Global Eats: Azerbaijan and Armenia

This is my first installment of my global eats project, and I am headed to Eastern Europe to visit the cuisines of two former Soviet nations: Azerbaijan and Armenia.  It may be slightly odd that I paired these two nations together given their tense relations and multiple conflicts over territory disputes.  However, geographically and cuisine-wise, they were a natural pairing.

Azerbaijan

Before today, I did not know very much about Azerbaijan.  It was my favorite country name when I was younger.  I thought it was a cool name for a country, and I liked spelling it.  (Look, I can’t just pretend I haven’t always been a huge nerd).  I couldn’t really tell you anything about the country though.  That is why I took some time to read up on Azerbaijan before I made this meal.

Azerbaijan first became an independent nation in 1918, just over a hundred years ago.  Just two years later, it became part of the Soviet Union until 1991 (just shortly before my birth).  Given that this country was in the Soviet Bloc for a large majority of its existence, I imagined that there would be significant Russian influence in their cuisine.  I read though that their cuisine is closer to “Eastern” cuisine than it is to European cuisine.  This also makes sense given the country’s geographic location.  Azerbaijan and its neighboring countries Armenia and Georgia are often debated over whether they are part of Europe or Asia.  Geographically and culturally, they appear to be a bit of a bridge between the two.  I imagine that leaves a very rich and diverse cultural influence in their food.

The country looks small on a map.  Though I recognize that maps are not actually drawn to true scale, a part of this perception is influenced by comparing the country to its massive neighbor to the north, Russia.  Azerbaijan is about 10,000 square miles smaller than the state of Pennsylvania with a population of almost 10 million.  One interesting thing I did learn about this nation is that nine of the eleven known climate zones are present there.  This leads to a large diversity in terms of food, and it shows in the vast list of ingredients that are common in their cuisine.

Azerbaijani cuisine appears to heavily based in meat (especially lamb, beef, and poultry) and fish.  Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, so I would not expect to see pork present in their cuisine.  The common vegetables present in Azerbaijani cuisine include eggplant, tomato, cabbage, onion, beets, and cucumbers.  Rice and chickpeas are also heavily present.  What I find intriguing is the use of fresh herbs like mint, coriander, dill, basil, parsley, tarragon, chives, thyme, etc.  This must give their food unbelievable flavor.  I also discovered that dried fruits and walnuts are also common ingredients in their dishes.

When deciding what dish to make from Azerbaijan, I looked at a number of popular dishes.  The most common dish looks to be plov (pilaf), which is a saffron rice.  While this dish looks so delicious, I wanted to make something that would serve better as a main course.  I chose chicken lavangi.  Traditionally, lavangi is made by stuffing chicken or fish with walnuts, onions, and a variety of other fillings including dried fruits.  This dish is known as a national dish of both Azerbaijan and Iran.  I have only recently become a fan of roasting whole chickens, but it is quickly becoming a staple.

The recipe I found does not seem difficult, but the ingredients led me to believe this chicken would be packed with flavor.  The reason I decided to start with this dish out of all the food I looked at across the world was that it seemed on the healthy side.  I want to embark on this journey to discover food from across the world, but I don’t want to abandon my health goals.  It is my goal to complete this project by creating nutritious meals from across the world.  Are there going to be some comfort food exceptions?  Definitely.  I just hope to strike a balance in my diet, and this meal was a great start.

The one difficulty I came across was sourcing some ingredients.  I know this is going to become a bigger issue as I continue with this process.  It is going to be difficult to source some ingredients that are native to some of these countries but are certainly not grown near mid-Atlantic east coast of the the US.  That was not the problem I had here, however.  My issue was more of a seasonal one.

This recipe called for plum puree.  I first looked up plum puree to see if that was something that grocery stores sell.  The hilarious thing was that my google search mostly came up with either baby food brands or recipes for plum baby food.  (I guess that is not a common part of the adult diet in the US).  I realized I was going to have to make a plum puree of my own.  The only issue is that plums are out of season.  There were no black plums in the grocery store, and the available plums were not something I would recommend anyone eating.

So, I turned to the plum’s dried version, prunes.  I got a package of prunes and made a re-hydrated prune puree.  It was a simple process.  I put the prunes in a pot with some water and brought it to a boil, followed by reducing to a simmer for about a half hour.  I then took the prunes (keeping the liquid in the pot) and blended them in my food processor.  I added some of the steeping liquid until it was at the consistency I wanted (thick but not too solid).  This may not be the most ideal or proper preparation for this dish, but given my resources, it was the best I could do.

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re-hydrating my prunes

This chicken, in addition to being rubbed with some of the puree, was prepared by making a stuffing of onions, walnuts, raisins, and the remainder of the prune puree.  I expected this stuffing would create a great flavor in the chicken, but stuffing it was a messy and mushy job.

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My stuffing mixture

I cooked the chicken in my brand new roasting pan.  I bought this because it seemed like a major piece of cookware missing from my kitchen.  The recipe said to cook the chicken for 45 minutes, but the chicken I had was closer to 5 pounds, so I had to cook it for the better part of two hours.  I used a meat thermometer until it reached 160 or so before pulling it out.

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What a beauty!

My chicken turned out so beautifully.  It had a gorgeous char on the skin.  I think this is the best char I have ever achieved on roasted meat, and the taste of the skin was great!  The chicken itself was so JUICY.  I am apparently good at roasting chicken without drying it out.  The stuffing inside the cavity had a lot of moisture so that helped keep this chicken juicy.  I just wanted to keep eating this meat.  Even days later as I was finishing up the leftovers, the chicken was still so tender and juicy.  I was sad when I finished that meal because I was out of this amazing chicken.  I absolutely understand why this is a popular dish in Azerbaijan.

Armenia

I then turned to Azerbaijan’s neighbor, Armenia for a side dish.  Armenia is smaller in land mass and population than its neighbor, but it has a similar history to Azerbaijan.  The republic was formally founded in 1918 but was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922.  Armenia also returned to independence in 1991.  I am not going to pretend to be some history expert, but the history of the civilization inhabiting this land do go back to the Stone and Bronze ages.  Throughout its history, this territory was subject to control by the Greek, Persian, Roman, Sasanian, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, as well as a number of other invaders.  Azerbaijan shares a similar history, but Islam became the predominant religion in this territory, while Christianity remained the predominant one in Armenia.  I don’t know why that is or if this difference has contributed to the tension between these two countries, but these two countries do have distinct cultural differences.

This history of invasion for centuries has influenced the food of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.  I even read that it is even hard to say what is truly traditional food for these countries.  Armenian food today appears to have strong influences from both Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  I noted some similarities between Armenian and Azerbaijani cuisine.  Meats, fish, vegetables, fresh herbs, walnuts, and dried fruits are present in both cuisines.  It does appear that legumes are more common in Armenian food though, including chickpeas, lentils, and beans.  In addition to walnuts, other nuts and seeds such as almonds and pine nuts.

The recipe I used for the chicken actually recommended making Armenian plov to serve with this recipe.  That confirmed that these two cuisines would make a great pairing.  Instead of the rice pilaf, I decided to go with dolmas (stuffed grapes leaves) which also include rice as a main ingredient.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have their own version of dolma.  Traditionally, dolmas are made by stuffing a mixture of ground meat, rice, spices, and vegetables in grape leaves or cabbage depending on the season.  The recipe I chose may not be the most traditional because it doesn’t have any meat in it.  The list I found this recipe on did mention it was a vegetarian recipe, but I didn’t really think about it beforehand.  I may be interested in trying this again with a meat recipe.

I didn’t have trouble sourcing any of the ingredients at my local grocery store, Giant.  The store carries canned grape leaves in brine.  I believe that these traditionally are prepared with fresh grape leaves, which would be readily available.  I wouldn’t even know where to buy fresh grape leaves if they are even available in specialty stores.  They probably are somewhere, but I decided to go with jarred leaves since I know I can find those.  Even the recipe I used called for a jar of grape leaves.

I made the rice filling, which included minced onions, tomato paste, dried currants, pine nuts, and spices (cinnamon, mint, dill, allspice, and cumin).  I thought that was an interesting combination of spices, but I trusted this recipe and went along with it.  This recipe makes a lot of filling.

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I have never worked with grapes leaves before, though I have had Middle Eastern stuffed grape leaves.  After rinsing the grape leaves, I carefully rolled about a teaspoon of filling into the leave.  I shaped the filling into a log shape first to make it roll more naturally.

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I was surprised how many grape leaves fit into that one jar.  I ended up with just about a perfect amount of filling for the number of grape leaves I had.  I didn’t have any rice left over.  I was looking at this huge pot of grape leaves and wondering how I was going to eat all of them.

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Before steaming

I steamed the dolmas for about 45 minutes while my chicken was still cooking.  There was a certain fragrance coming from this pot with all those warm spices.  I was looking forward to trying this dish.

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After steaming

This is a dish that is pretty far outside what I typically eat, but I have become a much more adventurous eater in adulthood.  I did enjoy this dish, but I must say, I had a hard time getting past the brininess of the grape leaves.  I like grape leaves and generally enjoy the texture.  The brine on these leaves was just so potent.  The recipe said to squeeze fresh lemon juice to serve.  That helped cut through the brine some, but it was still pretty strong.  I had trouble getting through more than two of these in a meal without just eating the filling.  I quite liked the filling.  Those odd mix of spices actually blended well together.  I am interested to see how this would have tasted with some ground beef or lamb, but I could just eat that rice on its own.

This was a fairly successful first meal for my Global Eats project.  If I have one key takeaway, it would be to really think about what I am taking on when I plan the schedule for these meals.  This would have been a great meal to make on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.  However, I started this on a Friday evening at about 7:00.  Fortunately, I had thought to make the prune puree the night before.  However, I still had to make my stuffing, stuff the chicken, roast a five pound whole chicken, make the grape leaves rice mixture, stuff and roll and the grape leaves by hand, and finally steam them for 45 minutes.  It was 10:30 pm before I got to sit down and eat my dinner.  I was ravenous.  I haven’t eaten dinner that late since I was studying abroad in Argentina.  All that work and waiting did make this meal all that much more satisfying.

Azerbaijan and Armenia served me well with their cuisines.  I can’t wait to continue this journey.  Next, the Hungry Trio will be traveling together to Hungary.  Check back in to see what we make!

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