Pomegranates and Saffron: : A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan
Nearly ten years ago to the day, I embarked on my present career as an adult EFL / ESL instructor. Freshly minted from grad school with my MA TESOL in hand, I began teaching English to students from over 100 countries, some of which I didn’t even know existed (particularly the Caucasus and Central Asia, as we never really studied world geography much in school). My very first ESL class included a lovely captain from Azerbaijan (who, coincidentally, I ran into again last year as a repeat student and we recognized each other instantly!). One of my favorite aspects of my job is the cultural exchange; I’ve learned about traditional Kyrgyz music and clothing, Mongolia’s nomadic culture, Afghan cuisine, Saudi Arabia’s oral poetry tradition (another student was a finalist on Saudi Arabia’s televised poetry competition “Million’s Poet”), Taiwanese holidays, Georgian winemaking, and Azerbaijan’s rich cultural heritage and culinary delights. Several of my colleagues spent six months teaching in Baku, and I was fascinated by the colorful embroidery, photos and stories they brought back. So imagine my delight when I learned of Feride Buyuran’s “Pomegranates and Saffron,” which won the prestigious Gourmand’s “Best In The World” title in 2015 along with several other major awards. I have hundreds of cookbooks on international cuisine, but had never really explored Azerbaijani cuisine before. Due to its geographic location, Azerbaijan’s foodways unsurprisingly include influences from neighboring Iran, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Russia. This has resulted in a vibrant, colorful cuisine that combines the best of all these cultures: cooling yogurt soups, meltingly tender kebabs, stuffed grape leaves and vegetables, jeweled saffron plovs (pilafs) piled high and gleaming like a king’s ransom, and silky rice puddings, delicate almond cookies and syrup-soaked desserts. I also loved the addition of entire chapters devoted to pickled vegetables (turshu) and preserves, a common fixture on the Azerbaijani table. Feride immigrated to the US about 15 years ago; interested in recipes from a young age, she began to recreate the tastes she missed from home, and the seeds for “Pomegranates and Saffron” were sown. Feride and her family take trips back to Azerbaijan every few years, where she has the chance to travel the country trying regional specialties and documenting Azerbaijan’s food culture. The final book is the result of more than six years spent researching, testing, traveling and photographing dishes and everyday life across Azerbaijan, and this labor of love shines through on every gorgeous glossy page. “Pomegranates and Saffron” contains 200 diverse recipes for appetizers and salads, soups and stews, pasta, meat, vegetable and egg dishes, breads, pilafs, drinks, and desserts, all adapted with Western kitchens in mind. The book opens with an introduction that includes an overview of Azerbaijan’s legendary hospitality, holidays (particularly Novruz), and food traditions, then plunges into appetizers. Here there are many similarities to Persian cuisine, including the heavy use of fresh herbs and many lovely vegetable salads and relishes (eggplant “caviar,” garlicky eggplant dip, and salad Olivier (the “Capital Salad,” which I first discovered in Spain as an exchange student in 2002). I love nothing better than to make an entire meal by creating a spread of several appetizers with freshly baked bread, particularly during the hot, hazy days of summer. Azerbaijan’s soups vary depending on the season; in the colder winter months, people seek solace in heartier pasta soups and stews like dushbere, khemirashi and mash shorbasi, while in summer light and refreshing yogurt soups are served, including doghramaj and dovgha. Lamb, beef, and poultry dishes are sure to delight with various kebabs and stews (including a variation of fesenjoon), while fish preparations are delightfully fresh and uncomplicated (salmon kebabs, pan-fried fish patties, fish stuffed with fresh herbs). Vegetarians will relish the kukus (egg and vegetable omelettes), fried, grilled and baked vegetables, and pasta dishes. As I am primarily a baker, I particularly enjoyed the chapter on breads and pastries, including the shorgoghal, decorated flaky bread, walnut and onion and bean and potato breads, and tendir bread (which, like Georgia, is essentially a tandoor oven).
Over the past couple of months, I’ve tried making several of the recipes in “Pomegranates and Saffron,” including the dill and fava bean pilaf (fava beans are in season here), yogurt soup, and half-moon dumplings with a butternut squash filling. The ingredients and instructions are clearly laid out and easy to follow; for more complicated recipes, the step-by-step photos were invaluable. I loved the dumpling filling in particular (I used kabocha with ground walnuts and cinnamon) and am experimenting with using it in other dishes. As it was my first try making tahdig (the golden, crispy rice crust on the bottom of the pot, my results were not picture-perfect but the flavor and texture were indescribable; I can now see why families fight over who gets the crispy goodness at the bottom of the pot! And I first boiled then pan-fried the dumplings in butter, which is how my Polish grandmother always made pierogi.
I loved learning about Azerbaijani kitchen tools such as the saj grill, traditional pasta boards, and terra cotta bread stamps. As a linguist and keen student of culture, I also loved that nearly every recipe comes with an Azerbaijani food proverb (“Words of Wisdom”) in Azeri and English (Azeri is closely related to Turkish). I particularly loved the food proverbs as one of the assignments I always give my international students is to teach the rest of the class a proverb from their country, then see if there is a similar one in English; the next time I have students from Azerbaijan, I have many new proverbs to ask them about! Each recipe is illustrated with a beautiful full-color photograph (some step by step) that showcases beautiful Azeri embroidery, place settings and tools. Each recipe intro and chapter heading gives further information into Azeri culture and food traditions, especially regional ones. A detailed bibliography and additional resources into culture, language, and literature and folklore are also provided. “Pomegranates and Saffron” is a gorgeous cookbook that deserves every award it is up for; the stunning photography, rich cultural background, and the physical book itself (oversized, with a red satin bookmark) will immerse you in the sights and smells of Azerbaijan’s rich culinary history. The book is available through Feride’s website, which also includes a wealth of cultural info on Azerbaijan, online shopping, and the recipes featured in the book plus more.