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!