Thursday, January 12, 2012

Recipes from Azerbaijan

Recipes from Azerbaijan
Hey guess what, I have officially cooked one meal from every nation on Earth ... that begins with the letter "A."

That's right, culminating with this entry I've now gone through all the "A" countries on my list, which took just about four months.

The nation that holds the proud distinction of "last of the A's" is Azerbaijan, which is a surprisingly medium-sized country (surprising because in my albeit limited knowledge of world geography I'd never actually heard of it) located between Western Europe and Eastern Asia. Azerbaijan was once a part of the Soviet Union, but regained its independence in 1991. Neighbors include Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Turkey.

Azerbaijan, located between Western Europe and Eastern Asia.

Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, but it keeps out of the chaos-loving international spotlight for the most part because it doesn't really partake in radicalism or government entrenched orthodoxy; in fact, Azerbaijan is a secular democratic nation, known for its progressive ideas and tolerance and support for secularism in general. It is also considered to be one of the most liberal Muslim-majority nations.

Food in Azerbaijan is, like food from most of Eastern Asia, full of color and flavor. It shares a lot of similarities with Armenian and Turkish cuisine, with dried fruits and nuts commonly appearing in dishes we tend to think of as being more savory.

Tandoori bread with "plov," Azerbaijan's national dish.

The "national dish" of Azerbaijan is "plov," which in Turkey is called "pilav," which of course is where we get our word for "pilaf." Azerbaijan has no less than 40 different versions of plov, most of which are cooked with some type of meat, dried fruit or both. Here is the recipe I chose:

Parcha-dosheme Plov (layered rice pilaf with dried fruits and chestnuts)
(from AZ Cookbook)
  • 3 cups long-grain white Basmati rice
  • 4 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 cup peeled chestnuts
  • ½ cup pitted dried apricots, halved
  • 1 cup barberries
  • ½ cup pitted dates
  • ½ cup golden raisins
  • 1 ½ lbs skinless, boneless chicken cut into 2-inch cubes
  • 1 medium onion, peeled, cut in half lengthways, then thinly sliced in half-circles
  • 1/3 tsp ground saffrod threads, dissolved in 3 tbsp hot water
  • salt
  • ground black pepper
(Barberries, by the way, can't usually be found in the big grocers. You can get them at Asian markets or, like I did, from, which has $5.99 shipping and is therefore my new favorite place to order exotic ingredients).

Barberries are kind of like really tiny cranberries.

This recipe comes from Feride, who blogs at I love finding these sorts of blogs, and I wish every nation had someone as enthusiastic as Feride posting authentic recipes for hapless Googlers like me. I feel like my entries are more reliably authentic when I can use recipes that come from people who live or have lived in the countries I write about.

So my second recipe also came from Feride. Here it is:

Tendir Choreyi (Tandoori Bread)
(from AZ Cookbook)
  • 2 1/4 tsp dry active yeast
  • 1 ½ cups warm water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 cups bread flour, plus extra for kneading
  • 1 egg yolk, for brushing
  • 1 tsp poppy seeds
Now what to serve with these recipes? Well, I learned from Feride after I'd already been to the store that plov is typically served with a salad made from cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, or with pickled vegetables. But since I live 25 minutes and four obnoxious children away from our local grocery store, I elected not to go back and pick up the salad ingredients. Instead I went with my earlier tentative plan, which was to do the plov with the tandoori bread, and serve an appetizer instead. The appetizer recipe I chose came from News.Az, an English language news and politics website devoted to Azerbaijani issues, which also happens to have a pretty extensive recipes section. Here it is:

Kelem dolmasi
  • 20 oz minced lamb
  • 1 large cabbage
  • 8 oz onion
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh dill
  • 2 oz short-grain rice
  • 2 oz chickpeas
  • 3 oz lamb fat
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3 tbsp water
So I thought by stopping at three recipes I would have an easier time of it than I did with Australia and Austria, both of which had a whopping five recipes in their entries. Sadly, this was not the case. Azerbaijani cuisine is really not difficult to make, but it is time consuming, reminding me of the five hours I once spent in the kitchen trying to put an authentic Mexican meal on the table.

I started late Tuesday morning by making the filling for the Kelem dolmasi, more simply called "dolma." But if I had it to do over I would start with the bread, because although bread is always nicer when it is just out of the oven it can be prepared in advance and reheated.

First a quick note about tandoori bread (or tandoori anything, really). The name comes from the clay oven, or "tandoor" that it is traditionally cooked in, and you will never be able to duplicate the flavor of any tandoori recipe without one of those ovens, no matter how hard you try. Now, a tandoor oven is actually a part of my dream kitchen (I love naan bread and tandoori chicken) but I don't have one in my current kitchen, so this bread just goes in a plain oven, which makes it not very authentic. However, this is how an Azerbaijani stranded in the US would make a tandoori bread, so I guess I don't feel too bad about including it in my meal.

The ingredients for this bread are roughly similar to the ingredients for a basic french bread, but the shape is different and it is topped with poppy seeds which actually makes it quite beautiful in appearance. In fact this bread is quite possibly the most beautiful thing I've ever baked (my cakes certainly don't fall into that category).

So as always I used my bread machine, but this time I didn't proof the yeast first. I just put it in the little yeast dispenser at the top of my machine, then added the water, flour and salt to the bucket. I put it on the dough cycle and then went and picked my kids up from school.

This bread uses very basic ingredients, including bread flour and salt.

If you want to do it the old-fashioned way:

Mix the yeast with the water and let stand for a few minutes. Then sift the flour with the salt into a large bowl. Gradually add the water and yeast and mix with your hand until the dough forms a ball.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes, or until it is smooth. Put it in a large bowl and cover, then let it rise in a warm spot until doubled (this typically takes 1 to 1 1/2 hours).

The dough after it has risen.

Punch down and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Stretch the dough until it is an oblong shape, then with a rolling pin roll it until it is about 1/2 inch thick. Transfer to a greased or non-stick baking sheet and let stand for another 15 minutes.

After stretching and rolling, your dough should be roughly this shape.

Cut crosshatches in the top of the dough, about four in either direction. Brush with the beaten egg yolk (I mixed mine with a little bit of water to make it easier to work with) and sprinkle with poppy seeds.

Crosshatches, egg wash and poppy seeds give this bread its distinctive look.

Bake in a preheated oven at about 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden on top.

Isn't it pretty? Yummy too!

Now on to the kelem dolmasi. Here's how it's done:

First boil the rice for eight minutes. Meanwhile, peel and finely chop the onion. Then chop the herbs.

The recipe didn't really say what to do with the chickpeas (also known of course as garbanzo beans), beyond soaking them overnight and rinsing them. I used canned chickpeas, since I've never actually seen them dried. I decided to chop/mash them slightly so they would better incorporate into the filling.

Chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) roughly chopped

Now mince the lamb (I used my mini food processor). Here's where I ran into another problem: what to do with the lamb fat this recipe calls for? Mince it? Melt it? Does lamb fat even melt? I decided to mince mine. Thankfully, my husband doesn't actually read this blog because he'd be horrified if he knew I put fat in the dolma on purpose.

Minced lamb and its good friend, minced fat. Ew.

The ingredients for the dolma stuffing include onion, cilantro, chickpeas and turmeric.

Anyway, now get your hands into all that slimy raw meat and mix in the onion, spices, chickpeas, rice, chopped herbs and fat. Add a little salt and pepper for good measure. In fact, based on my results I would say to err on the side of a little extra salt and pepper.

Mix well with your hands until the stuffing looks something like this.

Fill the biggest saucepan you own with salted water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Now pull the outer leaves off of the cabbage (save them) and drop the rest of it, whole, into the water. Let it boil for three or four minutes, turning it if the water level isn't quite high enough to completely cover it.

The reason you are doing this is because it's difficult to get whole cabbage leaves off of an American cabbage. The cabbages you typically buy in our supermarkets come in very tight round balls, and because the leaves are crispy they will snap and crack when you try to pull them off in an un-blanched state. Blanching them for a few minutes makes it so they will come right off without tearing.

Now carefully take the cabbage out of the water (but keep the water boiling) and let it cool for a minute or two so you don't burn your fingers. Carefully pull the leaves off the cabbage, cutting them at the base if you have to do so to loosen them. Try to get them off in one piece. If the inner leaves are still crispy, return the cabbage to the boiling water for another three or four minutes. Repeat until all of the useable leaves are free.

Blanched cabbage leaves

Now put the leaves on a cutting board and cut out the tough stalks (save them). Cut the largest leaves in half.
Remove the tough inner stalk and set aside. Cut larger leaves in two.

Put a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the middle of each leaf, making a short cylinder shape. Fold the ends over the filling, then roll tightly (as if you are making a tiny burrito).

This is not much of a cylinder, but you get the idea.

Fold the edges over ...

Then roll, as if you were making a really small burrito.

Your finished dolma should look kind of like this, only without the hole in the middle.

Put all of the discarded cabbage leaves, stalks etc. into the bottom of a stockpot. I know, this seems a little strange. What you're basically going to be doing is steaming the dolma, with the discarded cabbage pieces forming the base of your steamer. Carefully place the dolma on the bed of cabbage leaves.

These dolma are resting on top of discarded cabbage leaves.

Add water to the stockpot up to about the top of the discarded leaves. Don't cover the dolma.

Now here's where you have to get a bit creative. The dolma needs to be weighted down so it doesn't unwrap during cooking. I used a metal pie pan, and then I put my mortar on top of it. You could also use a dessert plate with something heavy on top of it, but it would need to be an oven-safe one.

The dolma need to be weighted down during cooking so they don't unwrap. Just improvise.

Bring the water to a boil, then simmer for 25 minutes.You might have to use your ears to figure out if the water is actually boiling; I personally couldn't see what was in my pot after I weighted it down.

Meanwhile, make a simple tomato sauce out of the tomato paste and water. Heat it up for a few minutes over a medium flame. After the dolma have been cooking for 25 minutes, pour the sauce over them and cook for another five minutes.

The finished dolma, ready to eat. Mine were a little bland and could have used a dipping sauce.

While you're doing all this, you should also be making the plov. Because it takes a long time. A long, long time.

Here's how it's done:

Rinse the rice in lukewarm water until the water runs clear. Now personally, I never do this, which is probably why my rice is always a little sticky. But for this recipe rinsing is important because it removes the starch and gives the rice the right texture (it should come out fluffy with each grain separate).

Now fill a large bowl with lukewarm water and a tablespoon of salt and add the rice. Soak for 15 minutes or so.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the peeled chestnuts and stir-fry for 3 minutes.

Saute the chestnuts for no more than three minutes, stirring constantly.

How do you peel chestnuts? With much frustration and annoyance, because you had no idea what an ordeal and a time suck it is to peel chestnuts, and you wish that the other Safeway had also been sold out of them for the year like the main Safeway and Savemart were, because then you would have just had to use the walnuts you bought at Savemart and you would have saved yourself the trouble of peeling the damned things, most of which weren't any good anyway because in January chestnuts are pretty much out of season and any of the ones that are left over are mostly going to be dried out or rotten or just a bad texture, thus adding to your frustration and annoyance because you're spending all of your time doing this and it's already 6:30 and the kids still haven't had their dinner.

What? Sorry, I blacked out there for a second.

Peeling the chestnuts. What a horrible memory.

Anyway, to peel chestnuts cut a slit across the middle of each one, then boil them for about 20 minutes. Let them cool, then peel back the outer and inner shell to remove the light-brown nut that is inside. Simple, huh?

After the chestnuts have been stir-fried for three minutes, add the apricots, barberries and dates. Keep cooking for another three minutes. Lastly add the golden raisins and stir fry for one more minute. Don't leave the fruit and nuts unattended or you will burn them (like I did). Remove from heat.

Apricots, dates, and barberries.

Break out that huge stockpot again and put 10 cups of salted water into it. Or just fill it up almost to the top if it's not that big. Drain the rice (but don't rinse) and add it to the water. Boil for 7 to 10 minutes. You can tell when the rice is done because it will rise to the top of the pot. Don't overcook! The rice should be just a tiny bit chewy, not too soft. Bite a piece to make sure. Drain it in a colander and set aside.

Now in that large stockpot, melt a tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Put the uncooked chicken cubes in the bottom of the pot, distributing evenly. Add about a half teaspoon of salt and some pepper. Cover the chicken with the sliced onions and simmer for three minutes or so.

Now cover the chicken and onions with half of the rice. Spread the fruit and nut mixture out on top and then put the rest of the rice on top of that. Pour a tablespoon of melted butter on top.

Under this rice is a layer of fruit and nuts, another layer of rice, some onions and some chicken.

Now here's where things get a little weird. This is by far the most unusual cooking technique I've ever personally tried.

First let me just say that cooking plov is an act of faith, which means you kind of have to blindly trust that this technique is going to work. After reading the instructions I was really personally skeptical.

Put a clean dishtowel or two layers of paper towel over the pot. Be very careful to fold up the corners or otherwise make certain that the dishtowel or paper towel is nowhere near the flame. I really really don't want you to burn down your kitchen.

Put the towel/paper towel over the rice and fold up the edges. Top with the lid.

Put the stockpot lid on top of the towel. The towel will help absorb the steam from cooking, which I'm supposing is what prevents burning. I really, really expected that this dish would be burned, because the next step is to let it cook like that for 30 minutes, without stirring or disturbing it in any way. And then the step after that is to pour saffron water over it and cook it for another 30 minutes. I used the lowest heat setting on my stove, which is kind of a cheap crappy stove that cooks way too hot and kind of unevenly.

Making saffron water. Ideally you would actually crush the threads first.

To make the saffron water, combine the crushed saffron threads with three tablespoons of hot water. Stir until the water turns a deep orange. Note: have you ever tried to buy saffron? It is ridiculously expensive. A standard sized spice jar costs about fifteen bucks. But if you look closely at that spice jar, you will see that what you're actually buying is a tiny envelope with a pathetically small number of saffron threads in it, deceptively stuffed into a standard sized spice jar in order to provide the appearance of a much larger quantity. I got my saffron from the aforementioned, which sent me a comparatively generous portion for around eight bucks. But if you don't want to spend the money, you could probably get away with substituting turmeric.

Pour the saffron water over the top of the plov about 30 minutes into the cooking process.

If you're worried about what is happening to your plov during this long hour, you can listen to the pot. If you hear it crackling, it's burning. If you don't hear any suspicious sounds, you should be OK.

When the plov is done, it should look like this:

1. Fluffy rice with separate grains.
2. The meat should have a golden crust on the bottom.
3. The onion should be translucent (almost invisible).

Scoop it all out of the pot and arrange it on a big platter. It's ready to serve.

Now by the time I actually got through all of this the kids were in bed. I had to give up on the idea of letting them share in the meal because it took a lot longer than I thought it would to finish. Of course they wouldn't have really eaten the plov anyway, and they most definitely wouldn't have eaten the dolma. They would, however, have devoured most of the tandoori bread, which would have left less for me. So it was just as well that they were in bed I guess.

The dolma was a little disappointing, especially after all that work. Martin and I both thought it was kind of bland. With a dipping sauce, though, I think it could have been rescued. In fairness, I suspect that the blandness of the dish was more in my failure to use enough salt than it was in any downfall of that particular recipe.

Shockingly, even after all of my skepticism the plov turned out perfectly, with the possible exception of a few burned chestnuts. The chicken was just as it was supposed to be, with a golden crust on the bottom that tasted really wonderful. The rice was an amazing texture, perfectly fluffy and separate just like it was supposed to be. I've never had rice turn out that well.

The bread was awesome. It was a beautiful color and the texture was perfect. After my last two bread failures it was great to finally get one right.

I think both the plov and the bread are going to go in my rotation for meals served to friends or on special occasions. The plov was way too labor intensive for every day, but way too delicious not to make again.

Next week: The Bahamas. The Caribbean again. Yay.


  1. Love reading these Becki! It all sounds yummy! Funny though it looked like the Dolma would be delish! (Now I'm gonna have to go dig out the stuffed cabbage recipe...)

  2. I actually really think the dolma would have been fine if I'd put a little more salt in it. All those ingredients give it plenty of potential ... I wouldn't let my failure put you off trying it!

  3. I am so excited to find your blog, I have been thinking about doing this same thing, though hadn't figured on blogging about it. I just wanted to raise my children's awareness of other cultures. Thank you for posting this. I will definitely be following your journey.

  4. I was really excited to find your blog and this recipe! I spent a summer working in Azerbaijan in 2010, and my favorite meal that I had there was parcha-dosheme plov. This morning I was thinking of trying to make it myself for some family members, and was thrilled to find your very entertaining and informative guide on how to do it! Thanks!

  5. Hi Mary! Even now almost two years later, this plov recipe is still one of my favorite Travel by Stove recipes. My husband has actually asked for it a few times since I first made it. I'd love to know how yours comes out ... good luck and thanks for reading!


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