Common questions about living in a foreign county are often: What is the food like? What do people eat there? Do you ever get sick? In my 6 months in Azerbaijan as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve eaten typical, seasonal family fare in this small Central Asian country, and not gotten sick. The mountainous regions and dry fertile valleys produce an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts. Livestock is primarily sheep, chicken, and ducks, and the Caspian Sea is the source of fresh fish. Azerbaijan’s location along the historic Silk Road contributes to a cuisine that is part Turkish, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian.
Plov, also known as rice pilaf, is considered the national dish and served as the centerpiece of special meals. It is mounded onto a platter and topped with a crisp golden crust scrapped from the bottom of the cooking pan. Roast chicken and baked fish stuffed with levengi (a mixture of sauteed onions, ground nuts and raisins) are also served on special occasions. Popular salads are mayonnaise-based combinations of cooked and diced potatoes, carrots, and chicken as well as grated beet or carrot salads. Sliced cucumbers and tomatoes are offered as well as homemade fruit juices. Bread is on the table at every meal, and black tea with sugar or sweets is served after eating.
Daily meals with my host family are less elaborate and more likely to be soup with a meatball and potatoes, eggs scrambled with a vegetable and ground meat, or pasta served with a ground beef sauce. Other main dishes include dolma (ground meat wrapped in grape or cabbage leaves), ground meat kabobs, fried potatoes, and qutab – dough rolled, filled with meat or chopped greens, fried, and served with plain yogurt. Dovga is a creamy soup containing cooked chopped greens and chickpeas, and praised for its medicinal qualities.
Typical vegetables include tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, beans, peas, chickpeas, radishes, peppers, onions, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. Greens are cilantro, dill, mint, sorrel, parsley and tarragon which are placed on a platter in the center of the table for all to reach. Greens are also chopped and sprinkled over a main dish or bowl of soup.
In most towns and villages, family yards have fruit-bearing trees such as apricots, plums, pomegranates, cherries, quince, apples, pears, and persimmons. Farmers sell these fruits at daily markets along with strawberries, raspberries, grapes, currants, melons, bananas, lemons and oranges when they are in season. Raisins, dates, dried apricots plus walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, chestnuts, pistachios and spices are sold at these same bazars.
Most grocery stores are small and sell a variety of household products as well as snacks and processed foods. Fresh meat is purchased in rural towns from a local butcher who hangs the carcass for customers to select from. Families may know a nearby farmer who supplies them with fresh milk, cheese, eggs or honey. At this time, there are few food processing companies in Azerbaijan, so packaged foods such as pasta and vegetable oil are imported from Turkey and Iran. International brands such as Nesquik, Danone and Frito-Lay are sold along with Snickers, Wrigley’s, Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
The eating habits of Azerbaijanis were impacted many years ago by the soviet central plan which determined crops to plant for consumption in the other republics. Typical Russian fare of potatoes, beets, and cabbage are grown here and augment traditional foods such as rice, lamb and tea. Vast vineyards in the south continue to produce wine for export to Russia even though many Azerbaijanis are Muslim and do not drink alcohol.
The Caspian Restaurant on University Avenue in Minneapolis is an charming ethnic restaurant and grocery for sampling this fare.
Peggy (Margaret) Reinhardt is a Minneapolis Wedge resident serving in the Peace Corps as an English teacher.