Eat your way through Azerbaijan
Historically at the crossroads of influential Persian, Turkish, Arab and Caucasian cultures, modern-day Azerbaijan serves up its own unique flavours, whetted and savoured over the centuries by Silk Route traders – the original travellers across borders. This cultural mix translates to a vibrant and exciting burst of aromas originating from Europe to as far as China through Central Asia to make Azerbaijan a truly melting pot of tastes.
A DATE WITH HISTORY
Our culinary journey in Baku begins with Mugham Klub and Restaurant, carved into the walls of the XVII century Icheri Shekher (inner city) fortress, where caravan traders took shelter, conducted trade, rested and socialised in the days of the yore.
This Caravanserai-turned restaurant transports diners to another era with Mugham – a traditional music form that traces its origin going back more than 1,500 years. Brought to life by a skilled set of musicians and performers at the restaurant, Mugham music is even recognised by Unesco as one of the many intangible treasures of the land. The restaurant’s limestone arches house lodgings and shops, a central courtyard with an age-old fig tree and an impressive fortress-style doorway. More than 130 people can be accommodated with banquet seating at this unique historical site, which is a hop away from historical attractions such as the Maiden Tower and the State Puppet Theatre.
The menu is packed with traditional Azerbaijani dishes such as the delicious Dyushbara, a broth with seasoned dumplings. We learn that the smaller they are, the finer and more nifty is the craftsmanship of the dumpling makers – when done right, some 5 to 8 dumplings will fit in one tablespoon alone. Made from mutton bone stock and garnished with onion and spices the broth makes for an invigorating soupy starter.
SAJ FEAST AT GABALA
Gabala, a two-hour picturesque drive from Baku is a seat of relaxing getaways, headlined by the world-famous Chenot Palace wellness retreat standing at the edge of the idyllic Nohur lake, not far from the foothills of Caucasus mountains.
One way of making the most of the pristine Nohur lakeview is to taste a sumptuous Saj meal, an Azerbaijani staple, in a crystal tent at the Nohur Gol Restoran. The see-through lakeview tents are perfect for groups of 8-10 and there are several of these dotting the lakeside.
A Saj feast comprised of grilled items are served in a saj or a flat pan forming the centerpiece of traditional Azerbaijani meals. Saj is a succulent dish of lamb, veal or chicken prepared in the pan of the same name. The other items in the appetizing lineup of national dishes are the dovga soup which is a vegetarian yoghurt-based soup garnished with a variety of herbs. Round-shaped dolma is another staple what travellers from GCC would love, rolled from grape leaves and stuffed with minced meat – these tasty orbs are rightfully called the queen of Caucasian dishes.
Gabala has a secret recipe in ata-baba, a local-origin hazelnut, the name means from father to son. Here, the dishes are based on recipes handed from one generation to the next. The high quality, oil-rich hazelnuts add a discerning taste from starters to meat kebabs to desserts, leaving a special memory for all that have enjoyed the hospitality.
Gabala’s international music festival draws hundreds of fans, Tufandag mountain ski resort in winter draws thousands of snow-seekers – but its lakeside food scene keeps it abuzz all year round.
QUTAB – ANYTIME SOUL FOOD
The humble snack that is Qutab when freshly rolled and hot off the saj, can take on any dish in Azerbaijan. The best type of Qutabs are rough on the edge, with a generous stuffing of herbs and spinach, or minced lamb meat or mashed pumpkin.
Prepare to be pleasantly surprised at unusual corners, for example, the café at the entrance of the Unesco-recognised ancient rock art caves at Gobustan, has an expert Qutab maker in traditional attire – holding the attention of visitors at her live cooking station.
In the high street restaurants of Baku, be it Nizami or in old town of Baku, a platter of Qutab will always be handy to keep palates whetted. Salam Baku in the walled Icheri Shekher offers panoramic skyview of Baku, and with a side of Qutab (alongside a vast spread), it can be a high point in any day time itinerary. After sundown, Qala Divari’s Qutab platter set to live music is the go-to mood-uplifting experience.
Racing fans would find the location of these two restaurants interesting, it has after all, the sharpest turn on Baku’s Formula One street circuit, possibly, the most challenging bend in all motorsport racing.
SHEKI’S CLAYPOT GLORY
Sheki’s famous Piti is a slow-cooked claypot lamb stew that is served in terracotta mugs. An image of slurping the delicious stew, enriched with chestnuts, saffron and traditional spices, stays with the guest for the entire trip, so this is indeed an unmissable experience of Azerbaijan. Being a potter’s city, Sheki was able to glam up this unputdownable lamb stew by making a show of the meal. First, serving the stew in dough sealed clay pots, then neatly carving out the seal to tease the diners as the anticipation builds, finally pouring out the stew in terracotta mugs. Nowhere does this rich cultural tradition titillate taste buds more than at VIP Karvan restaurant in Sheki, where the terracotta tiled façade, and interiors take visitors on memorable journey of taste.
While Sheki Khan’s palace remains the top draw in Sheki – a visit to the traditional halva shops in the city’s historical city centre could make for the sweetest memories in all of Azerbaijan. Local DMCs will be able to arrange a masterclass with the craftsmen, some of whom have been honing the sugary craft for generations, their skills going back 150 years. To be able to watch and participate in the intricate art of halva making, Sheki style, and then enjoy the crunchy, saffron and hazelnut-rich bites is an experience for the ages.
Sheki’s oldest halvasi (confectionary) is housed in the arcade of a Caravanserai. Since the times of Silk Route trading, this lodging complex has been hosting guests, and remains open to this day. A step inside the lower Caravanserai is an experience in time travel.
AZERBAIJANI TEA PARTY
Azerbaijan’s show of warmth and hospitality comes through a carefully curated tea serving tradition. It comes with rituals of pouring the tea out of crystal pots into pear shaped glass called armudu. Patting a variety of fruit jams and preserves with a teaspoon then scooping it in-between sips is how the locals enjoy tea with guests – a wide array of high-quality nuts are served on tea trays – taking the regular beverage experience into the realm of luxury.
The tea shops on a high ground across Maiden’s Tower in Icheri Shekher provide a panoramic view of the Caspian and Baku’s old town skyline in the evenings. A great way to wind-up a day of culinary discovery.
* Find Azerbaijan Tourism Board on stand EU2250