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The pomegranate connection

June 22, 2014

Iranian and Azerbaijani cookbook reviews - www.mycustardpie.comCould you ever write convincingly about a country you have never visited? A while ago, on Open Book* an author (whose name evades me) confessed that he’d written extensively about China without ever having set a single foot over its borders. For years, as someone who spends most of their life reading in one way or another, I would have been agreeing with him but now know that nothing can prepare you for the reality of travel.

Through books, I thought I was doing quite a good job of getting to know the food and food culture of the wider region where I live. I’d visited Turkey and eaten Persian food cooked by Iranians, read about the influence of the Ottoman empire, been to India, munched my way through banquets of delicious Pakistani food, but never seen a connection. Until I visited Georgia. It was as though the missing culinary jigsaw piece had been found down the back of the sofa.

“An Azerbaijani cook book? How soon can you send it?” I nearly bit the publisher’s hand off as they offered me a review copy. My hunger was not just for the recipes but how this country fitted into the rich culinary landscape of the Caucasus and the legacy of centuries of marauding invaders. A new title on Iranian cooking also seemed like serendipity.Ajarbaijan-cookbook-review-mycustardpie.com

The Azerbaijani Kitchen – a cookbook by Tahir Amiraslanov and Leyla Rahmanova

Azerbaijan (‘Land of Fire’) is known as one of the cradles of the ancient world and, like Georgia, situated at the crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe. With over 100 recipes covering pilafs and kebabs, stuffed vegetables, grains, dough and noodles, fermented milk dishes, drinks and sauces as well as the usual meat and fish, this is a wide-reaching introduction to Azerbaijani cuisine. In the introduction, however, Abulfas Garayev (Minister of Culture and Tourism) says this is only a limited sample and there are many regional variations. He also mentions that health-giving and curative benefits are claimed for many of the dishes (ending with the exultation “And may your candle always be alight!”).

What I liked

This book is beautifully produced and while written in English, also gives many of the Azerbaijani translations. The head notes of the recipe give the context of the dish and the instructions are clearly laid out.  Some of the images are better than others but all look appetising and the typography and graphics give it a lovely feel. I had wondered about the differences between Georgian cuisine and Azerbaijani food. There are a lot of shared combinations of ingredients especially  walnuts, pomegranates and cherries plus a reliance on copious amounts of fresh herbs, however the population is mainly Muslim so there are no pork dishes (in contrast to the Georgian’s passion for it). Rice is prevalent rather than bread and with a coastline on the Caspian sea the Azerbaijanis love their fish. Pickles don’t feature at all, but they have in common the tradition of putting everything out on the table at once for everyone to share.

What I’d like to cook

In common with Persian cooking (see below), the cooking of rice is a serious thing. Steamed rice pilaf sounds simple but it has many detailed steps and includes a gazmakh. This is a disc of dough made of flour, oil, sour cream, yoghurt and a little sugar. It’s rolled out and placed at the base of the saucepan, under the rice. A lamb and herb recipe where the meat is stewed in sour grape juice and infused with a large amount of coriander, dill and dock leaves (or spinach) and served with the steamed rice sounds fresh and vibrant.

I can’t ever resist a stuffed vegetable recipe and Uch Baji or Three Sisters is on my list; the three are aubergines, peppers and tomatoes stuffed with lamb, onions, herbs and turmeric then served with garlic yoghurt.

Adding eggs to a meat or vegetable dish so that it is covered with an omelette-like blanket is called chyghyrtma. Clay pot cooking is also explained with a lamb stew containing chestnuts, chickpeas and prunes. The stew or piti is simmered for a long time in earthenware and served as two courses, a liquid as a soup, eaten with flatbread, followed the other portion of the dish.

Ordubad Kyuftosi is a meatloaf of generous proportion for feasts or large family gatherings. The recipe comes from the city of Ordubad and is a multi-layered explosion of flavours by the sound of it – a lamb and rice mixture, wrapped around chicken breasts studded with sour plums or cherries. It’s served sprinkled with dill, doused in its cooking liquor and accompanied by hard boiled quails eggs, chickpeas, salad and sumac. What a show stopper!

Any new cookbook that arrives in our house is seized upon by the teens and KP and given a good once over. I suspect the chapter on offal (ichalat) could consist of way more than four recipes – fried mutton offal (jyzbyz), calf’s foot soup (khash), minced lamb’s liver (ezme) and sheep offal hotpot (saj ichi). The introduction alludes to the thrifty nature of Azarbaijanis and their aim to utilize every part of the animals they eat (just as it should be).  Sadly, I’m the only offal eater in our house so this chapter may remain untested for quite some time (and did not receive the best welcome by the discerning trio).

Conclusion

A beautiful and thorough introduction to a cuisine that most people like me, I suspect, will not know anything about, let alone have tried. It invites you to go on a journey of discovery through the vibrant recipes packed with herbs and fruits, as well as knowing a bit more about the history and culture of this intriguing country. (which is top of my list to visit next).

Iranian Cookbook-review-mycustardpie.com

From a Persian Kitchen – fresh discoveries in Iranian cooking  by Jila Dana-Haeri

This is a follow up to Jila Dana-Haeri’s first book New Persian Cooking: a fresh approach to the classic cuisine of Iran and the earlier work is referred to often in its pages. Where the first book was an interpretation of well-known Persian dishes that are cooked all over the country, this volume sets out to highlight the variety and diversity of dishes from North to South, and juxtapose sweet and sour with spicy and aromatic.

It is a book that took a while to grow on me. Although the author thanks the photographer profusely for “the wonderful photography which has brought these dishes to life”,  I thought the close up pics really didn’t do it justice. There didn’t seem to be a food stylist on hand either. The pictures of the author’s garden were far more enticing than the food and this just doesn’t cut the mustard these days.

What I liked

After a shaky start and going back to the book many times, I kept noticing the little snippets that combined to make a patchwork quilt of information which really brought the book alive. For instance, ‘In Iran they say that if the rice becomes sticky, you know the cook is a novice.’ I like the way the author draws on the entire culture from poetry, to gardens and carpets, to the impact of geography and history, and even how people sit down to eat. She also mentions Iran’s rich tradition of wine making which, although forbidden today, stretches back over thousands of years and references pepper Persian literature and fables. Iran’s abiding legacy to the wine world is the grape Shiraz (or Syrah) – its rich spiciness is a good match with a wide range of Persian food.

There is no doubt that this book took a long time to write and research; it’s meticulous in its detail, from the recipes to the glossary. The chapters are arranged in cooking styles: Aashes, aabgushts and eshkenehs –  soups from thick and rich to thin ones containing egg; khoreshes – stews with thick sauces served with plain rice; khorak – meat, fish and vegetables cooked in various way but with little or no sauce; rice – the hallmark of Persian cuisine; appetisers; side dishes; and finally shirini – sweet things. This final chapter is packed full of all sorts of intriguing recipes from marzipan berries to cucumber jam.

I was surprised to see no mention of the Unani tradition of classifying and pairing ingredients into to sardi (cool) or garmi (hot). This was covered extensively in my other Iranian cookbook Pomegranates and Roses which is a good counterpoint to this book.

What I’d like to cook

Aabgusht-e meeveh is an exciting-sounding soup with a huge list of fruits and flavourings. Lamb is seared then simmered with onion, turmeric and dried limes (these are used a lot in Gulf cookery), split peas and fruits such as apple, quince, sour cherries, plums, apricots and prunes are added at later stages along with saffron. All the khoreshes appeal – I like that kind of slow cooked comfort food – especially chicken and Seville orange khoresh.

Roast chicken stuffed with mixed nuts, orange and lemon juliennes is based on a traditional recipe from the Azerbaijan province in the North-West. It differs quite considerably from the roast chicken recipe in the book reviewed above, which has walnuts, pomegranate and plum sauces and cherry fruit leather,  although both are united in their sweet and sour aspects. (It’s interesting that a recipe for lamb soup is very similar to the one for Azerbaijani piti).

Date halva (halva khormaee) is very similar to something I was served here in Dubai as a Ramadan speciality and comes from Bushehr on the other side of the Persian Gulf. The Suhan-e asali, little piles of almonds coated in caramelised honey, flavoured with rosewater and topped with pistachio would make a great topping for some of the traditional ice creams in the book, including cardamom, and melon.

Conclusion

This book rewards indepth reading and long perusal and is a fantastic resource and reference for Iranian food from all regions. It will compliment other books you have on Persian cooking and is a good read as well as meticulous in instruction. It’s just a shame that the photographs don’t do the dishes justice – although there are many other lovely images in the book, just not of food, in the main.

Review From a Persian Kitchen - mycustardpie.com

More details

The Azerbaijani Kitchen by Tahir Amiraslanov and Leyla Rahmanov is published by Saqi books. From a Persian Kitchen by Jila Dana-Haeri is published by I.B.Taurus. Both offer an interesting range of non-fiction books about this region – well worth a browse.

Both books were sent to me as review copies – my opinions are my own – they will certainly remain on my shelves and contribute many jigsaw pieces to learning about a big swathe of countries and culture not too far from the shores of the U.A.E.

Map of the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran

*Open Book is a collection of programmes on BBC Radio 4 about books. Books and Authors is hosted by Mariella Frostrop. I download the podcasts and listen (via iPhone) on my early morning dog walk.

Have you cooked or eaten Iranian or Azerbaijani food? Have you visited either country? Would you cook these sort of dishes?

51 Comments
  1. June 22, 2014 6:16 am

    You should try Persiana by Sabrina gayhour, fantastic Persian and middle eastern recipes!

    • June 22, 2014 7:36 am

      Good tip – never need an excuse for another cookbook :)

  2. June 22, 2014 7:26 am

    What an elaborate review! Enjoyed reading it. I would love to try cooking so if the dishes you mentioned especially t

  3. June 22, 2014 7:30 am

    The comment published before i finished typing! 😊
    I would love to try cooking the stuffed veggies and the date halwa.

    I have tried this cuisine in bahrain and loved it. It’s flavours are rustic and very similar to Turkish flavours is what I felt. What surprised me the most at the Azerbaijan restaurant was that they had plenty of vegetarian options

    • June 22, 2014 7:35 am

      You’ve got me thinking. Maybe there is an Azerbaijani restaurant in Dubai….. must try and seek one out. Thanks for persevering with the comments :)

  4. June 22, 2014 8:30 am

    A post that’s very close to my heart. Never knew about these two books and will add them to my list (once I’m done with the 5 odd unfinished books that I was supposed to be done with months ago!). Love reading about recipes and food stories as an insight into a culture I don’t know much about…and the Azerbaijani book has definitely piqued my interest. If you go to Azerbaijan, I beg you – TAKE ME.

    • June 22, 2014 9:01 am

      It’s a deal….if you take me to Iran :) Blast – meant to link to your Iranian posts. Sorry brain dead.

  5. June 22, 2014 9:00 am

    Firstly, I don’t think it’s fair to the reader to write about a country you’ve never visited. I know someone who writes for a top notch magazine about hotels based on Internet visits! Secondly I would love to try cooking Persian food as I love the flavours and spices of the region :)

    • June 22, 2014 9:02 am

      I am really shocked to hear the first bit Tandy. How on earth can you review a place you have never visited.
      There are several Iranian restaurants here in Dubai – the cuisine is quite different and absolutely delicious.

  6. June 22, 2014 11:07 am

    Iranian food is one of my favourite cuisines and I am slowly working my way round as many Iranian outlets as I can in Dubai.There is a new one round the corner to you next door to Mozzo Centrale that I need to try too. Great review :)

    • June 22, 2014 11:17 am

      Thanks for the tip – I didn’t know about that one…. Thanks for very nice comment.

  7. June 22, 2014 11:22 am

    Thank you for introducing us to these books Sally. Wonderful descriptions that took me on a pleasurable journey. I don’t think you can – or should – get away these days with writing about somewhere you haven’t visited. It can never be the same as knowing a place. A few years ago I proofread a novel set in Rome. I know Rome very well and soon realised the author didn’t. I picked up some glaring mistakes. And it turned out that indeed the author hadn’t been there! In a travel/non-fiction book it’s even more essential the background is from first-hand knowledge.

    • June 22, 2014 11:31 am

      It’s exactly that attention to detail which can bring alive a novel to someone who knows the place too. In fiction it’s stretching it, but in non-fiction or reviews it’s impossible or even fraudulent. I think you have to smell the place! Thanks for the comment – great one.

  8. June 22, 2014 11:34 am

    I love that some of the books you’ve suggested are opportunities to immerse in a new culture; the thinking, opinions, pictures…not just recipes. I agree on the sticky rice, it’s one of those things, like the size of chopped onions that niggles at me x

    • June 22, 2014 1:47 pm

      …oh and me. KP does ‘chunky’ – it drives me mad.

  9. glamorous glutton permalink
    June 22, 2014 11:38 am

    Great review Sally. I’m a real Middle Eastern food Novice, despite having a couple of books including Bethany Kehdy’s. I love the dishes when I have them in restaurants. The Azerbaijani Kitchen is so far out of my comfort zone I have to get hold of a copy! Love radio 4, especially the book programme and From Our Own Correspondant. What’s your favourite? GG

    • June 22, 2014 1:46 pm

      The omnibus edition of The Archers is my guilty pleasure (although it’s annoying me right now – far too sensational). Love the Book programmes, The Food Programme, The Kitchen Cabinet and Desert Island Discs. It all keeps my mind busy while dog walking. Oh, really like Great Lives too.

  10. June 22, 2014 1:26 pm

    Lovely books that I’ll have to add to my want list…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • June 22, 2014 1:44 pm

      If you are anything like me Rosa, that’s a long list!

  11. June 22, 2014 3:03 pm

    I love the look of the Azerbaijani Cook Book Sally – just the kind of tome i’d like to curl up in bed with to fuel some delicious dreams! The recipes and photography sound and look incredible. It’s a region i’d love to visit once the kids have flown the nest :-)

    • June 22, 2014 3:38 pm

      The Causasus are North of the UAE and served by budget airlines. Now I’ve taken the plunge with one (Georgia) I’m itching to return soon.

  12. June 22, 2014 3:03 pm

    I love the fact that Persian, middle eastern, food of the “…stans” are coming into vogue. As the birthplace of cuisines in ancient times its wonderful to see their rich culinary heritage getting the attention they deserve. Nice reviews, hope you enjoy cooking from them.

    • June 22, 2014 3:37 pm

      So many tastes, flavours and techniques to discover in these pages – it’s going to be fun.

  13. June 22, 2014 4:44 pm

    So many lovely cookbooks to buy. So little bookshelf space left in the house…

  14. June 22, 2014 5:26 pm

    I think you have to visit a place to visit it too. How could you possibly get a feel for the place and the people without experiencing it first hand? Two interesting titles. I’ll look out for them now.

    • June 25, 2014 8:08 am

      Yes – shocked by an earlier comment that a travel writer doesn’t visit a place!

  15. June 22, 2014 10:26 pm

    Beautiful cookbook and story about your travels and the book. It is one of the prettiest cooking books I have seen in a while. Thanks for sharing.

  16. andreamynard permalink
    June 23, 2014 1:36 am

    Really interesting reviews and love the idea of all those spices & flavours, sweet, sour and salty combinations in Persian food – feeling very ignorant about it though, need some books like these!

    • June 23, 2014 7:49 am

      Iranian food is very distinctive and well worth trying.

  17. June 23, 2014 5:56 am

    Great reviews, thanks Sally. I adore Middle Eastern food & cook it more than any other international cuisine. I’m just heading off to the Book Depository now to try to find these two books to add to my collection.

    • June 23, 2014 7:48 am

      I hope you enjoy them – both really interesting in their own ways.

  18. June 23, 2014 1:09 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your blog posts. I will return soon to read more of your interesting content.

  19. June 23, 2014 1:43 pm

    Well-written review on both books, Sally. While I am familiar with Persian cuisine and culture, Azeri food is new to me but would like to try their Piti soup (served in a clay pot). Don’t recall her name at the moment, but one blogger said that if she had to describe Azeri food in four words, it would be: pickles, herbs, lamb, and sodium.

    Baku Caspian, located across Mercato Mall, serves Azerbaijani cuisine. A colleague went there once and tells me that shisha smokers filled the place and that food was “ok”.

    • June 25, 2014 8:09 am

      Interesting tip about Baku Caspian Nadia. Now even more intrigued from that four word description!

  20. June 23, 2014 4:12 pm

    This sounds like a great cook book! My grandfather was born in Baku and I always wanted to find out more about the Azeri cuisine! Thank you for sharing :)

    • June 25, 2014 8:10 am

      Wow – that’s so interesting Margot – it sounds like there is a real wealth to discover in Azeri cuisine.

  21. June 23, 2014 6:14 pm

    Thank you Sally for your great post, always great information and something new to discover and learn .The Baklawa photo is so tempting!

    • June 25, 2014 8:11 am

      …but would you ever attempt to make baklava? Not sure I would…

  22. June 23, 2014 9:41 pm

    Great review! I am always looking for new books and new recipes to try. This is my kind of food too.

    • June 25, 2014 8:11 am

      Both cuisines based on masses of fruit and vegetables….. pretty healthy I would say. Thanks Dannii

  23. June 24, 2014 12:01 am

    Great review! We offer a pure and kosher Pomegranate Juice Concentrate but this beautiful!

  24. Fig & Quince permalink
    June 24, 2014 12:10 am

    I just returned from a long trip to Iran where among countless other culinary delights I also ate my fair share of abghust! So delicious! As an Iranian-American and Persian food blogger I read your elaborate, articulate and fascinating books reviews with rapt attention. So much food for thought. (i.e must research gazmach.) Thank you for sharing!

    • June 25, 2014 8:12 am

      I long to visit Iran – what a wonderful trip you must have had. Thanks for kind words.

  25. June 24, 2014 12:15 am

    Had no idea that Azerbaijan means land of fire. How beautiful and the books sounds like one I will fall in love with just like Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert.

    • June 25, 2014 8:05 am

      That title is one I must add to my Paula Wolfert books. In fact I can feel a little trip to Kinokunya coming on imminently!

  26. Lauren Hairston permalink
    June 24, 2014 8:31 pm

    The photographs in both books are just delicious! I will agree that nothing compares to actually visiting a place. I studied history and thus wrote a lot about things I could never experience first hand, but I think if you’ve got the opportunity to visit, do it! I once read a novel that was set in fin de siècle Vienna and the descriptions of the city were so detailed. So, I looked up the author and found out that no only had she a) never been to Vienna, she b) had NO INTEREST in ever going there. WTF?! I have to admit that it rather tarnished how I felt about the book!

    • June 25, 2014 8:04 am

      In fiction, I’m sure you can use your imagination rather than visit the place…..to an extent. If it was really detailed though I’d feel like you after reading it. You can never really get an authentic feeling about a place until you smell the air and meet the people.

  27. June 24, 2014 9:30 pm

    What interesting books and they certainly have caught my attention. It reminds me just how much I miss travelling to far off places and experiencing different cultures.

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