The pomegranate connection
Could 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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
*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?