Whether intricately shaped as parcels for meat or herb fillings, or as the bed on which sauces are served, dough is at the core of Azerbaijan’s food culture. Caroline Eden takes us on a leisurely astronomic tour, from the mountains of Azerbaijan’s northwest, to the heart of Baku
Morning rain had varnished the mountainous region of Qax in northwest Azerbaijan. The green banks of the Qaracay River shone with a glossy veneer and the sharp smell of grass permeated the air. The gentle sun had heated the hills to a pleasant 24°C, and in the tiny villages that dot the valleys shepherds headed out to tend to their flocks. In Sarabash, a village only made reachable by road in the 1970s, mist hung in the trees and horses grazed among dozens of blue painted beehives. In the midst of this bucolic scene, a table had been set for us to try a rustic breakfast prepared by the villagers.
Rounds of firm and springy bread arrived first, complemented by tennis-ball-sized scoops of homemade kizil (a type of berry) jam and farm fresh eggs. It was all so simple yet we knew immediately that we’d reached a special place.
Locals declared confidently that the rain that morning meant only one thing – “the end of summer” – but for the carloads of families who had just arrived at the hotels and guesthouses further down the valley, this didn’t matter a bit. The late summertime rain was a welcome relief. The southern plains had sweltered for months and temperatures of 40–50°C had become typical. For these lowlanders, only the mountains offered a cooling respite.
Climate aside, there is another very good reason why the region of Qax is an ever-popular getaway destination: the food. Currently celebrating its Year of Cuisine, this region is known for its hearty dough-based dishes.
To explore some of the typical – and more unusual – dough specialities we travelled on from Sarabash to the village of Ilisu, a short 10-mile drive from the small city of Qax. At the intersection of two steep valleys, Ilisu was once the capital of a sultanate that lasted from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Little of that period remains today, but the wooden box-windows of traditional houses evoke the bygone era.
Set back from the Qaracay River, the newly built Senger Qala Restaurant is one man’s vision of a fantasy castle built within fortified stone walls. It has already become the star attraction of Ilisu, bringing in guests not only from Azerbaijan but also neighbouring Georgia and Russia.
The restaurant is vast, and is an indoors-outdoors affair. A few tables have been positioned high above, built into the cliff side on raised platforms, affording views of the pea-green coloured mountainsides that stretch skywards above the river. At ground level there is a tiki-style bar complete with life-size figures dressed in flower garlands. But it is the cavernous room that acts as the main indoors restaurant that is the show-stopper. Made to look like a giant cave, it is scattered with autumnal coloured rugs, heavy wooden furniture, gold samovars and stuffed woodland creatures. The spotlights have been made to look like stars and the whole scene suggests Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
In the orderly kitchen, a team of cooks works under the direction of Bayram Bayramov, a slim, softly spoken chef with clear, icy-blue eyes who grew up just an hour away from here. In preparation for the different dough dishes, spring water, salt and flour stand ready on a large, square four-legged wooden stand. Machira, a spirited and formidable cook who specializes in dough, quickly mixes the ingredients and kneads with her hands until the dough is malleable. First she works on a batch of dumpling-like gyurz (in Qax they drop the ‘a’ from the more commonly heard ‘gyurza’). On a good day – and with a little help from her team – Machira tells me that she can “easily make three or even four thousand gyurz”. Her hands move fast as she places alycha (green plum), onion, salt and minced beef into each gyurz. The other ingredient that Machira sometimes uses is more unusual – air-dried veal. This meat will have been hung on a rack outside in the cold mountain air through the winter, then rehydrated and cooked. Machira also makes some vegetable gyurz that are simply loaded with dill, parsley and spring onion – “the holy trinity of flavours,” we joke. After a lot of stirring to avoid the gyurz sticking, she carefully hooks them out of the pan using a huge slotted spoon. They are immediately sprinkled with lemony sumac but not gatykh (like sour cream) as is used elsewhere in Azerbaijan. Instead, they are served with a small bowl of garlic-laced water and another of cider vinegar.
Next comes surhullu. Machira is a surhullu maestro, someone who is adept at the fine art of preparing these delicacies. It is all done by hand. Machira uses the sides of her palms, like a mini rolling pin, to make little pasta boats one at a time. Her fingers deftly roll up the edges so that they look like tiny canoes. The pasta is boiled and then placed in a bowl, covered with beef stock and the cooked meat (in this case rehydrated veal intestines – not for the faint-hearted) is placed on top. Cherry-red kizil berries add a splash of colour. This is proper mountain food – nourishing, wholesome and healthy.
Meanwhile, lunchtime diners arrive at the restaurant. Spring water is poured from clay vessels and plates of salad, gyurz and surhullu are served. On the tables are bottles of locally produced bright green tarragon soda called Tarkhun. In the kitchen, chef Bayramov works on khinkal (small sheets of dough) with chicken and minced beef. Flames lick above him as he fries the onion and fills the dumplings with the meat. Then, without a pause, he makes a plate of cheese areshta, which looks a bit like tagliatelle. It is known locally as a ‘feel-good’ dish – soul food for mountain-dwellers.
An experienced chef who has worked in Georgia and Siberia, Bayramov tells me that his next dish is one of his finest creations: a cheese roulade served with mountain honey. A few minutes later, the plate is before me. Inside the light and fluffy rolled pancake is hot molten cheese. It is chewy, creamy and tangy, and Bayramov tells me a bit more about it. “It is called motal cheese and it is the most expensive cheese in Azerbaijan,” he says. The softly pungent flavour comes from the fact that the cheese is kept inside goat’s hide, as seen in markets in Baku. The local honey, slightly medicinal tasting, cuts through the fatty taste, adding a necessary sweetness.
The last dish is khinkal, made with cornflour. It is a simple, vegetarian dish and is called ‘qizqala’ locally. First, Bayramov mixes the cornflour with water and a pinch of salt, then the patties are dropped into boiling water while in another pan eggs and onions are scrambled together. A large plate is then liberally brushed with butter and the discs are laid down with the eggs and onions on top. Simple and wholesome, this is the sort of food that sees mountain people through the cold winters. Elsewhere in the surrounding hills, more casual picnics are taking place. Day beds and tables have been set up under shady canopies where tea is served from makeshift cafes. By ribbon-like waterfalls that run off lime-coloured mossy hills, walkers stop to drink the fresh water that Qax is famous for. At night, in the impenetrable woods, wolves can be heard howling.
The landscape, with its hidden caves and snake-like stretches of water, has a magical air that makes it hard to leave, but we do and soon we are back in busy Baku, where it is still high summer. We visit Nakhchivan, a smartly designed restaurant on Parliament Avenue, where they serve similar dishes to the ones we’ve enjoyed in Qax. Differences, though, are immediately apparent, such as the stainless steel kitchen and its high-tech gadgetry instead of the rustic tools of Senger Qala. The vast array of rolling pins on the table show that they will do the hard work, rather than hands.
The chefs show us some of their favourite dough-based creations. First, they roll out a basic dough using a long, thin rolling pin with a tapered end that sends puffs of flour into the air. This light, almost gauzy dough is then cut into strips to make areshta and folded to make qutabs filled with pumpkin, herbs, barbaris (a type of spice) and minced beef. Below the workstations lie sheets of paper-thin dried lavash bread. Dough, in one shape or another, is everywhere.
Next, they move on to one of their signature dishes, dushbara. This is so labour intensive that two chefs work on it at the same time. First, they make dozens of postage-stamp sized pieces of dough and then fill them with the tiniest dab of mince. Then, when there are 60–70 wonton-like parcels, they are sealed up, very briefly boiled and dropped into a bowl of simmering chicken broth to make a satisfying soup.
Lunch at Nakhchivan suggests summer in a way that only light, airy qutabs, fresh areshta and bowls of salad can. However, as we sit down to eat, my thoughts return to Qax. There is something special about that place and the dough dishes created up there. Maybe it’s the remote mountain setting or the cold spring water, or perhaps it’s the simplicity of the cooking. Whatever it is, it is a winning and unforgettable formula.
Photography by Richard Haughton
Styling by Tom Wolfe
Producer Maria Webster
Special thanks: Senger Qala Restaurant, Ilisu; Nakhchivan restaurant, Baku
This story appeared in the Autumn 2015 issue of Baku magazine.