In the high mountains of Azerbaijan’s far southwest, the cuisine is infused with the delicate flavours of dill, tarragon and basil, which inform a rich and centuries-old culinary tradition
Arriving in Nakhchivan, in southwest Azerbaijan, we pause to breathe deeply. The mountain air is fresh and rejuvenating, a light breeze tempering the heat of the late summer sun. Peaks rise around us; shades of soft peach and cream, tips brushed gold. The most famous mountain of the region is Ilan-dag, or Snake Mountain, a 2,415m craggy shadow with a cleft at the summit. Legend has it that the keel of Noah’s Ark, cleaving through the landscape as floodwaters receded, formed its distinctive shape. At the feet of these mountains, the great geological muscles that define the region, flocks of sheep graze idly in meadows.
Lamb is central to the diet of the people in Nakhchivan. Most common is the Balbas breed, hardy and well adapted to grazing at altitude. Reared for their coarse wool, milk and meat, they come with the added benefit of fatty tail cushions, used to fortify traditional dishes and aid preservation of food. Before boarding the plane to Nakhchivan, we had had a lesson in what to expect from the region from Nakhchivan restaurant in Baku. “In olden times, there were no fridges in Nakhchivan,” the chefs remind us, “so our ancestors cooked the meat and buried it underground in earthenware pots.” This tradition survives today and the pot of meat, known as qovurma, is used in qovurma shorbasi, a rich russet-coloured stew flavoured with lamb and bolstered with Ordubad beans and potatoes, which soak up the flavours like sponges. The dish is rich with the fat of the meat, yet balanced by the acidity of tomatoes and marble-sized sour plums. To serve, eggs are poached gently on top, coddled in the barely steaming sauce.
We see the meat again inside dolma, a general term used to describe stuffed vegetables, as well as rolled cabbage leaves and onionskins. The chefs at Nakhchivan restaurant are experts in the regional cuisine, saying that in the south, dolma are most frequently made with dikcha leaves, adding “they’re grown in Batabat in May, then harvested, dried and stored for use, in preparation for winter”. More readily available than vine leaves (which have a late harvest), they’re waxy under the fingertips when uncooked, smelling like sweet, just-cut grass. Once steamed and filled with meats, rice, yellow split peas and greens, they’re rendered delicate and light.
The most spectacular lamb dish of all is surely the dadly qala, proudly presented by the chef Asiman Tagiyev as “the delicious fortress wall – so delicious that, once cooked, people couldn’t get enough of it!” Everyone gasps as a whole rack of lamb ribs arrives, arranged in a circular crown, filled with bulgur wheat and surrounded by roast potatoes and tomatoes, which have the appearance of stones from the wall. The origins of the dish lie in finding a convenient way to cook the ribs, and this method allows them to fit snugly inside a tandoor. As a finished dish it is striking, fit for a special occasion.
If lamb defines Nakhchivan cuisine then so too does the use of herbs, as we discover when we arrive in the region. Here they grow in the mountains, abundant, robust and strongly flavoured. At each meal we are presented with feathery dill, soft, sweetly aniseed tarragon and heady basil. The last is special, a deep bruised purple with jagged edges and an intense, almost spicy flavour – hot like the sun under which it thrived. Infused with water, sugar and lemon, it makes the refreshing drink reyhan sharbeti, a ‘sherbet’ with a glorious bright pink colour.
A dish of keta (a regional version of qutab) shows off the herbs best of all. Along with sorrel and skinny green onions, they’re heaped onto squares of dough and folded like fragrant presents. Hot from the oven, they’re sliced and topped with pats of slowly melting butter, glistening and irresistible – “traditionally to be shared with neighbours,” Tagiyev tells us as he presents them.
We see the raw ingredients for sale in the bustling market in Nakhchivan – bundles of greens, vegetables and sacks of dried fruits, another speciality of the region. We hold each one in turn, asking the seller, “are they peaches? Plums? Apricots?”, barely having time to identify each one before he eagerly offers another. His hands plunge repeatedly into hessian sacks and come up with fistfuls of fruits, precious bounty reserved for the harsh winter. Lemons, too, are prized. Aromatic and perfumed, we see them carefully displayed in neat rows at the market, sitting proudly upright like Fabergé eggs. Costing as much as 8 manat each (around €7), they’re expensive, so it’s no wonder they’re reserved for special occasions.
In high summer it is very hot here, but now, later in the season, it is getting cooler. At Dadash, a restaurant with a spectacular mountain backdrop, we gladly sip hot tea and eat pears stuffed with spiced sugar. Sweet, chewy figs bring with them the lingering flavour of the season, soft and warm from the afternoon sun. Golden honey gives a sun-kissed coating to an Ordubad omelette, an unusual dish made by whisking clarified butter with eggs to make a layered cake. There are pastries, too, such as chocha – a nut pie traditionally baked for Novruz celebrations, which mark the beginning of spring. This is a hugely significant time of year for the people of Azerbaijan, and it’s when the ever-present lamb is at its tender best on the celebratory table. As bulrushes sway and clear waters bubble around the pastures of the beautiful Lake Batabad, thoughts turn to the significance of sheep in Nakhchivan, from field to festival to fork. They define daily life, from the steady plod of the shepherd’s staff as he drives his flock up the hillside, to the hectic kitchen of Dadash.
In the kitchen there, many cooks’ hands stir pots of areshta ashe (a dish of lamb and short lengths of handmade noodles), or fashion dash kofta by wrapping eggs in pounded meat. The kitchen buzzes with life, the sounds of chopping and the clatter of spoons. Groups of women roll dolma, chatting and beckoning us over, while men tend vast pans, stirring potatoes and meat, weighing down lids with stones. “Come! Come!” they say, lifting the lids to let out great puffs of lamb-scented steam, “you must taste this!” The dishes are robust, and it’s easy to see how they fortify and comfort in the chilly mountain climate.
The significance of sheep in the history of this land is again made clear by a visit to the elaborately decorated 10-sided, 26m-high tower of the Momine Khatun Mausoleum, commissioned by atabek Jahan Pahlavan in honour of his wife and built in 1186–87 AD. Displayed nearby are medieval stone carvings of sheep, well preserved, sturdy and dependable, just like their real-life counterparts. These beasts have been fundamental in the survival of the people here for centuries, and the calm and gentle animals are a true representation of the spirit of Nakhchivan, a peaceful place shaped by the footfall of hooves and the might of mountains.
This story appeared in the Winter 2015/2016 issue of Baku magazine.