Sunday, April 30, 2017

Azerbaijani Food

Azerbaijani food is not well-known in America.  To bring you a little more familiarity, I will highlight what I see as the key elements of Azeri cuisine.  Of course, these items are usually served with a variety of accompaniments, and there are many other dishes that make up Azeri national cuisine.  But I consider these four items as the staples that you will see on all restaurant menus in Baku and on many home tables, especially on holidays and special occasions.

First and foremost is bread.  Bread is eaten with every meal.  Sometimes it is thin, tortilla-like bread called lavash. Sometimes it is standard sliced bread.  But, what I think of as Azeri bread is called tendir.  Tendir is actually the name for the brick oven that is used to bake the bread.  These tendir bakeries can be found on practically every other corner of Baku.  Bread is baked throughout the day, and customers can purchase it fresh out of the oven for 50 cents, so hot that you can barely hold it.  And good tendir is fabulous all by itself, without butter or anything on it.  You just tear a piece off and enjoy!

Tendir bread - already half-eaten before the photo could be taken!

Something else that is found at breakfast, lunch, or dinner is tomatoes and cucumbers.  Sometimes they are served whole - cherry tomatoes and baby cucumbers that you just pick up with your fingers as a side dish to whatever else you're eating. Sometimes they are cut into big chunks that fit nicely on top of a hunk of tendir bread.  And sometimes they are chopped up in small pieces into what's called shepherd's salad.  Whichever way, Azeri tomatoes are some of the best you will eat anywhere.

Tomatoes and cucumbers, plus other sides and of course bread!

The main dish at many Azeri meals is kebabs.  In America, we think of kebabs as meat on a stick, cooked on the barbecue. In Azerbaijan, kebab just means grilled food, cut into bite-size pieces.  So you can have chicken, beef, or lamb kebab, but also salmon, eggplant, or potato.  And while it may possibly be a on stick while cooking, it is not served that way.  One of my favorites is lule kebab - ground lamb molded into a small roll before grilling.

Mixed kebab platter

The finale to any Azeri meal is tea, although it is also drunk with breakfast and throughout the day.  It is generally strong and served with lemon.  It does not always come with sugar; sometimes I have to remind the waiter to bring sugar. Occasionally, tea is served with jam with small pieces of fruit in it.  Instead of sugar, you can put a couple spoons of the jam, including the fruit pieces, into your tea to sweeten it.

Tea time, with all the sweets of an afternoon tea set!

I hope my descriptions have whet your appetite.  And if you disagree with my choices of the defining features of Azeri cuisine, or think I've left off an important food, let me know in the comments.  When I asked my friends about this topic, I received a laundry list of selections, so I know there's more discussion to be had on it!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My Azerbaijani Carpet

I'll admit that I've never been a carpet person.  I've gone into carpet shops in Azerbaijan and other countries, and even joined group "carpet shopping" trips.  But I would just look at carpet after carpet, and none would interest me.  Nonetheless Azerbaijan has such a proud carpet-producing history and culture that I wanted to have an Azerbaijani carpet of my own. In order to satisfy this urge while also having a carpet that would interest me, I decided to have one custom-made.

After asking around, I choose Brothers Carpets in Baku as my carpet maker and went to their shop to start the design process.  I flipped through their picture book of carpets, looking for design elements I liked.  I quickly settled on this buta example as the basis for my carpet.  The buta is a popular decorative motif in Azerbaijan, and is familiar to Americans as an element of the paisley design.  I love the buta shape, and wanted it to feature prominently in my carpet.  I added and subtracted some other symbols until I had exactly the design I wanted.

The buta basis for my carpet

The next step was picking the colors.  One of the reasons I hadn't found an Azeri carpet I liked was that most of them have a lot of deep, dark reds.  I wanted a carpet with brighter colors, especially bright blue.  I picked a bright blue as the background color for the whole carpet, and then added green, yellow, and orange to the traditional red, white, and black carpet colors.  

Yarn colors for my carpet

With the design and colors set, the carpet maker mapped out the diagram of my carpet.  This was done on graph paper, creating an exact drawing of the carpet, showing precisely where each color and design element should go.

My carpet on graph paper

Using this diagram, the weaving could finally begin.  Two women hand-wove my carpet in their home workshop in Baku. It's a large carpet - 3 meters x 2 meters, which is roughly 6.5 feet x 9.5 feet.  It is also 65 knots per square centimeter, which I'm told is high density and means higher quality.  But not knowing much about carpet production, I'll just have to take their word on that.  What I do know is that it required a lot of work - 9 months to be exact!

Weaver working on my carpet

But after all that work, I am now the proud owner of my own Azerbaijani carpet, with designs and colors that I love!

The blue buta carpet of my design

 And the carpet quickly received the ultimate seal of approval - my cats rolling around and stretching out to nap on it!

Bellini and Cosmo signal their approval!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Baku Evil Eyes

One activity that Jeremy and I have gotten more into here in Baku is Ultimate Frisbee.  Before I go any further, I will beg the indulgence of Ultimate devotees by stating upfront that I will explain Ultimate very simply and surely use incorrect terminology and commit other faux-pas against your dear sport.  Please forgive me.  I'm not an expert or even a die-hard player, but I do enjoy tossing a disc on the occasional Sunday.

For the uninitiated, Ultimate Frisbee is a real sport.  I think the simplest explanation is that it's like soccer but with a frisbee. If you'd like to know more, you can get a better description from this website or watch a cool video of awesome catches.

Jeremy makes a throw

While Jeremy and I have played Ultimate in both Portland and Nairobi, we've played more here in Baku, especially me. There's a great team here called the Baku Evil Eyes made up of Azeris and expats from all over the world who warmly welcome players of all abilities.

Adyl throws past Jeremy's kung-fu defense

Last summer, I played beach Ultimate for the first time.  I learned a few things from that experience: 
1. My bikini top was not designed to double as a sports bra.  
2. Caspian seaside sand gets really freaking hot in the midday sun.  
3. Azeri beach goers will stroll right through your field with no understanding that they are interrupting game play.  
4. It is possible to stub your toe on sand...multiple times.  I actually did it so badly that I had to take a break from all running activity for many, many weeks afterwards.

Beach Ultimate at the Caspian Sea

Another first for me was playing in an international tournament.  Ok, well, maybe it's a stretch to call it an international tournament.  But the Evil Eyes traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia to play against the team there.  Despite chilly temperatures and a rough playing field, we had a great time and the Evil Eyes won the final game in a very tight match.

Jeremy (center in gray) and Erica (orange on right) run downfield

True to form, I managed to injure myself there too.  During warm-up...yes, warm-up...I missed a catch and got a disc right in the mouth.  At first, I was afraid I might have cracked a tooth.  Luckily, the only damage was a fat lip with a nasty cut on the inside.  It gave me a crazy lopsided grin for a day.  And made it a bit difficult to eat all the khinkali, khachapuri, and wine at our victory feast of Georgian food that night!  But, as you can imagine, I persevered through the meal!

Erica's attractive fat lip

All this talk of Ultimate makes me realize I haven't played in a while.  Who's in for disc on Sunday?

Baku and Tbilisi players at our "international tournament"

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Delighted by Dubai

Dubai has been on our bucket list ever since we started our international life.  In fact, when we first joined the Foreign Service, and anyone asked Jeremy what he hoped our first assignment would be, he answered without hesitation:  "Dubai." The city has created a larger-than-life image for itself, with its indoor ski slope, palm tree island, world's tallest building and more.  And it did not disappoint!  I found the city to be amazingly fascinating!

Dubai Marina skyscrapers

Of course, it's impossible to visit Dubai without noticing the architecture.  Love it or leave it, the buildings of Dubai were built to make a statement!  And I loved it!!  If you're gonna build an apartment, or office, or hotel, why not make it interesting?! As we went through the city by taxi or metro, my face was continually glued to the window, staring up at all the passing buildings.  And I'm a total sucker for colorful lights at night, so I loved the technicolor skyline after the sun went down.

Sand, sea, salt...and skyscrapers!

When you're in Skyscraper City, you can't miss seeing the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa.  I personally found the visit to the observation deck on the 124th floor overpriced and underwhelming.  The elevator ride up was the coolest part - with anticipatory music and colorful graphics display.  Once out of the elevator, looking down on Dubai was boring to me.  However, when I looked out further towards the horizon, I was struck by how suddenly the surrounding skyscrapers and buildings gave way to barren desert, clearly demonstrating why Dubai is called an oasis in the desert.  Back down on the ground, I will admit that the Burj Khalifa is a stunning building, especially with its twinkling lights after dark.  I'd just much rather enjoy it from the ground looking up, rather than the other way around.

Jeremy at the Burj Khalifa

The glittering skyscrapers, along with the flashy sports cars revving their engines on the streets, were very visible symbols of the posh, showy aura of Dubai.  When we went to palm tree island (AKA The Palm Jumeirah), there were staff stationed at all entrances of the Atlantis Resort to be sure only registered hotel guests entered the premises.  No other tourist riff-raff allowed!  Entrance to the seven-star Burj Al Arab was similarly restrictive.  When we arrived for afternoon tea, we were stopped well before the entrance to verify our reservation before we were allowed to proceed.  I've never experienced such entrance restrictions at hotels - I guess I haven't been to enough ritzy places!!

Afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab

While Dubai was fascinating all on its own, what was equally intriguing to me was comparing it to Baku.  Since arriving in Baku, I have heard many people say that Baku is seeking to emulate Dubai.  Finally seeing Dubai for myself, I could see the resemblance.  Baku has built many new buildings in recent years, many with unique architecture and flashy light displays.  (I blogged about some of them in a post earlier this year.)  And while it's not gotten to the point of restrictive hotel entrance policies, Baku has a modified version of high-class showiness.  From gleaming new cars flashing at you to move aside on the streets, to "face control" monitors looking you up and down before allowing you into a dance club, to companies charging more for telephone numbers with desirable number combinations, Baku has its own way of letting you know if you've made it into the exclusive club.

Thankfully, neither city lets this flashiness take over all aspects of its character.  A little bit goes a long way!  I'll close out with a picture of my favorite experience from the trip - Dubai Fountain.  Each night, the fountain puts on a fabulous performance combining three of my favorite things - fountains, music, and lights.  I was in heaven!

Dubai Fountain performance

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Captivating Cappadocia

I was not planning to post about my trip to Cappadocia in central Turkey.  I initially was too busy to write a post and then felt like it was old news...after all, it's been over six weeks since my trip.  But as I thought about my experience and how memorable it was, I decided it needed to be in the blog after all!

The biggest reason for a blog post was to include photos of the unique rock formations and lovely landscape.  I've traveled through different parts of the world and have not yet seen anything comparable.  Below are some of the so-called Fairy Chimneys...fabulous clusters of rocks jutting high into the air.  I think they look like mythical mushrooms sprouting out of the ground!

Paşabağ Fairy Chimneys

The people who lived in this region hundreds of years ago used the landscape to their advantage.   The occupants carved their settlements directly into the rock faces, creating rooms for sleeping, eating, and praying.  Below is one of the fortresses built into a massive boulder perched on a ridge.

Uçisar Fortress

In the Göreme Open Air Museum, we were able to walk through one of these settlements.  Many of the chapels still had colorful murals displaying religious figures.  An especially interesting room was the dining room, where trenches had been hewn out of the rock to create benches for sitting around the table.  

Erica and Linley at Göreme Open Air Museum

To help us feel like these old settlers, we stayed in a cave hotel.  Each room was designed like a cave, with rough-cut stone walls, low ceilings, and few adornments but lots of charm.  Thankfully, we had real beds and didn't have to sleep on the hard, stone floors!

Kelebek Cave Hotel

My own room felt very cave-like with little natural light.  But as I strolled the hotel grounds, I quickly discovered the prime selling point of the location...beautiful views of the surrounding valley.

Stunning sunset viewed from my cave hotel

And as if sleeping in a cave wasn't enough, I haven't even gotten to the highlight of the first hot air balloon trip! Although getting up before dawn was not fun, the rest of the experience was amazing.  I was trepidatious as I climbed into the basket, but our ascent into the air was so gentle that I had to look down to realize we were no longer on the ground!

As we floated peacefully through the air, I'm not sure which was more exciting:  the fabulous landscape below us or the colorful dots of other balloons around us!

The ride was a magnificent capstone event to an already unforgettable trip!

Our group excited by the balloon ride!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Happily Ever After

We recently had the opportunity to attend a wedding in Azerbaijan.  My colleague Huseyn was getting married and he invited our whole office to attend the reception.  We had heard lots about Azeri weddings from friends and were excited to see and experience one for ourselves.

The first thing we noticed was the abundance of food.  It is the custom in Azerbaijan to treat your wedding guests to more food than they could possibly manage to consume.  

Table laden with fruits, meats, vegetables, bread, and more!

Additionally, weddings are a time for gourmet menu items not eaten on a regular basis.  Although Baku used to be a haven for inexpensive caviar, it is now more of a luxury item.  We were delighted to find two types of caviar on our table!

Jeremy's ready to dig into the caviar

Towards the end of the meal, there was a special ceremony for the final dinner course:  plov or rice pilaf.  A signature dish of Azerbaijan, plov is often eaten on a regular basis in most Azerbaijani households, yet is also celebrated at special occasions such as weddings.  A dancer processed slowly through the ballroom with the flaming plate of plov before presenting it to the new couple.

Dancer presenting the flaming plov

Another primary feature of Azeri weddings is music.  We had been warned that the music would be ear-splittingly loud and never-ending.  While the music did go on all night, it was kept at a reasonable volume and was actually a lot of fun.  There was a live band, complete with a classy saxophone player.  At one point in the evening, there were even dueling saxophones!

Play it again sax man!

And with music, there was of course wedding dancing.  Everyone got on the dance floor and showed off their Azeri dance moves.  And us Americans even got a shout-out from the MC for giving it our best - who knows if the crowd was grinning with us or at us!

The bride and groom perform an Azeri dance

It was a fabulous evening all around.  Thank you to Huseyn and Fidan for including us on their special day and best wishes for a long and happy marriage!

Jeremy and Erica enjoy the loving atmosphere of the evening

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Travels in Azerbaijan

We recently traveled to Western Azerbaijan over the Gurban Bayram weekend.  Gurban is the local name of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, celebrated one month after the end of Ramadan.  This Festival of the Sacrifice honors Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to show his devotion to God.  On this holiday, Azerbaijanis slaughter a sheep.  Along the road, we passed a large sheep market, busy with men literally purchasing their sacrificial lamb.

"Come and get your sheep!"

We also passed this poor sheep, whose forlorn expression seemed to indicate he was aware he was tied up next to the skin of his recently slaughtered brethren.

"Oh boy...I'm next"

We stayed in Azerbaijan's 2nd largest city, Ganja.  (Yes, all you potheads, that's the real name of the city.)  My favorite spot in Ganja was Khan Garden, which was a lovely green oasis including a pond with a swan.  

Jeremy and Erica in Khan Garden

One of the curiosities of Ganja is the "Bottle House," whose exterior facade is decorated with designs made out of thousands of glass bottles.

Brian is overcome with excitement by the Bottle House

Outside the city, we ate fresh qutab from a roadside vendor.  Qutab is a bit like an Azerbaijani crepe.  It's made with a thin flatbread called lavash (similar to a tortilla) filled with yumminess (either herbs, meat, or pumpkin) that is folded in half, heated, and slathered with butter.

Qutab in the making

And of course, no Azerbaijani road trip is complete without tea...lots of tea!

Love that tablecloth!  Made me feel like I was back in Kenya!