one of the most typical Azeri dishes. It is often accompanied with dried fruits and nuts. This addition is the best part of Azeri pilaf – the touch of spice and dried fruit which give it an exotic and sweet flavour.
The rice is usually served with meat, most commonly mutton or lamb.
At a restaurant in Baku, we discovered King Pilaf, which is a unique recipe where the rice is encased in a round crust made with layers of crispy lavash – a thin, tortilla style bread that usually accompanies kebabs.
When served, the cake is cut into four pieces so the rice inside is revealed to the guests in quite a spectacle.
Local meal: Pilaf, or rice, often comes with dried fruits and nuts. VNS Photo Hương Liên
Tea with jam
Perhaps the most uniquely Azeri dish is tea with jam.
At the end of most lunches, we were invited to drink tea – the most popular drink in Azerbaijan.
Tea first arrived in Azerbaijan via the Silk Road, but locals added an interesting twist with a side of jam. Specifically, the fruit is slowly baked with sugar as if to make jam, but has been left with pieces intact.
The tea itself is served very hot, strong, black and in small pear-shaped glasses called “armudu” (which translates as ‘pear’). The tea comes with a slice of lemon and cubed sugar as well as the jam, but without milk.
Azerbaijanis usually don’t put sugar in their tea; instead they dunk a piece of sugar in the tea, then bite a piece and sip their tea.
The culture of tea-drinking is so wide spread that there are plenty of tea houses, called chaykhana, across the country. Tea houses are traditionally spaces for men as women are not allowed to be visible in public. At tea houses, tea is usually served continuously and people play backgammon or smoke shisha.
Pomegranate is the national fruit of Azerbaijan and a popular ingredient in local cuisine. Served as a cube on a lettuce leaf, it is often accompanied with boiled potatoes and a local variation of mayonnaise.
Azeri people are so proud of their pomegranate that they make wine, sauce and sweets from the fruit.
Sweet treat: Pomegranate is the national fruit of Azerbaijan and a popular ingredient in local cuisine. VNS Photo Hương Liên
Finally, “Lavash Turshu” has to be the weirdest item I have ever eaten.
They look like coloured vinyl discs and are hung on clothes lines and wrapped in plastic. The bright discs blow in the wind, creating a very beautiful and romantic scene. We learned that the discs are actually called “lavash turshu” – made with sun-dried fruits. The fruits are submerged in water, the seeds removed, then boiled to create deliciously sticky sweets, and then dried in the sun.
I was amazed to discover such a sweet, salty and sour pickled fruit pancake that is left to dry in the sun. Of course, I brought many of them back to Việt Nam, to share with my friends this unique treat from Azerbaijan.
It is sold along the roadside outside of Baku and also at market stalls and their colourful appearance is hard to miss. It is not commonly found in shops and is certainly unique. Turshu refers to vegetable pickles that are very common in the Caucasus region. VNS