Five Meals in Baku, Azerbaijan

In late 2016, I visited Baku, Azerbaijan (in Azeri, Bakı, Azərbaycan) after learning about the ease of getting a tourist visa if you were a passenger on Azerbaijan Airlines’ New York JFK-Baku GYD flight.  With more time, I would have explored the vast biodiversity of the country; however, this short trip was focused on Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, and a few of regional historical landmarks.

As such, today’s post will be centered on a few meals that I tried while in Baku.  With food heavily influenced by Turkish and Iranian cuisines – as well as Russian cuisine – I had high hopes for the Caspian Sea metropolis. Nuş Olsun (Bon Appétit)!

Having done no prior food and drink research about Baku, I decided to rely on the local knowledge of the Azerbaijan Airlines flight attendants; their suggestions were written below, on a less than flattering in-flight sickness bag.

quince Baku Azerbaijan
Quince

While paying homage to the FAs’ recommendations, the first thing that I ate in Baku was a quince.  Most commonly consumed as a fruit spread, quinces are quite popular in the Caucasus region.  I think quince jams and paste go great with manchego and melba toast, but take my word for it, a raw quince is astringent, awkwardly crunchy, and thus no bueno.

Local Meal Baku, Azerbaijan
Local Meal in Baku, Azerbaijan

After a day trip to a couple of cool places – I will get into them at a later time – my shady taxi driver dropped me off at this restaurant, ostensibly managed by his “friend.”  Nevertheless, it was a good intro to Azerbaijani food, replete with delicious pomegranate, pickled eggplant, local non-spicy giardiniera, somewhat bland bread (more on this in a moment), raw greens, ayran – a mix of yoghurt, water, and salt – and piti.  What, a piti?  Sorry.

Piti, a soup made with a base of chickpeas, lamb, and chestnuts, comes from the northwestern town of Sheki.  It is always served in an earthenware pot, and can even include quince, cherries, and other items, depending on the season.

About half way through eating the piti, a waiter came by to demonstrate that I was eating it wrong.  You are supposed to rip up the bread, place it in the bowl, and then pour the piti on it.  The pickles (and onions, which I had already eaten by this time) are a traditional accompaniment, as is the floral yet subtle sumac to sprinkle on top.  When eaten correctly, it all comes together so much better~

khash (Xaş) stew Azerbaijan
Xaş

Xaş (khash) … here’s where we get into the doldrums.  Originally a cheap meal for farmers, and found as far away as Mongolia and Greece, khash is a stew made of tendons in cow and/or sheep feet.  In Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, it’s generally eaten in the winter, and is amusingly eaten to overcome hangovers.

It was extremely oily, heavy without any pleasant flavor, and ultimately not something I’d want to eat again.

Lyulya Kebabs Baku Azerbaijan
Lyulya Kebabs, Baku, Azerbaijan

Now we’re talking!  Lyulya kebabs, made of minced lamb, onion and plenty of salt, served with more onion, delightfully chewy bread, and narsharab, an Azeri condiment made of sweet and sour pomegranates.  Pomegranates are known as the king of fruit in Azerbaijan, where more than 200 varieties of the vermilion fruit are grown.  Even some dishes are made with pomegranates and eggs…I’m curious about this one.

Just don’t throw that bread out.  It’s rude.

Şəkərbura tenbel paxlava Azerbaijan dessert
Şəkərbura and Tenbel Paxlava

What better way to finish off a brief tour of Azerbaijani food than with paxlava, also known as bakhlava?  The intricately designed paxlava on the top left is called şəkərbura (roughly, shekerbura), and is filled with walnuts and sugar.  On the bottom, tenbel paxlava, or lazy paxlava, made with ground walnuts, sugar, and a sweet syrup.  Although I’m a tea drinker nearly 100% of the time when compared to coffee, as this was a jet lag dish, I went for a cuppa.

If you want to read more about Azerbaijani cuisine, check out this article.

My First Podcast Interview: Malcolm Teasdale’s “The Travel Addict”

Sweet, my first podcast interview!

After selling his business years ago, Malcolm Teasdale, the affable host of the podcast series “The Travel Addict,” ramped up his travels beyond that of just client meetings. A fellow member of the traveler’s century club, Malcolm invited me to chat last week about expat life, as well as working in Saudi Arabia and East Asia.

If you’d like to give that episode a listen, please check it out here. Let me know what you think!

Maple Water (Latvia)

I do love the flavor of maple. Freshly poured as a syrup on pancakes or pain perdu, or as maple taffy, butter, or even maple sugar. The aroma of maple syrup is equally tantalizing, though I have been fooled once before. An Amman, Jordan bakery got the best of me when they used fenugreek in a dessert; apparently, when fenugreek is processed in large quantities, a compound called solotone is released, emitting a maple-like scent.

To make syrup and other byproducts of sap from the maple tree, it’s not only laborious, but it also happens for a short time during the year. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the best time to tap that sap — that sounds naughty — is when temperatures drop below freezing during the nighttime, and then rise to the 40s in the daytime. Even then, an average of 40-60 gallons of sap creates just one gallon of maple syrup! No wonder the price point for the real stuff is high.

However, if you’re in the camp that finds maple syrup too sweet, but still want the maple flavor, Latvia might have a solution: maple water. For a suggestion of where to get it, visit the Central Market of Riga, the capital of Latvia, and home to a rather anachronistic set of buildings:

riga latvia central market
The former German zeppelin hangars of the Riga Central Market, Latvia

Built in the 1920s, Riga Central Market’s giant structures first housed German zeppelins, or airships. By the 1930s, they had formed one of Europe’s busiest and largest retail markets, only briefly stopping to serve the public during Nazi occupation in World War II. Although the pandemic seemed to have quieted much of hubbub, fortunately, I was able to locate maple water (kļavu sula in Latvian) this time.

maple water bottle riga
A bottle of home-tapped maple water, Riga Central Market, Latvia

Per Sig, maple water is the maple tree sap in its rawest form, consisting of ~98% water; only after boiling it do you get the much more well-known maple syrup. Consequently, the vendor told me that it should be consumed within two days of opening, as it has a very short shelf life.

Health benefits of maple water include significant amounts of antioxidants, polyphenols, and electrolytes, but it’s also a diuretic, so you may not want to chug it before an operation, or at a sporting event.

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