For some reason, one of the highlights of any trip is trying out the local cuisine. Maybe someplace out there only has mediocre food, but I have yet to be disappointed, and Azerbaijan was no exception. But, as is the case with most things from Azerbaijan, I didn’t know much about the cuisine before I went there for a visit.
Azerbaijan finds itself at the crossroads of Turkish, Persian, and Russian culture, and thus its cuisine shares many of the characteristics of its larger neighbors, meaning you’ll find grilled kebabs, meat-filled dumplings, and endless amounts of tea just about wherever you go. But even with all the outside influences swarming from every direction, Azerbaijan still has several of its own unique dishes, combining ingredients you might not expect to work so well together.
Its proximity to the Middle East and its endless selection of spices certainly doesn’t hurt either. Here’s what a local spice shop looks like:
Every meal I had in Azerbaijan was great, but I’d like to highlight a few of the lesser-known, more unique examples of Azerbaijani cuisine that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Because some of these ideas are so good that we should steal them.
A typical Azerbaijan breakfast: Bread, cheese, and…honey?
So in addition to making some of the best freshly-baked bread I’ve had in a long time, Azerbaijan does something with it I’ve never quite seen before. Served along with the bread is often a tray of honey, cheese, and a certain kind of cream, and the honey and cream are then mixed together on a plate, which makes an unexpectedly delicious mixture for dipping the bread into. I would never have thought to mix these two things together, but in retrospect, we’ve been missing out this whole time. This was brilliant.
Next on the breakfast agenda is pomidor, a scrambled egg dish mixed with tomatoes, which was also delicious. Cheese is thrown in there too, to increase the flavor. I saw this all over, and it’s pretty popular as an everyday breakfast in Azerbaijan.
A variation of this dish includes chicken, in which case it’s known as chigirtma (though I don’t think this would be served as a breakfast food):
One of the most commonly offered (and recommended) dishes, soup or otherwise, was dushbere (also spelled dushbara), which consists of miniature meat dumplings in herb-flavored broth, generally including cilantro and garlic:
Another ubiquitous option was dovga, a yogurt-based soup with dill and coriander to spice things up, served either hot or cold:
Certain regions of Azerbaijan are famous for living long lives, and yogurt is allegedly one of the reasons they’re able to live so long. Yogurt also forms the basis of other dishes there, including a drink which looks kind of like dovga in a glass. They also serve yogurt as a condiment for certain dishes, and I saw people go through it pretty enthusiastically over at some nearby tables. One person even asked me if we have yogurt in other countries, which I interpreted to mean the people of Azerbaijan think of this as something typical of the region, and thus integral to their cuisine, rather than being a universal or frequently-found concoction.
This is getting its own mention, because it’s something of a novelty, and worth trying simply for the unusual presentation, but it’s also pretty great.
Piti is a lamb stew, served with chickpeas and potatoes, and served in small, earthenware pots. To eat it, you tear apart a few handfuls of bread and put them on a plate, then pour the broth over it, and eat it as a first course:
After that, you dump out the rest of the pot (the meat and potatoes), and eat it as the second course. It even has chunks of fat for extra flavor, and it’s quite good.
The town of Sheki is especially famous for its piti (among other things, such as its desserts and colored glass artwork) so definitely give this a try if you go there, which you should.
Doner kebab is ever-present in Azerbaijan, and you can get some for merely a few dollars, wrapped in lavash (kind of like a tortilla) or sandwich bread. Other options include tika kebab (grilled lamb meat on skewers), and lula kebab, which is made of minced meat and other ingredients, often served with onions and other seasonings. That was my favorite.
Lamb seems to be the meat of choice in Azerbaijan, and you’ll see massive herds of sheep along the roadsides when you make your way from one town to the next. Cows too, but they seem to raise the cows for their milk more so than their meat. And it’s a majority Muslim country, so you probably won’t see any pigs, and no meat from them, either (except maybe in a few supermarkets).
Another often-recommended dish is dolma, which consists of minced meat wrapped in grape leaves or other vegetables:
This one came highly recommended by quite a few locals, so it’s another musty-try dish if you ever visit, and another favorite of Azerbaijanis.
Azerbaijanis love their bread, and seem to include it with every meal. Lavash is common with doner kebab, but a real highlight is the bread baked in a tandoor, the vertical oven where the bread is stuck along the inside walls and then yanked out with a hook when it’s ready:
It’s really great. Try it with the honey and cream, like I said before. It’s amazing.
Here’s what it looks like when it’s finished, along with some tea:
Also, an interesting thing about Azerbaijan is their attitude towards bread in general; it’s considered sacred, and something to be shared with friends. As such, it’s not considered acceptable to throw it away if there’s any left over. If you don’t finish the bread, they’ll hang it up like this:
So if you see any bread randomly hanging from a tree, that’s probably why.
Tea, tea, and more tea
All day, every day. No matter the weather, no matter the season, no matter the temperature. I remember first meeting some Azerbaijani guys on my way from Russia to Ukraine, in the middle of the sweltering heat of summer. We had to stop for about two hours at the border for passport control, and the train baked in the heat of the sun like a metallic greenhouse and burned away all the moisture I could possibly consume. And what were these Azerbaijani guys doing the whole time? Drinking boiling hot tea. Because that’s what they do.
This is true of huge swathes of the world, but what I found interesting about Azerbaijan’s tea culture is how it’s always accompanied with sweets of some sort; not just sugar cubes, but also candy or dessert. And what’s also interesting is that you don’t mix the sugar into the tea; if you drop a sugar cube into a glass, they might hand you a spoon to fish it back out. You’re supposed to put the sugar cube between your teeth, and drink the tea right through it. I couldn’t quite get used to this, but it was still an interesting custom to observe.
Oh, and when they brew tea, they often do it like this:
It’s called a samovar, and it basically creates a chimney of steam that heats the teapot more gently than a stove, and also allows you to siphon out some of the boiling water from the bottom spout to weaken the tea if it’s too strong. It’s fairly common to other places in the region, including Russia and Iran.
You’ll see teahouses full of older Azerbaijani guys sharing a teapot, drinking out of pear-shaped glasses, playing dominoes or backgammon all day long. If you know how to play, try to go join them. It’ll be fun.
I actually don’t have too many photos of these, but Azerbaijan is known for pakhlava, a sweet pastry flavored with nuts, and Sheki is especially known for halvasi, which looks quite similar.
But I did have this—
—courtesy of a taxi driver who invited us into his home for tea and sweets. Because that’s what happens in Azerbaijan. You can’t go very far without someone inviting you over for tea or lunch or something. One guy even called up my hotel room to invite me out for a beer.
So expect to enjoy a lot of things like this, along with the ubiquitous, all-day-every-day offering of tea. It was pretty great.
So that’s about it for some of the culinary highlights of Azerbaijani food. There were plenty of other dishes as well, but these were some of the most highly-recommended, ubiquitous offerings that everyone told me to try while I was there, so these were the ones I wanted to share here. You really can’t go wrong with the food here, and the hospitality of the region means you’ll occasionally be invited to join along at another table if you’re seen eating alone, which makes it even better.