Adventure is a big word for today’s post. Sure, it mostly takes place in caravanserais and some of the meals were of epic proportions, but I’m still just talking about restaurants and food. After our short trip to Nakhchivan, nest of spies, we’re back in Baku, ready to enjoy the opportunity to eat something other than lamb kebabs and tomatoes.
Baku offers a wide selection of international cuisines, with an emphasis on Turkish, Georgian, and Russian. Save for the Georgian restaurants which you may not be able to find back home, it’s wisest to focus on the Azeri cuisine. And while simple local places and out-of-the-way outdoor restaurants abound and usually serve good food, in the old city you also have the rather unique option to eat in converted cavaranserais.
Mugam Club is my favorite such caravanserai restaurant. The fact that it’s a fairly expensive (by Azerbaijan’s standards) and touristy (by Azerbaijan’s standards) place with occasional mugam performances, folk dances, and even belly dancers shouldn’t dissuade even the most cynical among you from enjoying the atmosphere of the remarkable 16th century premises for the time of a meal. More pictures of the courtyard here.
Without exploring the more obscure corners of Azeri cuisine, the menu covers the classics, often in many versions. The dolma, vegetables stuffed with rice and meat and served with yogurt, can be had in grape leaves, tomatoes, eggplants, or — of course — peppers.
The kutab, a stuffed flatbread sprinkled with sumac, comes with four possible fillings: greens, pumpkin, meat, or cheese.
In the vegetable appetizers, you’ll find various combinations of the ubiquitous peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and onions. There’s the eggplant caviar. And the eggplant chikhirtma, which consists of onion, eggplant, and egg fried in oil. Finally, the similarly prepared vegetable ragu (no Azeri name) combines eggplant, pepper, potato, tomato, onion, and greens.
Of course even in Baku, it’s hard to escape the kebabs. Here is a serious platter of lavash-wrapped lyulya-kebabs with grilled vegetables. These were among the best kebabs I’ve ever eaten.
There are lamb chops and lamb kebabs, chicken kebabs, and “special” beef kebabs, but also skewers of sturgeon chunks and sturgeon lyulya-kebabs. Seasoned with spices and properly grilled, sturgeon can be soft and delicious.
The selection of plovs is equally impressive. Unlike its Uzbek counterpart which is quite oily and where all the ingredients are cooked together, Azeri plov is usually a combination of a garnish (fruits, vegetables, or meat) and rice cooked separately. The rice is sometimes served with gazmag, a simple dough placed at the bottom of the pot that turns into crust during the cooking. I say sometimes, because I’ve read about gazmag in cookbooks but was never able to land a piece on my plate when I was in Azerbaijan! The different kinds of plov served at Mugam Club are:
- Shirin, which means sweet, with chestnuts, dried apricots, dates, and raisins (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
- Chikhirtma. with chicken and egg (picture and recipe in English here)
- Albali, with chicken and cherries
- Fisinjan, with chicken or lamb meatballs, walnuts, and onion (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
- Turshu-Govurma, turshu meaning acid and govurma meaning roast meat, with lamb, onion, chestnuts, and plum (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
- Giyma-Badimjan, giyma meaning ground meat and badimjan, eggplant
- Sabzi-Govurma, with lamb and various green herbs such as coriander, tarragon, and dill; quite similar to Georgian chakapuli (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
The next most popular caravanserai restaurant in the city is named Karavansara. There used to be this large sign above the building that you couldn’t miss when you entered the Old City, but I don’t remember seeing it last time I was in Baku so it may have been taken down.
I didn’t document our meals there as thoroughly (it’s harder work than it looks), but here are a few appetizers. You’ll notice that the eggplant caviar, though containing a similar mix of eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes, looks completely different from the one at Mugam Club. The plate of smoked fish consists of sturgeon, salmon, and potatoes. Because the climate is so hot, smoked fish in Azerbaijan (as well as caviar) has traditionally been very salty, and the availability of refrigeration hasn’t really changed that yet.
The choice of kebabs is more or less the same as at Mugam Club. I seem to remember that you can order the complete assortment on a dramatic presentation tray with coals in the middle (like this one).
Finally, if you have the appetite, time, and money, spend another couple hours drinking tea with an assortment of sweets — Azeri baklava, candied fruits, and walnuts in honey. Enjoying a local “cognac” isn’t a bad idea either, and Tovuz is the most famous brand. You can even finish your evening with a hookah.
Speaking of hookahs, Azerbaijan makes the best ones I’ve had so far, although I can’t really pinpoint what makes the difference. The bowl where the tobacco goes is often replaced with a carved out half-apple, and it’s not rare to be offered a variety of options to fill the base with — water, milk, wine, or cognac! However, keep in mind that weirder isn’t necessarily tastier. Below is the craziest configuration I encountered.
On the final night of our last time in Baku, we wanted to have one last hookah while enjoying views of the old city from one of the rooftop cafes (I know, I know, I’m such a tourist :)). We placed our order with the waiter without even suspecting what was coming. Tobacco flavor? Mix of watermelon and mint. Liquid for the base? Milk, please. Regular bowl, apple bowl, or watermelon? (At this point I’m mentally trying to picture what the hell an actual watermelon has to do with a hookah pipe.) Hmmm, let’s try the watermelon thing, whatever that means. Next thing we knew (OK, not exactly next — it took about half an hour for them to prepare the beast), the waiter came back with a whole watermelon transformed into a hookah base.
Now, is a watermelon hookah really better than a well-prepared one, with the apple bowl and milk? No.