Autumn 2000 (8.3)
Outlook on The Cuisines of Northern and Southern Azerbaijan
For article translated into Ukrainian by Alexander
kufta (meatball) with herbs such as tarragon, chives, cilantro,
mashed yellow peas, rice and a variety of spices. The stuffing
inside is composed o f dried fruits such as sour cherries, prunes,
walnuts and almonds mixed with fried onion and a hard-boiled
egg. A kufta can be large enough to have a whole chicken stuffed
inside. The bread, sangak, is torn into pieces, soaked in the
kufta broth and eaten with turshu (relishes), Prepared by Pari
Abadi, Tabriz, specifically for Azerbaijan International. Photo:
Psychologists have long been fascinated with the problem of whether
it is heredity or rather environment that plays the greater role
in the development of the human species. Numerous studies have
focused on identical twins who were separated at birth and grew
up under different circumstances. In a sense, Azerbaijanis are
like that. Figuratively speaking, they've been separated from
their identical twin and brought up under entirely different
policies and circumstances, which have influenced their social,
political, economic and religious outlook and upbringing. These
differences, in turn, have even impacted the food they eat.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Azerbaijan was one territory
comprised of khanates and ruled locally under the jurisdiction
of the Persian Empire (known at the time as the Union of Gajar
States). Conflict broke out between Czarist Russia and Persia.
Two wars followed upon each other in short succession. Persia
was defeated and forced to cede considerable territory to Russia
in treaties signed at Gulistan (1813) and Turkmanchai (1828).
The territories now known as Georgia, Armenia and Nakhchivan
(an autonomous political region inside Azerbaijan) had to be
surrendered to Russia. Azerbaijan fared even worse because its
territory was split between both Russia and Persia. The Araz
River became the line of demarcation between what is known today
as Northern Azerbaijan (now the Republic) and Southern Azerbaijan,
which is in Iran.
Today, the greater population of Azerbaijanis lives in Iran:
only 8 million reside in the Republic, which gained its independence
from the Soviet Union in 1991. An estimated 25-30 million Azerbaijanis
live in Iran.
Nearly 200 years after being separated, these different "upbringings"
have led the "Azerbaijani twins" down the path to different
destinies and different realities - differences that we discovered
were reflected even in contemporary cuisine and eating habits.
Here Pirouz Khanlou suggests some of the major differences.
When the Bolsheviks captured Baku in April 1920 and began establishing
what would become the Soviet Union, a political course was set
in Northern Azerbaijan that would forever impact every aspect
of life-social, cultural, economic and religious. In fact, the
changes had such a profound effect that they even impacted the
traditional cuisine that had emerged over thousands of years.
The Soviet Union under Lenin (1917 to 1924) began implementing
a planned economic system to unify the vast territory that made
up the largest country on earth, comprising 15 different countries.
These policies continued under Stalin (1924-1953), who launched
an intensive industrialization program that forced the collectivization
of agriculture. The New Economic Planning (NEP) organized the
agricultural industry systematically. Stalin set out to convert
the pre-revolution indigenous feudal agricultural system into
an industrialized system, mobilizing the country in a very short
period to create a self-sufficient economy with full provision
to feed its masses.
It wasn't long before this new centralized approach impacted
the traditional cuisines of the regions. Azerbaijan was no exception.
Obviously, if a traditional recipe called for major ingredients
that were no longer grown locally or were not accessible elsewhere
in the USSR, it wasn't long before that dish totally disappeared
from the table, and subsequently within a few generations even
became erased from memory.
In other cases, even when the ingredients were readily available,
if the preparation relied upon intensive, individualized manual
labor that could not be converted to mass production in factories,
these foods also disappeared. Such was the case of "sangak"
- a flat, wide, whole wheat sourdough bread, traditionally baked
individually in tandir ovens. One of the major reasons we even
know about these foods today is that they are still prevalent
in Southern Azerbaijan.
In an effort to unify the peoples of the Soviet Union and to
create the generic "Soviet man", there was an overbearing
tendency to impose Russian culture as a model, despite the fact
that Russia was only one of the 15 nations that made up the USSR.
Directives came from Moscow and always bore the mark of Russians.
Crops that were grown - cabbage, wheat, potatoes - essentially
catered to a Russian-based cuisine. Azerbaijani cooks had no
choice but to incorporate this produce into their own recipes,
to such an extent that Russian dishes like stuffed cabbage, borscht,
pork sausages and "Stolichni"
(a mayonnaise-based chicken salad), though once foreign to Azerbaijanis'
taste buds, soon became ordinary, everyday fare.
Rice vs. Potato
One of the most pronounced differences between pre-Revolutionary
cuisine in Northern Azerbaijan is the attitude towards rice and
potato. Rice is not an integral part of the Russian diet, potato
is. And subsequently, today in Northern Azerbaijan, potato is
a much more dominant feature than rice.
Blame it on vegetable cultivation. Russians like cabbage and
use it in borscht and stuffed cabbage rolls.
Although cabbage can be grown under various climactic conditions,
rice is much more restricted and requires a wet, subtropical
climate. Soviets were intrigued with the idea of guaranteeing
fresh cabbage in Moscow markets by early April, even before the
snows had melted. This was possible if they planted and transported
it from the southern climes of Azerbaijan. And thus the rice
and tea plantations located in the Lankaran region of Azerbaijan
near the Iranian border were replaced with cabbage farms. Tea
was imported from India and exchanged for Soviet military hardware.
Rice, which had been so fundamental to Azerbaijani cuisine, became
a rarity and a great number of traditional rice dishes disappeared.
Azerbaijanis became potato and bread-eaters instead, and bread
and dough-based dishes like gutab, khangal and dushbara (dishes
unknown in Southern Azerbaijan cuisine) became the primary source
Rice was relegated to the role of luxury - a dish served only
at weddings and special occasions. But Southern Azerbaijanis,
in contrast, still enjoy rice on a daily basis, just as they
have done for centuries.
Above: Seven-Colored Pilaf
(Haft-Rang Plov) is a dish of long-grain rice decorated with
a variety of ingredients, including julienne-cut pistachios,
almonds, orange peel, potatoes, saffron-flavored fried onion
and zarish (burgundy-colored sour dried berries). Usually this
dish is served with saffron-coated chicken. Since it requires
so much preparation, it is usually served at elaborate parties.
The Soviet government soon took control of all imported goods.
As a result, the variety of spices, which provided the nuance
of flavor in Azerbaijani cuisine, disappeared. Russian cuisine
doesn't require many spices, so the Soviet economic planners
considered them superfluous and non-essential. Tightly guarded
political borders and the state-controlled economic program prohibited
spices from being imported from India or the Middle East. And
so it wasn't long before the spice bazaars, with their exotic
aromas and tantalizing colors, disappeared.
Today, there are no spice bazaars in the Republic and the range
of spices is extremely limited, especially in comparison with
Southern Azerbaijan, which is known for its famous spice bazaars
in the major cities of Tabriz, Urmia, Ardabil and Zanjan. The
Amir Bazaar in Tabriz is especially noteworthy because so many
merchants deal in spices.
Consider saffron, an exceedingly expensive spice derived from
the delicate pistils of saffron flowers that are handpicked.
Saffron provides both flavor and golden orange coloring for rice
pilaf. Soviets may have considered it "bourgeois",
and so it disappeared.
Without these spices, food in Northern Azerbaijan became much
plainer. To this day, seasonings are primarily restricted to
salt, pepper, turmeric and a few other seasonings. In the South,
Azerbaijanis still season their dishes with a wide variety of
spices, including ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, caraway,
and numerous spices and mixtures unknown to the West.
Many traditional ideas and beliefs have disappeared as well.
One dealt with the categories of "hot" and "cold"
foods - much like the beliefs of Ayurveda in India. These categories
refer to the effect food has on the body, not to the temperature
of the food itself.
If you ask an Azerbaijani in the North about the concept of "hot
and cold", you'll probably just get a blank face. But Azerbaijanis
in Iran still believe in these classifications and are careful
to follow guidelines such as: don't mix hot with hot, or cold
with cold. Hot foods are said to raise the blood pressure, cold
foods, to lower it. Foods categorized as "cold" include
cucumber, eggplant, cabbage, tomatoes, lettuce, yogurt, fish
and rice. Foods in the "hot" category include garlic,
walnuts, grapes, apples, honey, eggs, bread and red meat.
Another belief system, that of traditional medicine, has almost
totally disappeared in the North. Soviets tried to stamp out
the use of traditional medicine based on natural herbs. There
used to be herbal medicine shops called "attar", where
you could treat specific ailments with dried herbal mixtures.
Southern Azerbaijanis still have such shops.
In Hajibeyov's musical comedy of 1913, "O Olmasin, Bu Olsun"
(If Not This One, That One), the main character, Mashadi Ibad,
was one such bazaar merchant. In the 1956 movie version, scenes
of pre-Revolutionary Baku include such shops (See AI 5.3, Autumn
1997; SEARCH at AZER.com).
These days, now that Azerbaijan has gained its independence,
again people are beginning to experiment with treatments derived
from natural herbs but very minimally, as Azerbaijanis are more
used to chemical drugs.
Influence of Alcohol
The introduction of alcohol, specifically vodka, during the Soviet
period has shaped Northern cuisine in profound ways. For example,
take the presentation of food. In the Republic, guests are ushered
into a room where there is a long table covered with many small
plates, all within easy reach of every person. In Southern Azerbaijan,
however, there tends to be only one dish or platter for each
entrée, which is passed around.
Why so many small dishes? Perhaps it can be traced to the influence
of vodka. Traditionally, Azerbaijanis did not drink alcohol except
on rare occasions. In Iran, alcohol is illegal and few people
drink. But Russians are known to be hard drinkers who consider
food an accompaniment to alcohol, and not vice versa.
Russians have a saying: "Tea is not like vodka, which you
can drink a lot of". Russians have a tradition of serving
"zakuska" - appetizers set out on small plates, such
as pickles, salami, sausages, salted herring and mayonnaise-based
salads. Nibbling on such dishes enables a person to sustain drinking
for several hours.
Today, these same food
practices continue in the Republic. This may also explain why
rice is served as the last entree at weddings, long after the
major entrees are finished. Were rice to be introduced earlier,
it could interfere with drinking because the guests would be
Ash is a thick, hot vegetable- and herb-based soup mixed with
"gurut", dehyrated yogurt. Garnish with julienne-cut
oinion, crushed dried mint and saffron-flavored fried onion.
Prepared by Tayibeh Karimpour, Tabriz, specifically for Azerbaijan
International. Photo: Khanlou
Curiously, the role of vodka is evidenced in traditional expressions.
When Azerbaijanis describe a difficult task, they say, "I
had to eat a whole sheep to do this." The Russian version
is: "I had to drink half a liter (of vodka)". Azerbaijanis
in the Republic are inclined to offer a lot of toasts when drinking,
a pattern that is barely known in the South. (See "Tamada",
Autumn 1995, AI 4.3; SEARCH at AZER.com).
Another distinct difference relates to mealtimes. In Northern
Azerbaijan, there doesn't seem to be as regular a schedule for
families to eat - no matter which meal. But in Southern Azerbaijan,
fairly routine patterns have been established, and all family
members, including fathers, are usually present - even for the
Perhaps Soviet labor patterns are to blame for practices that
developed in Northern Azerbaijan and are still widespread today.
During the Soviet period, most women were required to work outside
the home. Husbands and wives were often involved in different
sectors, services or factories, which had different time schedules
that did not allow coordination of family mealtimes.
Noon meals were often served in canteens and cafeterias in government
offices and factories. In the Republic today, it is not unusual
for family members to go to the kitchen and find food that has
been prepared earlier and serve themselves.
In the South, the majority of women still do not work outside
the home and thus are able to carry out the more traditional
homemaking tasks related to their families, which could account
for more regular scheduling. Southern Azerbaijanis still break
from work during the hot midday hours. Schools are organized
in shifts "before lunch" and "after lunch",
enabling children to join family members, including their fathers,
for the noon meal.
In the Republic, no matter what time of day or night a guest
arrives, it is assumed that food will be served. There is always
some sort of food available. However, in the South there tends
to be two categories of guests - those who are invited for a
meal such as lunch or dinner, and those who drop in for tea.
Plans are made several days in advance if guests are invited
for meals so that a wide range of dishes can be prepared.
On the other hand, having guests for tea is less formal. An assortment
of sweets will accompany the tea - seasonal fruit, cakes, chocolates,
hard candies or prepared sweets like the deep-fried "zulbia"
and "bamya" dipped in syrup and "Iris", a
chocolate flavored caramel-like candy. "Sharbat", a
fruit-flavored drink, may also be offered.
In Iran, two religious months based on the lunar calendar - Ramadan
and Maharram - play a dramatic role in traditions related to
cuisine. Ramadan (known as "ramazan") is the strict
observance of fasting in Islam. People don't eat from sunrise
to sunset - in public, that is. This practice extends even to
drinking water, smoking or chewing gum. However, after sundown,
relatives and close family friends gather in each other's homes
to break their fasts. Tablecloths are lavishly spread with appetizers
and main courses. This practice continues throughout the entire
month of Ramadan and, essentially, ends up being more like a
feast than a fast.
Maharram, the month of mourning, marks the martyrdom of the third
Shiite Imam. This month is characterized by offering charity
to members of the community, especially those who are in need.
Wealthy people arrange large lunches and dinners either at home
or in local mosques. Food is shared with the poor and indigent.
Though both of these religious traditions were widely practiced
by Azerbaijanis, the Soviet takeover in Northern Azerbaijan resulted
in these practices becoming nearly extinct.
Islam places restrictions on a few foods. Those permitted are
known as "halal". Forbidden foods are called "haram"
and include pork, alcoholic drinks, sturgeon and, therefore,
caviar. (Sturgeon falls into the broader category of "fish
with no scales". However, it should be noted that this prized
fish was declared "makruh" by Islamic clergy in 1979
for the first time in the Islamic world. "Makruh" means
that permission has been granted to eat it, though it would be
better not to.)
These religious restrictions continue to impact the cuisine in
South Azerbaijan, whereas during the Soviet period with its secular
and anti-religious sentiments, such restrictions were eradicated
and Northern Azerbaijanis today generally don't observe them.
For example, one of the most prized kababs in the Republic is
sturgeon. Despite the fact that both Iran and Azerbaijan Republic
have access to the Caspian, there are no traditional sturgeon
dishes in the South. White fish is more popular.
Even the practice of inviting guests over for dinner differs
between the North and South. For instance, in the South, guests
may be invited to sit on carpets as is the tradition, where a
"sofra" - tablecloth - is spread. But in the Republic
- even in remote villages - guests are always offered chairs
to pull up around a table.
In Iran, when the guests arrive, they are usually ushered into
the living room and offered tea or "sharbat", along
with sweets or fruit. The meal is not yet set out. Later on,
the guests usually move to another room to enjoy the main courses.
The small, cramped apartments that were built during the Soviet
period don't facilitate such hospitality. Most apartments do
not have a formal dining area; the small living room often doubles
as dining room and may even triple as bedroom. When guests arrive,
the food is already set out, with all sorts of small plates of
appetizers spread on the table. All guests immediately take their
places around the table, where they are likely to stay seated
for the duration of the evening.
Obviously, there are numerous other differences that could be
elaborated. But without a doubt the political system imposed
by the Soviet system on Northern Azerbaijan has had a profound,
doubtlessly irreversible, effect on the socio-economic, religious
and cultural developments, including the traditional cuisine.
Pirouz Khanlou, publisher of Azerbaijan
International, is an architect based in California and an amateur
gourmet cook. Marjan and Narges Abadi also contributed to the
research for this article.
(8.3) Autumn 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.
Back to Index
AI 8.3 (Autumn 2000)
| Magazine Choice | Topics