I’ve previously posted a pepper dolma recipe from Azerbaijan, but today’s dish hails from Uzbekistan and is prepared fairly differently. Shurpa means soup or broth in Uzbek, and the stuffed vegetables here are served in a flavorful broth. My recipe is loosely adapted from Hakim Ganiev‘s Oriental Feast, but I’ve made many changes, such as the use of my beloved pressure cooker.
Red Alert! Random Eastern European dishes are invading our streets and restaurants! Should you duck and cover, or welcome the enemy?
Almayass, the recently-opened New York offshoot of a Beirut restaurant, claims to serve Lebanese-Armenian cuisine. And this is rather exciting, because as far as I know, the Armenian restaurant contingent in NYC had dwindled to a grand total of one (Sevan in Bayside). And if you’re wondering about the Lebanese/Armenian association, you can find out more here about the history of Armenians in Lebanon.
Obviously, I’m not going to write Red Alerts for just any joint that serves kebabs, so I chose to focus on the small selection of dishes that were explicitly Armenian, either because the menu said so, or because they were recommended as such by our waiter.
The dolma on the menu were stuffed eggplant, but there was also a dish named sarma that my non-Lebanese self would call grape-leaf dolma. We went with the sarma. The very moist and tasty filling consisted of rice and a vegetable mixture in which I think I recognized tomato, eggplant, and cabbage, with lemon juice. This was a great improvement from the all-too-common beat-up, brownish leaves stuffed with dry rice.
The sudzhuk, a dry, spicy beef sausage, was served on toasted bread and topped with quail eggs. Simple but delicious, the richness of the egg balancing the spiciness of the sausage. I almost didn’t notice the dismal yellow lettuce on the plate!
The basterma was also a success. The air-dried, cured beef was pretty well-marbled, salty and spicy as it should be, but not overpoweringly so. It did not sport the thick, reddish spice coating that is the norm and can have an unpleasant taste.
We tried several more Lebanese dishes that were generally good but sometimes needed a little tuning. I’d say the Armenian ones were the highlight of the meal.
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. Here’s the eggplant caviar.
The eggplant chikhirtma consists of onion, eggplant, and egg fried in oil.
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.
It may be hard to imagine when you’re eating lamb kebab after lamb kebab in Azerbaijan, but there are a lot more dishes in the national culinary repertoire. In Baku, you can reasonably expect to find excellent meat dolma, which are vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, zucchinis or onions) stuffed with a mixture of rice and ground lamb, often served with a yogurt sauce. This is a simple dish, and yet in many recipes it ends up being too dry or just lacking flavor, often because the authors don’t bother telling you how to best cook the rice, or what piece of lamb to use (when they don’t substitute ground beef out of laziness). I went through countless iterations to maximize the airiness, juiciness, and, of course, flavor, and the results are finally here. Enjoy!
Different colored peppers will give you a different taste, so choose your favorite. I picked an assortment from the Union Square Greenmarket. For the seasoning, I love Urfa pepper for its fruity and smoky taste, but you can replace it with chili pepper flakes.
Yields about 4 servings
10 oz lamb stock
1 1/2 oz Arborio rice
4 oz sliced onion
1/2 sliced garlic clove
10 oz tomatoes, halved
1 lb boneless lamb shoulder with some fat
1 tbsp chopped tarragon
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp Urfa pepper
4 medium-sized bell peppers (any color)
1 tsp olive oil
- In a saucepan over medium heat, reduce the stock by half. Add the rice, top with the onion, garlic, and tomatoes, cover with a lid and cook for 15 minutes over low heat. Remove the lid, discard the skins from the tomatoes, and cook over medium heat until the liquid is fully absorbed, stirring regularly. Let cool completely.
- Coarsely chop the lamb meat, keeping all the fat — I even include the bone marrow when I have some. Process in a meat grinder using the large die, then transfer to a bowl and mix with the tarragon, salt, Urfa pepper, and rice mixture. Grind once more with the large die, and refrigerate.
- Cut off the tops of the peppers, and carve out the cores, membranes and seeds. Char the insides with a blow torch until they look as pictured below (this is not absolutely necessary, but it adds some, uh, charred flavor).
- Fill the peppers with some well-packed stuffing (the rice already keeps the dolma airy), place in a dish brushed with the olive oil, and cook in a 300 F oven for about 90 minutes, until their internal temperature reaches 160 F. The exact timing will of course depend on the size of the peppers. Some varieties of peppers also require more cooking than others — I found that my green peppers were still crunchy when my red ones were perfectly done, but I don’t claim any scientific basis! What you can do is blow-torch the outside of the peppers a bit, either before putting them in the oven or after taking them out.
- Let the peppers rest for 5 minutes and serve with some saffron yogurt.
Yields 4 servings
4 oz plain yogurt
1/4 tsp saffron
1/8 tsp salt
- In a bowl, mix the yogurt with the saffron and salt, and let rest at room temperature for about 1 hour. Stir before serving.