Given that Azerbaijani culture and language is Turkic in origin, it’s not surprising that its cuisine also carries a strong Turkish influence. Doner kebabs are so prevalent on Baku’s streets that you’d swear they were Azerbaijani by origin.
One thing is certain though. Azerbaijanis like their meat, with shashlik (barbecue) as the style of choice. One meal took us on the tour of the animal kingdom with seven different types of shashlik - ground meat, sturgeon (served with narsharab, a pomegranate sauce), beef, veal, lamb, pork, and even vegetables. As our friend joked, “See, we Azerbaijanis can make shashlik out of anything!” Although the meat was perfectly grilled, we were thankful for the plates of vegetables and fresh herbs to help balance our intake of flesh.
Luckily for our bodies, there’s more to the Azerbaijani table than shashlik. Here’s a sample:
Dovga: A warm soup made from plain yogurt, cucumbers, spring onions and occasional bits of ground meat. Although it’s meant to be a starter, we found refuge in it as a light dinner.
Manti: Think large, Turkish-style ravioli stuffed with ground lamb. Served with plain yogurt – and if you are fortunate, a light chili pepper sauce – they are delicious.
Dolma: Grape leaves or vegetables stuffed with ground lamb, rice and spices, eaten with plain yogurt and ground pepper. Our best dolmas experience: the small, grape leaf variety served by our home stay family in the hills of Lahic.
Caviar: Beluga caviar is still king. Although its quantities are dwindling in Azerbaijan, caviar is still a big industry. The government controls the caviar business, but somehow a little bit always escapes and finds its way onto the black market. The best place to find it is at Taza Bazaar in Baku. From the moment you enter the market, you’ll hear hushed whispers of “caviar, caviar” from the shadows as middlemen sidle up to you. Follow them to small makeshift tasting rooms whose coolers are filled to the brim with caviar tins. Sample 5-6 varieties at different prices. The 113 gram pots run from $25-$55, depending upon the type of fish and grade. Our favorite was Beluga caviar – smooth and the least fishy of the lot. No small wonder it’s the most expensive.
Ayran: Refreshing, thinned-out yogurt drink, often flavored with dill and other herbs. It’s pronunciation is similar to the favorite neighborhood theocracy, Iran. So much so that when a young boy in the market asked Audrey “Do you like ayran?”, she responded “I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet.”
Kutab: A thin pancake whose varieties come stuffed with meat or with spinach and greens. Delicious alone, but if you find yourself at Chudo Pechka, get creative and team the green-stuffed with the baklijan (eggplant and garlic in sour cream) for your very own Azerbaijani veggie wrap.
Bakhlava: Although Turkish in origin, bakhlava has made its way to Baku, with some of the best served up by the local outpost of the Turkish bakery Gulluoglu. The rolled cylindrical variety are full of pistachio nuts, inside and out. Not too sweet, incredibly fresh, and terribly addictive.
The following traditional Azerbaijani dishes evaded our taste buds, either because of short supply or the wrong season.
Dushbara: Azerbaijani-style miniature manti. Teaspoon-sized mutton, onion and coriander filled ravioli served in a stock. This dish is common in the spring, so we just missed it during our summer visit. Travelers headed further to Central Asia, don’t despair. You’ll get your fill of dushbara in Kyrgyzstan, where they are called chochvara and served in a spicy, tomato-based broth.
Piti: Potatoes, chick-peas, vegetable and fatty-mutton stewed with fresh tomatoes or saffron. We’re told that you are supposed to soak the juice up with the bread first and then mash the solids into a paste before eating. For some reason, every cafe we tried seemed to be out and offered us shashlik instead.
Word of caution: Some restaurants, especially in the regions, will present an extensive menu, leaving the customer excited by the possibilities of choice. Tame your excitement. More often than not, the only things actually available are shashlik or dovga. For some reason, waiters don’t find it necessary to explain “we only have 3 of the 600 things on the menu” up front. Only when they take your order, do they deliver the bad news, leaving you grasping for alternatives.
Practical Details – Baku Restaurants
Chudo Pechka: Next to Sahil Metro station on Bul Bul street. An international chain that is Turkish in origin, Chudo Pecka churns out savory and sweet pastries, kutab, pizzas and doner kebabs all day. Pay at the cashier first and then take your receipt to one of the half dozen or so food counters to collect your grub. Extraordinarily inexpensive compared to every other food option in Baku…a blessing for budget travelers.
Anadolu: On Rasul Rza Street #5 at the corner with Azerbaijan Street. Probably the best street doner kebabs in the city. Inside, Turkish and European dishes are on offer for reasonable prices.
Anur Restaurant: E. Elizada Street #3, close to the old town on the same street as Mozart Cafe. Good manti.
Gulluoglu Bakery: Istiqlaliyyet Kuc #35. Heavenly and addictive bakhlava!
Restaurant “PLANET”: Mehseti Sreet #3, tel.: (+99412) 4234378. A ways outside the city center. It has a nice garden setting with delicious shashlik and live music.