Celebrating the new year in Azerbaijan means cooking, and that means the ancient dish called plov. The local version of pilaf, it takes rice to delicious new heights, as Caroline Eden discovers
You don’t get very far as a foreigner in Azerbaijan without being asked if you like the local cuisine. The answer is almost certainly a resounding ‘yes’ as Azerbaijan – with its bounty of organic produce and lush valleys – is a treat for the culinary adventurer.
The Roman geographer Strabo knew this. About 2,000 years ago he applauded the fertility of Azerbaijan’s central region, noting that “the plain as a whole is better watered by its rivers than Babylonia and Egypt”. Novruz – the feast of spring and the arrival of New Year – is an especially good time for foodies to visit. Celebrated across Central Asia and the Caucasus on 21 March, or a day either side depending on the spring equinox, festive feasts are central to the holiday. Tables across Azerbaijan groan under the weight of piles of steaming pilafs, or plov, a rich, hearty and varied conglomeration of meat or fish served with jewel-coloured fruit, vegetables and herbs, such as prunes, raisins, chestnuts, onions, carrots, garlic and saffron.
Seemingly immune from outside influences and food fads, this deliciously rich and filling rice dish has been served throughout the region for hundreds of years. Legend has it that Alexander the Great fed his armies on plov after ordering his cooks to come up with an easy-to-make, satisfying meal for the troops, which they did by adapting local dishes, including plov. It became the ultimate campaign dinner – wholesome and cooked in a portable pot. Today, it is eaten everywhere in Central Asia and across the Caucasus. It is a national obsession in Uzbekistan, where men pride themselves on their ability to prepare the most extravagant plov. There, the most skilled chefs serve up to 1,000 people from a single kazan (cauldron) during weddings and holidays.
Travellers have long noted the qualities of plov and its hallowed place in Central Asian culture. Arminius Vámbéry, in his 1865 book Travels in Central Asia, wrote how plov was prepared to welcome the arrival of the Emir to Samarkand: “the ‘princely pilow’ [plov]… consisted of a sack of rice, three sheep chopped to pieces, a large pan of sheep’s fat (enough to make … five pounds of candles), and a small sack of carrots…”
Thankfully the plov prepared in Azerbaijan in modern times for festivals such as Novruz is a more restrained affair. That’s not to say that it is a simple dish, as in fact there are hundreds of variations. Plovs can be prepared to suit any diet, however strict, such as vegetarian. In Azerbaijan cuisine, the plov rice can also be presented with side dishes so that the guest can combine whatever flavour he or she chooses. It is often said that there are as many different kinds of plov as there are people who cook it. Like plov itself, Novruz is a multifaceted celebration, and there are many traditions associated with the festival. One involves torches being lit to purify the home. Eventually, the ashes are buried outside the village in the belief that the past failures of the household are buried with them.
Another Novruz ceremony is the cooking of samani, or wheatgrass, as a symbol of fertility. Traditionally prepared by the women of the house, it is presented alongside the plov in the centre of the table on a giant silver or copper platter. Feasting lasts long into the night, with doors left unlocked and lights left on to welcome visitors to mark the New Year.
The Novruz table, and the plov presented on it, varies across the different regions of Azerbaijan. In Baku there are two notable varieties. Ashgara plov made with chestnuts, onions, lamb, caramelized quince and sultanas, and areshta plov. The latter is heavier, made with rice, pasta,
Azerbaijani beans (similar to puy lentils) and saffron, as well as crispy sheets of paper-thin lavash, which forms a delicious golden crust known as gazmakh. These two – ashgara and areshta – tend to be served together on the same plate.
Further afield, the city of Ganja has its own take on ashgara plov. The usual chestnuts, onions, dried apricots, coriander, grapes and prunes all feature, but lamb is swapped for beef. Also found here is a light paxla plov of white beans, dill and chicken, as well as the heavier and brilliantly green sebzi plov of sorrel, dill, tarragon, leek, scalded greens, onions and beef, served with butter.
In the southern town of Lankaran – famous for its subtropical climate and tea – lives Davudov Gysniyar, a celebrated chef who holds the secrets of many rare plovs, including the legendary recipe for levengi plov. This has Caspian kutum fish – specifically the plump female – as a main ingredient, which he stuffs with a levengi filling of barberries, sumac, salt, black pepper, walnuts, onions and sour alycha. Three types of rice are then baked with the dish – plain rice, rice infused with various greens, and rice mixed with beans. Levengi is native to Lankaran, as is this plov, making it the dish to seek out in this attractive seaside town.
Alternative versions include pumpkin plov and shakh plov (saffron, dried apricots, golden raisins, walnuts, and gazmakh). To sample the most splendid plov of all, though, we have to return to Baku, this time to the much-loved Orman restaurant where a plov reserved for only very special occasions is cooked – much to the delight of diners – inside a whole lamb. This plov is as ancient as it is impressive. First cooked in the 16th century, the method has only changed slightly over time. To begin with, caramelized raisins, dried apricots, chestnuts and quince are mixed into steamed rice. A prize lamb is rubbed and seasoned with a generous helping of salt and paprika. Then the magic happens: the whole lamb is stuffed with the plov mixture and cooked in a tandir. It is baked twice – once steamed and once in foil – for an hour and a half. When ready, the plov is served, steaming and laden with pieces of tender lamb. Coming out of hundreds of years of tradition, this extraordinary plov is the epitome of Azerbaijan’s culinary customs and complex rituals.
Photography by Richard Haughton
Styling by Tom Wolfe
Producer Maria Webster
Words by Caroline Eden
This story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Baku magazine.