Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2000 (8.3)
Pages 16-19

From Pilaf to Pizza
A Road Map of Azerbaiijani Cuisine

by Tahir Amiraslanov

Above: Making kabab on a "mangal" grill. Photo: Huseinzade

"What is Azerbaijani cuisine?" This is the question that has come up repeatedly as we worked on this issue. Does it include the foods that Azerbaijanis ate before the Soviets came to power? Today, many of those dishes are no longer prepared in the Republic, or they're only eaten on occasion, like rice pilaf. Or is Azerbaijani cuisine based on the foods that Azerbaijanis ate during the Soviet period? Many of these dishes, like cabbage dolma, are Russian or Russian-influenced. What foods can Azerbaijanis claim as their own?

One thing is for sure: Azerbaijani cuisine has changed dramatically over the past century due to political and economic influences that were often beyond the control of Azerbaijanis themselves. And this dynamic process is still very much alive today. Food expert Tahir Amiraslanov discusses some of these past and present changes, explaining some of the evolution that is taking place in Azerbaijani cuisine.

During the Soviet period, Azerbaijan's state employees and students ate in free, government-run cafeterias. Nutritious meals were prepared every day, freeing Azerbaijani women from housework by enabling them to spend less time cooking for their families.
In general the dishes that were prepared were the same in cafeterias throughout the Soviet Union: meat cutlets, goulash, borscht and shi (fish soup), plus a few national dishes. Such standardization was one of the ways that the Soviet government set out to create one Soviet people.

The phrase "you are what you eat" rings true, since food is an important part of one's culture and sense of nationality. The Soviet leaders were determined to shape the psychology and behavior of all Soviet citizens in order to create the new Soviet man. Therefore, basically the same food was served to all of them. Primarily, it was created on the basis of Russian cuisine.

Russian Influence
As a result, Azerbaijani cuisine underwent considerable changes during the Soviet period, and a number of Russian dishes were included as everyday fare. For instance, in pre-Soviet Azerbaijan, we didn't have the Russian "Stolichniy" salad (potato salad with shredded chicken, carrots and peas in a mayonnaise base). We also didn't have the Russian salad vinegret (beans, potatoes, carrots, pickled cabbage and beets). But now we have accepted these salads and consider them our own, even to the extent that we serve them at wedding parties and other special occasions.

Prior to the Soviet period, alcohol was not usually served at Azerbaijani wedding parties. But because of the Russian influence and the decrease of Islam's significance during the Soviet period, alcohol became the norm, especially at wedding parties - at least among men. Also, we Azerbaijanis are now more likely to follow the Russian pattern of serving cake for dessert (or ice cream, too, as in the West), rather than our own national pastries like shakarbura or pakhlava (baklava).

Today, we no longer have a system that provides free food to employees and students. Most large factories have closed down and because wages are low, most people can't afford to eat in restaurants. Along with independence came bread lines - especially during the early years of our freedom in the 1990s. You can't blame the Soviet Union, as this was a phenomenon characteristic of the post-Soviet period and was experienced throughout all of the 15 former republics. During the Soviet period, commodities were much cheaper. A monthly salary was sufficient to support a family and even entertain guests.

Left: Vendor selling pickles and grape leaves that are both fresh and in brine at one of Baku's central markets.

These days you can find anything you want in shops-for a price, that is. But not everyone can afford them. Some Azerbaijanis eat little more than bread and water, while others enjoy expensive dishes of meat and fish daily. During the Soviet period, many food items were available, but you had to pay "under the counter" (in Russian: "iz-pod poli"), especially for items like bananas, Indian or Ceylon tea and sweets from Moscow. Products like cheese were usually always available in the market, but if you wanted foreign cheese - Bulgarian, for example - you had to buy it "under the counter". Some products were sold with coupons, including butter, sugar and meat. But then during Perestroika (1980s), food shortages began, especially with items like butter.

Foreign Foods
These days, it seems foreign products and cuisines are more prominent than our own national dishes - at least in restaurants. Foreigners tend to eat in restaurants that feature cuisine from Turkey, the U.S., China, India, France and the U.K. Now that we have access to a wide variety of cuisines, these dishes are becoming more popular among us as well.
Turkish restaurants in particular have captured the market in Azerbaijan. Frankly, our local businessmen can't compete with them because we haven't truly sensed what it means to work according to the rules of a market economy. In the restaurant business, economic and legal matters are much more complex than simply setting up a kitchen.

Many new foods, especially "fast foods", imitate European and American styles, such as hamburgers and hot dogs. We had fast foods during the Soviet period, too, only they were Russian snacks. On any street, you could buy "pirozhki", a type of dough stuffed with potatoes, peas, rice or meat, or "blinchiki", pancakes stuffed with meat or cheese. One of the advantages of being exposed to these foreign influences is that we are exchanging new information and adopting new technology. For example, we are beginning to use Iranian equipment to prepare flatbreads like "lavash" or "yukha".

Import / Export
During the Soviet period, many of our food products were brought in from other Soviet republics or from Eastern Europe. For example, condensed milk and sugar came from the Ukraine, butter from Russia, chickens from Hungary, green peas and cheese from Bulgaria.

Azerbaijan, in return, supplied a great deal of vegetables and fruits. For example, Lankaran, which is near our southern border with Iran, was considered to be the vegetable garden of the Soviet Union. It also produced citrus fruit. Azerbaijan also supplied cabbage, grapes, fish, canned fish, canned fruit, alcohol and wines. One wine - Aghdam - became so notoriously popular among Soviet drunks that the name even entered Russian folklore. Aghdam is a city in the central part of our country, which these days is under occupation by Armenian troops. But the wine that took its name from Aghdam was a cheap variation that made people get intoxicated quite quickly. A Russian expression claims: "Agdam: nikomu ne dam," meaning "Aghdam: I wouldn't offer it to anyone!" Of course, we had other very fine wines and our vineyards flourished.

Today we import much more food than we export. We export caviar and sturgeon, but in a very limited quantity, whereas we import beef from the Ukraine, Russia and Poland, potatoes from Poland, chicken from Iran and bottled water from Switzerland. Much of our butter is imported, too, as are tropical fruits like banana and kiwi. Since there are so many imported products, our own agricultural efforts have suffered.
Below: Author Tahir Amiraslanov (on extreme right) with chef colleagues of Azerbaijan's Culinary Center who often participate in international food competitions.
Azerbaijanis need to start supporting locally produced goods. Importing is not good for our economy.
When a country exchanges its currency for foodstuff, it only becomes poorer. This is not a rational use of our money. Azerbaijanis should "Buy Azerbaijani" and use fresher, local products that support our own agricultural efforts.

Food Quality
Quality control is another challenge for Azerbaijan's food industry. The quality of foodstuffs seems to be deteriorating. For instance, if you compare the eggs produced by hens cooped up in cages with those that roam freely in the villages, you'll discover a pronounced difference in the color of the yolks. They're pale yellow instead of the red-orange that we were used to.

It used to be that when the Soviet Union bought and imported products, there were several control checks: in the exporting country, on the border and inside the country itself. All of the goods had to meet certain standards. That's why imported goods were considered to be of high quality, whether they were oranges, tangerines, tea, bananas or wheat from the U.S. Azerbaijan doesn't have all the necessary equipment or the necessary agents for checking, so lots of smuggling goes on. Who is there to check these items and protect the consumer?

Reclaiming Traditions
Despite this movement toward more international, imported foods, there is another significant trend in Azerbaijan-to return to past traditions. For example, in both Lankaran (near the Iranian border) and Shaki (in the northwestern part of Azerbaijan at the foothills of the Caucasus), farmers are beginning to plant fields of rice again. Even though rice is a very traditional food-Azerbaijanis in Iran eat it every day-we haven't produced it for quite some time. Subsequently, rice became a dish reserved for special occasions for us during the Soviet period.

Disappearing Foods
Even though there is a tendency towards traditional foods, many Azerbaijani dishes are disappearing. Part of this has to do with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Approximately 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory is now under control by Armenian forces. Those lands were famous for their agricultural output and represented at least one-third of our national production.

Between 1988-1990 approximately 200,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenia. Then an additional 800,000 had to flee regions within Azerbaijan itself, such as Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territory. The trauma that results is not limited to the effects brought on by psychological, economic and geographical displacement. It means that people are being cut off from their cultural roots as well, including their traditional food practices. For example, there's a type of stuffed cabbage or grape-leaf dish known as "kor dolma" or "yalanchi dolma". It means "false dolma" because the stuffing contains greens and grains without meat.

Kor dolma exists in other regions, but the version made by the Azerbaijanis who lived in Armenia had its own unique characteristics. Refugees are also forgetting their unique regional cuisine from the Karabakh regions. It's been nearly 10 years since many of them were forced to flee - often with little more than the clothes on their backs. Today, living in refugee camps, they don't access to the necessary ingredients to prepare the foods that they used to eat on a daily basis. These days, sometimes they can barely find bread to eat. In summer, many of them are living only on tomatoes and bread.

So how can refugees from the Karabakh region prepare "girkhbughun pilaf"? This regional dish calls for special wild greens that are indigenous to the region. How can refugees prepare it if they don't have access to these plants? They'll soon forget how to do it.
And then there are the refugee grandmothers who are passing away, unable to survive the harsh conditions of refugee life. Much of their knowledge about these foods is not documented. If these patterns continue, the next generation will not even know what their own native cuisine tasted like.

Nearly Obsolete
Some traditional foods seem no longer to have a place in Azerbaijan. One example is "gutabs" (turnovers) made from camel meat. This Azerbaijani dish used to be very popular in Baku up until the 1960s when the camels disappeared. Now there are only a few wild camels left in the region of Davachi, about three hours north of Baku on the Caspian coast. There are also several breads that are disappearing. It used to be that Azerbaijanis in every region would prepare a small bread called "galach" for the holidays. But I haven't seen it lately in any of the regions.

Another bread is called "takhta" (meaning "board" in Azeri). This bread becomes tough as a board, but softens when added to broth or water. Ancient merchants from Shamakhi and Shirvan used to prepare this bread for long journeys. It had a very pleasant, sweet taste. But after the 1950s-60s, Azerbaijanis no longer had any need for it. "Saalab" is a thick, jelly-like drink made from milk and the roots of the wild saalab plant (orchis in Latin). It's a warm beverage that used to be very popular in Azerbaijan. You could buy it from street vendors who kept it hot in samovars. But you rarely see it these days.

During the Soviet period, not much attention was paid to the development of native Azerbaijani cuisine. But now that we are independent and no longer living under the domination of any nation, we are the ones who must keep Azerbaijani cuisine alive. Perhaps one day there will be a movement among Azerbaijanis themselves to rediscover and embrace their own native foods-hopefully before more of them become extinct.

Tahir Amiraslanov is General Director of the Azerbaijan National Cookery Center, a Member of the International Judging Board, and Vice President of the Russian Cookery Experts Association. He was interviewed by Arzu Aghayeva on AI's staff.


Azerbaijan International (8.3) Autumn 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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