I had been an avid reader of Feride Buyuran’s blog, the AZ cookbook; I learned she was getting ready to finally publish her own cookbook based on her native land’s cuisine, Azerbaijan, and was eager to lay my hands on it.
I’ve had the cookbook in my possession for several months now, and I cannot let go of it and put it away.
This is a definitive book on Azerbaijani cuisine. It is a hardback cookbook made-up of 332 pages in which each recipe is illustrated by color photos, thorough explanations including cultural annotations and anecdotes.
This cookbook reminds me by its sheer scope of Marcella Hazan’s on Italian cuisine or Najmieh Batmanglij’s on Persian cuisine. Honestly, I dont think I will be needing another work on Azerbaijani cuisine. It is comprehensive and clearly laid-out; the collection of recipes will satisfy the most exacting cook. The cultural tidbits and descriptions will delight those of us who yearn to travel through food. In that sense, it is not just a cooking guide, but also a travelogue. This book sums-up five years of canvassing Azerbaijian, tasting recipes, mingling with locals, questioning Feride’s relatives and contacts and getting hundreds of tips.
The best I can say about this work is not only how impressive it is due to its magnitude, but also how deftly Feride teaches us about her culture. The margin notes contain “words of wisdom” in which Feride annotates a common proverb related to that dish, which adds a cultural depth to the recipe. Feride is able to teach the reader while making it seem fun and easy. Each recipe is thorough, ensuring success. Her prose is excellent, which is quite a feat considering English is not her native language.
As a Lebanese-American, I found the recipes familiar at first glance; the savory hand pies, the way to cook veggies and fruits into compotes for instance; further reading though uncovers their uniqueness. For instance, a “compote” is actually a combo of fresh juice and fruit and is served in a glass kind of like a fruit punch or a sangria. Feride explains the method is to first drink the juice, then scoop out the fruit chunks.
The book offers a “Menus” section, with suggested menus for various occasions such as Novruz, breakfast, Kids snack, etc; a section entitled “Basics and Techniques”, essential in an ethnic cookbook as it offers detailed explanations on such traditional cooking steps that may not be familiar to the Western cook such as basic yogurt making, cheesemaking, sour paste, grinding cardamom or how to remove bitterness from eggplant.
The cookbook includes traditional beverages “sharbat” and there is even a section on the wine industry in the country.
The sweets section is made-up of preserves and pastries. The preserves are traditional and based on the local fruits in Azerbaijian such as mulberry, cherry, quince, apples, fig, apricot, and even pumpkin which is also found in Lebanon.
Each section is preceded by an detailed introduction explaining the place of the section in Azeri lifestyle. For example, sweets are made-up of 18 items, from baklava-style pastries to hand pies to sweet breads, cookies, halva, jelly and even an omelet cake.
I was especially interested in noting the similarities between Azerbaijani cooking and Lebanese cooking and traditions. for instance, some recipes use the saj oven, same as in Lebanon, like the saj crêpe “makhara”. For example, one of their homestyle dessert, “firni” is basically a milk pudding thickened with rice flour, which is almost identical to our “muhallabiyeH” (Page 199); or the tradition of adding a leaf of scented geranium while cooking preserves, which is also practiced in rural areas in Lebanon.
In the above dish, for example, in Lebanon in the Shouf mountains, people might add a swirl of pomegranate molasses to the eggs; in Azerbaijan, the eggs are fried atop a bed of onion and pomegranate arils. Similar dishes include a yogurt salad with purslane or the tradition of cooking lamb in lamb fat to preserve it.
The green beans dish above was also similar to the Lebanese one, the difference being that basil and eggs are added. (Delicious!)
I LOVED Feride’s rice section, all of six pages with photos and an equipment list, which included a section on “crust”, and the different crusts (potato, bread or rice) used to obtain that golden crispy crust so essential when making pilaf.
Some cultural descriptions in the recipes are charming, such as this one: “ a goose feather dipped in a saffron infusion decorates the top layer” . Glad I live in the mountains, and we actually have some geese in the henhouse, so it would not be a problem to get a hold of some feathers!
Some recipes are so unique, such as the Cow’s Feet Soup (Khash), reminding me of similar Persian or Iraqi hearty recipes like Pasha, the soup made with sheep head and feet.
Some bread recipes reminded me in their technique of Armenian breads, and lavash is also listed as part of the important bread and pastry section.
Some recipes are from the Soviet-era and are still popular in Azerbaijian, such as the Capital Salad. Interestingly, the Lebanese became quite enamored with this salad too, which was called “salade russe” and served in all coffee shops in Beirut; my guess is that it was introduced by the White Russians who immigrated to Lebanon after the Soviet takeover.
I was very interested in the recipe for sour paste made from plums; it is used as a condiment in many recipes in the book and I wished I had made some with the overflow of plums we had in the orchard this past Summer!
The book is chockfull of photos, both of food and sights.
The book is also not lacking in practical sections, such as one on sourcing the ingredients, a section on metric conversions, as well as a valuable section on additional resources for the reader eager to deepen his or her knowledge of Azerbaijani culture.
I would have liked very much to see a map in the book so that I could locate Azerbaijian and its neighbors in Asia, in addition to a topographical map showing the various regions and cities the author refers to when listing the recipes.
In conclusion, just order it! You will not regret it.
PS: Last year, Feride started organizing food and discovery tours in Azerbaijan (and neighboring Georgia I believe); I hope to join her next time, as its a part of the world I would love to visit.
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