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.

Gaziantep, Turkey: City of Baklava and Pistachios

It’s not so easy to determine which place can call itself the true inventor of baklava, since it’s existence isn’t well-documented prior to the 19th century. It may come from present-day Iran, Turkey, Syria, Greece, or Armenia, although its popularity certainly spread throughout the Balkans and beyond because of the Ottoman Empire.

Years ago, the European Union (EU) did Turkish cuisine a solid by considering Turkey to be the creator of baklava, placing it on its list of items protected designation of origin, as well as protected geographical indication. However, one joy of eating is to appreciate food without getting caught up in a geopolitical kerfuffle.

Koçak Baklava Gaziantep Turkey
Sampler Platter of Baklava and a Turkish Coffee at Koçak Baklava, Gaziantep, Turkey

Forming part of a hub of Turkish food in southern central Anatolia, if you want to eat like a local, the city of Gaziantep is known for two things– baklava, and pistachios. There’s also baklava’s cousin, katmer, but it’s not nearly as well-known overseas.

Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted my video of Karagöz Caddesi, or what I consider to be Gaziantep’s “baklava street,” but there are plenty of other sweets shops around to reel you in. However, I did prepare a brief baklava tour of the city; given the deliciousness of the country, more videos of Turkish gastronomy will undoubtedly follow!

Katmer: Baklava’s Cousin that You Never Knew You Always Wanted

Turkey — my mistake, Türkiye — is one of my food paradises. I find the broader Turkish cuisine to successfully check off just about every box on the list, from grilled foods and dairy to stews and dessert. And for dessert and pastry in particular, I’ve got a major weakness for baklava.

Recently, I was the southeastern Anatolian city of Gaziantep, the baklava — and pistachio, called fıstık (fuh-stuk) — capital of Turkey. Although there wasn’t much of a variety of baklava, the choices that were available were of course, quality; not to mention, along the busy downtown street of Karagöz Caddesi, you will find no less than 12 baklava shops, so grab a container of milk and start the gluttony!

But what if I told you that baklava has a less well-known cousin (at least, outside of Turkey and Azerbaijan), an even more decadent, larger-than-a-crêpe phyllo pastry that counts kaymak (clotted cream, traditionally made with water buffalo’s milk), butter, pistachios, and sugar as its main ingredients?

What’s it called? Katmer.

katmer turkish pastry
Katmer, Katmercii Zekeriya Usta, Gaziantep, Turkey

Having only found out about katmer while researching things to do in Gaziantep, I was floored by the description– phyllo dough stretched out like a pizza, filled with kaymak and pistachios, then baked in an oven? ¡Asu madre!

The one place I read about, tucked away in the old town, was called Katmerci Zekeriya Usta (usta means expert, and in this case, I’d say it’s an apt description).  As the home of katmer, Gaziantep has more than a few places to try it, but I’d start with Katmerci Zekeriya Usta. It’s typically served for breakfast — given how heavy katmer is, it makes sense — and in that region of Turkey, is given to newlyweds to eat on their first morning of being married, with the intent of giving them a sweet life together.

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