Food is an essential aspect of Azerbaijani culture. Deeply rooted in the country’s varied history and traditions, Azerbaijani cuisine exemplifies the diversity that has always impressed visitors to this South Caucasian nation. Its staples – bread, meat, and spices – testify to the Turkish and Central Asian influences that form the buildings blocks of Azerbaijani culture as a whole. However, the mosaic of Azerbaijani cuisine contains more than just Turkish tiles. Russian rule and influence has brought an appreciation for Borscht, the traditional beet stew of Slavic Europe to the valleys and cities of the South Caucasus. Flavored sherbets, moreover, demonstrate historical connections with Persia and greater Iranian culture as a whole. The de facto national drink, tea (chay), first came to Azerbaijan by way of China in the 17th century, but archaeological evidence from Sheki suggests that early Azerbaijanis were making herbal forms of tea as far back as 3,600 years ago. Religion has also played a role in shaping Azerbaijani cuisine – while there is no strict state prohibition on the consumption of pork, centuries of Islamic influence have eliminated it from traditional dishes and diets. Together, these various strands make a cuisine that is uniquely Azerbaijani in its multitude of sources and tastes.
Azerbaijani cuisine is internally diverse as well. As any travel guide will tell you, Azerbaijan contains 9 of the world’s 11 climactic zones within its 33,436 square miles. Such geographic variation has naturally had an important effect on the availability of resources and has accelerated the development of unique regional specialties. Much like American culinary culture, Azerbaijani cuisine is in actuality a collection of several unique regional cooking traditions. While the shashlyk, or shish-kebab, and can be found throughout the country, other dishes are more localized. The cuisine of the Caspian coast, for example, features sturgeon and other baliq (fish) while lavangi, type of chicken casserole, remains the specialty of the Talysh region. The pastries, paxlava (baklava), and desserts of Sheki are considered to be the best in Azerbaijan and have been noted by many travelers as one of the city’s main attractions.
Of particular interest for Western travelers is Azerbaijan’s famous Karabakh cuisine. Food from the Karabakh region is known for its kebabs and rice dishes, like the girkhbughun pilaf, and its diversity of fruits and vegetables. The medieval traveller Hamdallah Kazvini (1281-1350) found crops of Karabakh preferable to others he saw while on his travels: “Much fruit is produced, and more especially the filberts and chestnuts here are celebrated for being finer than elsewhere.” The influence of Karabakh cuisine even reached all the way to the Ottoman court. In the 15th century Mamed Mahmud Shirvani, one of the Ottoman Sultan’s advisors, added some of Karabakh’s finest recipes to the repertoire of the Sultan’s kitchen when created one of the earliest known cookbooks in history. However, political upheaval and occupation threaten the survival of this region’s rich culinary traditions. Dishes such as the girkhbughun pilaf require specific ingredients native to Karabakh which Azerbaijanis are unable to access because of the ongoing Armenian occupation.
However, there are certain staple dishes consumed by all Azerbaijanis regardless of region or city. A typical Azerbaijani dinner likely consists of either shashlyk (shish-kebabs) or plov, a type of rice dish that is often mixed with grilled vegetables and spiced meats. Other meals may feature one of Azerbaijan’s many famous sumptuous soups as the entrée. If the dinner is in honor of an important event like a wedding or birthday, the chef may choose to feature as, a fruitier flavored plov as the main course. A cool, refreshing salad (choban) often accompanies the main course and bread, perhaps salyan corayi is eaten throughout the meal. Of course, no meal is complete without a cup of dark, loose-leaf chay (tea).
In sum, there is no better way to understand Azerbaijan than to feast on its delicious cuisine. Azerbaijan’s history is colorful tapestry of invasion and trade, tempered by geographical diversity and the enduring will of its people for independence. Enjoying a meal at a household in Baku or Sheki is a trip through the ages. Kebabs from Central Asia, soup from Russia, and desserts from Iran – all of these dishes speak to the forces and empires that have formed modern Azerbaijan. But a family dinner in Azerbaijan is more than a museum of the past, it is a living embodiment of the hospitality and that make Azerbaijan such a unique and attractive destination for scholars and travelers alike.