Today is Republic Day in Azerbaijan celebrating the first successful attempt to establish a democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world. The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic ( Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti) was founded by the Azerbaijani National Council in Tiflis on 28 May 1918 after the overthrow of the Russian Tsar. Independence was short lived, however. In 1920 Lenin ordered the Red Army to take over the country because Russia needed Azerbaijan’s oil reserves. Among the important accomplishments of the brief period of independence was the extension of the right to vote to women, making Azerbaijan the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. In this regard Azerbaijan also preceded the United Kingdom and the United States. Azerbaijan regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but then had a lengthy conflict with Armenia, which gained independence at the same time and then invaded Azerbaijan in a bloody land grab.
Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Caucasus region, located at the junction of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, a region usually known as Eurasia. It is bounded by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west and Iran to the south. It has three main geographic zones: the Caspian Sea; the Greater Caucasus mountain range covering about 40% of the nation; and extensive flatlands at the country’s center .
If you had to use a single word to describe Azerbaijan it would have to be “diverse” — climates that range from semi-arid desert to mountainous tundra with everything in between, extraordinary biodiversity of both plants and animals, one main language, Azerbaijani (Azeri), and 12 minority languages spoken in select regions spanning both the Altaic and Indo-European language families, cultural influences coming from both Europe and Asian sources such as Persia (Iran), Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia, as well as from ancient conquerors including Scythians and Greeks, five major regional rug weaving styles with infinite sub-styles (see picture) whose roots stretch back to antiquity, and more. Yet all these influences have synthesized into a recognizable and distinct culture.
Nowhere are the diverse cultural influences and geographic zones more evident than in Azerbaijani cuisine. Azerbaijani cuisine features dozens of styles of soupy stews each varying according to cook’s choice, some with a base of yogurt. As is common in Eurasian cooking there is a wide variety of shashlik (kebabs), including lamb, beef, chicken, and fish, frequently sold by street vendors with small wood grills. Sturgeon, plentiful in the Caspian Sea, is often skewered and grilled, served with a tart pomegranate sauce called narsharab. Dried fruits and walnuts are used in many dishes. The traditional condiments are salt, black pepper, sumac, and especially saffron, which is grown domestically on the Absheron Peninsula. Other flavorings include mint, cilantro, dill, basil, parsley, tarragon, leek, chives, thyme, marjoram, green onion, and watercress. The Caspian Sea is fished for sturgeon, Caspian salmon, Caspian kutum (a firm white fish) , sardines, grey mullet, and others. Black caviar from the Caspian Sea is one of Azerbaijan’s best known delicacies, sold worldwide.
One of the most reputed dishes of Azerbaijani cuisine is plov (pilaf) which contains saffron rice layered with other ingredients, quite distinct from Uzbek and Iranian plovs. Azerbaijani cuisine has a kaleidoscope of versions of plov from the various regions of the country, some using meats like chicken and lamb, others with dried fruits, or a combination of both. This recipe comes from Baku (the capital). It can be eaten by itself or with meat shashlik. The ingredient Alu Bukhara is a tart plum that counteracts the sweetness of the other fruits. You can find it online, or substitute tart cherries. Many cooks in Azerbaijan make a scorched layer on the bottom of the rice pot called a gazmakh, which is much loved. This may simply be the scorched rice itself or a separate layer of ingredients such as thinly sliced potatoes or flatbread. Here I use a mix of rice, yogurt, and egg. Basmati rice is best because of its rich flavor, but plain rice will do.
Shirin Plov (Plov with Apricots, Dates and Saffron)
2 cups long grained basmati (or plain long grained rice)
½ cup cooked and peeled chestnuts
¼ cup dried alu bukhara (or tart cherries)
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup dried apricots
½ cup pitted dates
6 tblsp unsalted butter
¼ tsp powdered saffron in 3 teaspoons of rosewater
2 tbsp yogurt
Place the raw rice in a colander and run it under cold water until it runs clear. This is a vital step to prevent the rice being sticky. Soak the washed rice for about 30 minutes in cold water with a pinch of salt.
In a large, heavy gauge pot boil enough salted water to cook the rice. When the water comes to a full boil drain the rice and add it to the pot. Bring the water back to a rolling boil. Stir the rice from time to time and let it boil for about 5 minutes. Test it. The rice should be soft but not fully cooked. It will be steamed later to cook it through. Err on the side of underdone. Drain the rice and rinse it under cold water.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and toss the fruit in it. Add 1 teaspoon of sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons of water. The fruit should absorb the flavor of the butter and swell, but do not overcook it. The fruit should remain firm. Set aside.
Mix ½ cup of cooked rice, 1 tbsp of melted butter, 2 tbsp of yogurt, 1 egg and a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture over the bottom of the rice pot. Then alternate layers of rice and fruit, finishing with a layer of rice.
Pour 3 tbsp of melted butter and the saffron flavored rose water over the top of the rice.
Place a tea towel over the pot and place the lid tightly on top. Fold the corners of the towel over the lid to prevent them from burning.
Put the pot on a high-medium flame for about 5 minutes and then reduce it to as low as possible. Leave the rice to steam for about 30 minutes.
Serve on a large platter for guests to help themselves.
Serves 4-6 (with side dishes of meat)