Caucasus Adventures Redux

I’ve recently posted the last installment of my Azerbaijan Adventures, so it’s time to say farewell to the Caucasus (for the time being, at least), and look back at all I have distilled over the past three years.

Like a goat jumping over the snowy peaks of the Caucasus, I have traveled through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and their respective renegade regions. In writing about my journeys, I intentionally left aside the most-traveled routes to focus on more extreme tourism, food, and cooking. I called them Adventures, although your humble main protagonists spent more time changing flat tires, dealing with hard-looking and/or corrupt customs officers, asking their way around in the middle of nowhere, and drinking local moonshine, than accomplishing any kind of crazy exploits.

Soviet Stamp - Caucasian Goat

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 9

We last left off our Azerbaijan adventures with our arrival in the remote village of Xinaliq:

Azerbaijan - XinaliqBetween the travel guides that present it as the Shangri-La of isolated picturesque mountain villages, and a new paved road that makes it accessible to any second-hand-Lada driver, there is enough interest in Xinaliq for the locals to have a modicum of organized tourist accommodation. You’re still unlikely to bump elbows with many foreigners (we didn’t see any others when we were there), but there’s a 3-room guest house with a bathroom and hot water (a rarity), and even a cell phone antenna in the middle of the village!

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Kutab, Azerbaijani Stuffed Flatbread

Kutabs are among the most popular Azeri dishes, together with plov, dolma, and of course kebabs (kebabs being a distant first: virtually the only meal you’ll ever eat in a restaurant outside of Baku). A kutab — not to be confused with kutap — is essentially a lavash filled with savory stuffing while still raw, then folded in half and pan-fried. It is often served with a sprinkling of sumac on top, a red spice which imparts a lemony note.

Baku - Mugam Club Restaurant

Classic lamb kutab, as served at Mugam Club in Baku

The most common kutab fillings are ground lamb and greens, with the occasional cheese or winter squash, but you can pretty much do whatever you want, as long as the layer of stuffing remains quite thin. In addition to the four above-mentioned classics, all of which I’m presenting here with some personal tweaks, I’ve also created two new “signature” kutabs.

My first new kutab uses foie gras and pomegranate in a nod to all the Brooklyn restaurants that feature the fattened duck liver on their menus for no apparent reason other than it’s expensive and French. Baku Palace serves kutabs and foie gras as separate dishes, so why not put them together?

The second contains actual duck meat. I recently posted a duck breast kebab, and now you can use the legs (and the wings if you’d like) to make a kutab. Then you’ve got the whole bird turned into an Azeri dinner for 4!

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Duck Breast Kebab, Pomegranate Narsharab and Corn Plov

Azerbaijani Cuisine - Duck Breast Kebab

When it comes to making kebabs, duck probably isn’t the first meat that comes to mind. And yet, duck breast has all it takes to be a success on the grill: tender meat and an ample layer of fatty skin. In fact, by assembling two breast halves together, the meat is completely wrapped in fat, which produces perhaps the juiciest and most tender duck breast you’ll ever eat!

A drizzle of narsharab (reduced pomegranate juice) and grilled vegetables is all you need for accompaniment. However, if you want to add some variety to your kebab routine (and because this blog is called Food Perestroika, not Food Stagnation), try my Azerbaijani corn plov. Granted, I have over 60 recipes of Azerbaijani plov, and not a single one of them contains corn (incidentally, I found renditions with goose and wheat). But not to worry: there’s corn in Azerbaijan, and there’s nothing stopping the locals from adding it to their plov. The reason why I’m so adamant about the corn is that it goes well with duck, upholding a theory that pairs meat with common foods eaten by the same animal.

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Shashlyk Five Fingers

Azerbaijan Cuisine - Shashlyk Five Fingers

I’ve already talked about Stalik Khankishiev a few times, most recently here. In this video, Our Stalik demonstrates an interesting idea. Summer’s coming to an end, you’ve braved the heat wave and the thunderstorms to make kebabs more times than you care to remember — seriously, who thought summer was the best season for grilling? Your ungrateful guests are getting tired of eating the same meat kebabs all the time, and yet the grill demands to be used. Enter the shashlyk “Five Fingers” — a massive display of the most succulent cuts of lamb to be remembered! (By the way, if you know Russian, Stalik has an interesting blog.)

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Lyulya-Kebabs: An Epic Journey

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

I’ve often spoken of lyulya-kebabs, whether to criticize the ones I’ve eaten in New York  restaurants (such as here, here, or here), or to sing the praise of the ones I’ve had in Azerbaijan (here and here). Truth be told, it’s not all that easy to excel at preparing those skewers of ground lamb, partly because they need to satisfy two diametrically opposed criteria.  On the one hand, you want the meat to be moist, juicy, and airy. On the other, the whole dish is a challenge to the laws of gravity — do you know many other dishes that consist of hanging plump cylinders of ground meat on a stick horizontally over an open pit??? I shall now present to you this epic, 4-years-in-the making post — the ultimate reference for the Western lyulya-kebab aficionado!

In Kazan, Mangal, and Other Manly Pleasures, Stalik Khankishiev delivers his secrets to a great lyulya-kebab. Khankishiev’s rather derivative “recipe” consists of four pages of dense text with no ingredient list per se — you’re supposed to know them already: lean lamb meat, lamb fat, onion. But the recommendations are overall quite useful. Here are his 7 commandments, paraphrased and with my own remarks:

  1. Buy meat from the shoulder or the breast [I couldn’t agree more], that’s so fresh it’s never been refrigerated [easier said than done, not to mention that aging meat is essential to its taste].
  2.  Trim all the fat and silverskin from the lean meat.
  3. Cut the meat in small pieces, and chop it using two cleavers, one in each hand, turning the board 90 degrees between each pass, until you get a fine, smooth forcemeat “that pleases the eye”. [Yeah, and post the video on YouTube. Our Stalik tends to reject any tool or technique that was invented after the industrial revolution. However, if you live in the 21st century, I promise you that you can the same result with an electric meat grinder. I also don’t agree with the idea that the meat must be ground homogeneously. It seems to me that a good lyulya must contain various grinds, from totally pureed to large die.]
  4. Take a piece of tail fat and cut it into pieces the size of rice grains. [It is unfortunately unlikely that you’ll be able to find fat-tailed lamb at your butcher’s. But fear not, the cuts we use for the lean meat contain plenty of delectable fat, too. And here again, a meat grinder can do wonders.]
  5. Cut the onion into small dice. [By hand, of course.]
  6. Mix the lean meat, fat and onion, using 1000 / 200 / 150 as a guideline for the proportions. Season with salt, pepper and spices. For spices, don’t overdo it to preserve the taste of the meat.  It is recommended that you use only cumin and coriander. [And the $1M test…] Take a small amount of the mixture, form a ball, and throw it against the wall of the mixing bowl. If the ball keeps its shape, you’re good, if it smashes, you’re screwed. 
  7. Refrigerate the meat while you make the fire. You will need a pretty hot fire. [As opposed to most shashlyks, that are traditionally prepared on coals that are almost entirely consumed].

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

My recipe differs on several points:

  • I am adding cooked rice to the mixture to make it airier, and to absorb some of the meat juices and grease that will run during cooking. This also gives me the opportunity to add stock for extra lamb flavor.
  • I prefer cooking the onions before adding them to the ground meat, so I add them to the rice. I combine them with ground star anise, following Heston Blumenthal’s finding that it intensifies the meatiness of a dish.
  • For the spices, besides the star anise, I choose one of my usual favorite peppers, Urfa pepper, for its delicious fruity and smoky taste. I do agree, however, that cumin is a great match with lamb. I also agree that you should avoid masking the taste of the meat with too many spices. Feel free to experiment on your own.
  • Another flavor that I appreciate in great lyulya-kebab is a hint of tomato. I tried to use fresh tomatoes that I cooked with the rice, but it made the final mixture too soft to stay on the skewers, so I turned to tomato paste.
  • I included transglutaminase in the ingredients. Obviously, nobody uses that in Azerbaijan! If you happen to have some, use it. If not, just omit it and be extra careful when you grill the kebabs.
  • Finally, I should mention that I also experimented with xylitol, a naturally occurring sweetener with a scary chemical name. Studies have shown that adding 0.5% to 1% of the meat amount in xylitol to ground lamb makes the final result more pleasant to most tasters (plain sugar, on the other hand, makes it less pleasant). And I tend to agree, though of course it’s not exactly typically Azeri. Try it for yourself… Xylityol is available as a powder in vitamin stores.

Traditional accompaniments would be lavash, thinly sliced onion with sumac, and grilled vegetables  (by the way, the white traces on my vegetables are not ash, but salt). I’m adding my own touch here with a great charred eggplant purée.

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

   The picture above shows a piece of lamb breast. What I usually do is, separate the fat from the lean meat and measure the amount of fat I need. I then remove the silverskin from the lean meat, and I use some shoulder meat (like the one in this post) to complement if necessary.

Lyulya-kebab mixture
Yields about 4 servings

4 oz peeled onion, small dice
1/2 oz rendered lamb fat (or olive oil)
1/4 tsp ground star anise
1 tsp tomato paste
3/4 oz rice
4 oz lamb stock
1 lb lean lamb meat (from breast and shoulder), chopped into 1″ cubes
3 1/2 oz lamb fat (from breast), chopped into 1″ cubes
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp Urfa pepper
1 tsp transglutaminase (optional)

  • Sauté the onion in the rendered lamb fat in a saucepan over medium heat until soft but not colored. Add the ground star anise, stir for a minute, then add the tomato paste and stir for another minute. Mix in the rice, then add the stock and bring to a simmer. Cover with a lid, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rice is very tender and the liquid fully absorbed. Remove from the heat, let cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.
  • Using the medium die of a meat grinder, grind 1/3 of the lean lamb meat. Mix in a bowl with another 1/3 of the meat, the lamb fat, rice mixture, salt, Urfa pepper, and transglutaminase. Grind the mixture, mix with the remaining meat, and grind once more. Cover and refrigerate. (If you use transglutaminase, refrigerate for at least 2 hours.)

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

Cheese and charred eggplant purée
Yields about 4 servings

1/2 lb Italian or Japanese eggplants, stems removed
2 oz gouda
2 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp smoked salt
1/4 tsp ground cumin
black pepper, ground

  • Char the eggplants on all sides over a gas burner or using a blow torch (or on the grill!). Let rest in a closed plastic container for 5 minutes.
  • Chop the eggplants into large chunks. In a blender, process the eggplants, cheese, heavy cream, olive oil, lemon juice, smoked salt, cumin, and pepper.
  • Pass through a chinois, transfer to a plastic container, and reserve.
  • Reheat before serving. The purée should be warm but not piping hot.

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

Grilling the kebabs

Grilling lyulya-kebabs requires some special gear. First off, the meat goes on broad, flat skewers (see my photos below). You can purchase some here or here (at least at the Sheepshead Bay Rd location). If you’re familiar with Brazilian barbecue, large blade churrasco skewers are also fairly similar. Second, you’ll need a barbecue with a removable grill plate, so skewers can be placed across, right above the coals. Ideally, you would have a mangal, like on the above picture (available here, too), but any grill that will fit your skewers will work.

Time to make the fire. Do yourself a favor and skip the alcohol-soaked briquettes that stink up your backyard and your meat. At the very least, buy natural wood charcoal, the kind that don’t come in perfectly shaped ovoids. I like to go one step further and use wood chunks instead. If you use a starter, make sure it’s smell-free, too: odorless alcohol (typically sold in the paint department of your local hardware store), kindling, or newspaper all work well, with or without a chimney or a bellows. Shortly after all the flames have died, you are ready to grill— count about an hour for the whole setup. As Stalik said, you want the coals to be quite hot.

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

To shape the lyulyas, dip your hands in hot water, then grab some meat and wrap it around a skewer. You can make the kebab as long as you want (within reason), but don’t make it too wide if you don’t want it to fall on the coals! Look at my close-ups — there’s just enough meat to form a comfortable blanket all around the metal. This also prevents the kebab from drying out while you cook it.

Now, don’t go thinking your job is done once you place the skewers over the coals! The kebabs need to be turned very frequently; according to Stalik, they should be turned whenever they get a shade darker, and whenever you see grease dripping on the coals. The goal is to keep them moist and stop the grease from causing too many flames that will burn the meat. Personally, I think that a few small flames licking the meat once in a while are OK and add some flavor, but only a few! FYI, the pictures above were taken at approximately 1 minute intervals [how scientific of me]. By the fourth picture, the skewer on the right is ready. As a matter of fact, the meat is ready when the outside is a nice medium-brown color, and the inside is at that point where it just turned from pink to grey — a lyulya-kebab cannot be served rare, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious.

I recommend that you start small, a couple lyulyas at a time, and proceed with larger batches as you get more confident.

Lyulya-kebabs have to be served and consumed immediately. They should not be eaten cold or reheated. To paraphrase Stalik Khankishiev one last time, human words aren’t enough to describe a good lyulya-kebab.

Azerbaijan - Lyulya-Kebab

Happy Novruz!

Wishing you all a happy Novruz! I am including some pictures of President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva taking part in the festivities in Baku, eating plov (above) or drinking tea with the traditional sweets (below).

I realize that Food Perestroika’s repertoire of Azeri cuisine is somewhat limited at the moment (the most notable entry being the Pepper Dolma), but I promise I’ve got new recipes coming soon.

In the meantime, you can check out the dishes in my latest Azerbaijan Adventures here and here.

Pepper Dolma

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.

Pepper dolma
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.

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.

Lavash, Armenian Flatbread

Lavash is a large flatbread popular in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, where it’s commonly used to wrap food like kebabs. The etymology of the word is unclear, and various scholars alternately mention an Armenian, Turkic or Persian origin.

The picture above shows the lavash stacks at the market in Yerevan. These breads are quite large, but you don’t need to invest in a Guiness-Book-worthy griddle to make excellent lavash. The authors of Flatbreads & Flavors, a rather original book from which my recipe below is adapted, recommend using a wok turned upside down. This method produces delicious flatbreads of about 12″ in diameter. If you really want a paper-thin result, you can use a pasta machine instead of a rolling pin — the lavash won’t be any less good if it’s rectangular rather than oval!

Yields 4 flatbreads

6 oz water, lukewarm
1 1/2 tsp honey
1/4 tsp active dry yeast
10 oz flour, sifted
1/2 tsp salt
olive oil

  • In a cup, mix the water with the honey and yeast, and let rest for 10 minutes.
  • Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment, add about 3/4 of the flour, and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add the rest of the flour and the salt, switch to the dough hook attachment, and knead for 5 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, for about 3 hours.
  • Punch down the dough and let rest for another 10 minutes.

  • Divide into 4 equal pieces, and roll into 10″ x 12″ ovals using a rolling pin (or into thinner rectangles using a pasta machine). Don’t forget to flour your work surface generously as you go, giving quarter turns to your dough between each roll.
  • Turn a wok upside down on a gas burner, and heat on the highest setting for a few minutes. Rub the wok with a paper towel soaked with olive oil, and place a lavash on the wok. Flip several times, every 30 to 45 seconds, until nice brown blisters start to form.
  • Remove from heat and eat immediately — nothing beats freshly baked bread. If you have to wait, cover with a towel, and spray with a bit of water before reheating.

Armenian Adventures, Part 5

The last part of our Armenian Adventures takes us to Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent but unrecognized state within Azerbaijan (I’m sticking to the Wikipedia entry to avoid debates).

Before heading to Karabakh, we made one last stop at the Goris market, where the usual Armenian produce (peppers, eggplant, zucchini, beans, radishes, tomatoes, watermelon and apricots) share room with some freshwater fish — not refrigerated, of course!

So let me now start with some practical information for the prospective tourists. All foreign visitors (except the ones from some of the former Soviet Republics) need to obtain a visa just for Nagorno-Karabakh. You can find detailed information here, although unlike what is said on this site and in travel guides, I was able to get my visa by mail from the Nagorno-Karabakh permanent representation in Washington, DC. Things may have changed, but it’s definitely worth giving these guys a call. Here’s what my visa looked like, back in summer 2009:

The only way into Karabakh is from Armenia. Coming from Azerbaijan is completely out of question. I do see a bridge on the map at the Iranian border, near the Khoda Afarin reservoir, but this is not an official crossing point and I couldn’t find any information about it. This bridge is so remote, sandwiched between destroyed Azerbaijani villages and the Alborz moutain range, that I’d be very curious to hear from someone who’s been there!

The most usual road (but not the only one, as we’ll see later) goes from Goris through the infamous Lachin corridor. At the border, you will have to stop briefly at a police check, where they will write down your information into a book that I bet nobody will ever read. As you will find out pretty soon, Karabakh feels like a part of Armenia more than an independent country. There may be a puppet president, but the people, language, currency, police and army are all Armenian. The picturesque road to the capital Stepanakert was rebuilt thanks to donations from the Armenian diaspora and is in excellent condition (like most roads in Armenia, really):

Upon your arrival in Stepanakert, you will have to register at the NKR Foreign Ministry. This can be slightly more complicated than it seems. When we got there, the whole town center was experiencing a blackout, and we only miraculously managed to get the paperwork done much later in the evening.

If Stepanakert is trying hard to rebuild, to turn the page of the conflict with Azerbaijan, there is still a lot to do in the rest of the region. Here’s an appartment building in the center of Shushi, a town that used to have a predominantly Azerbaijani population and changed hands several times during the war:

All the mosques in Shushi have been destroyed or heavily damaged, like the Upper Govhar Agha Mosque:

But the systematic destruction of former Azerbaijani communities is nowhere as obvious as in Agdam, a city that once had a population of 40,000 people and has become a ghost town:

All of the buildings have been gutted, and sometimes completely razed, to prevent the Azerbaijani population from coming back — something you see on a smaller scale throughout Karabakh and even Armenia.

The ruins remain a buffer zone for the Armenian army and are technically banned for sightseeing. Getting there isn’t too hard though: the access road is simply blocked by a small chain and everybody drives around it. This is the paradox about Agdam — the whole town is supposed to be off limits, but you certainly see a lot of cars crossing it, and there’s even a gas station!

I would have liked to push to the town center to see what’s left of the mosque, one of the last buildings still standing, which offers a nice panorama of the area. Unfortunately, as I was discretely taking pictures with my telephoto on the side of the road, we were reprimanded by a man in camo pants who threatened to call the KGB if we didn’t turn around immediately. We didn’t have the presence of mind to tell him that the KGB stopped existing 20 years ago. We simply drove back — something that I slightly regret to this day.

You can see more of Agdam in this video or on this blog.

Luckily, there are enough sights that are well worth a visit in the rest of Karabakh, such as monasteries and fortresses. I won’t cover these attractions in this post, as they’re off-topic and your favorite travel sites and books will certainly do a much better job than me, anyway. I’ll just say Karabakh is no Abkhazia, where there’s little to see except for Soviet relics and equally Soviet beaches, and where your life might me threatened more than once (see my Georgian Adventures, parts 7 and 8).

The best way to leave the region without spending several hours driving back the way you came is to take the road from Dadivank over the Zod Pass, at 2,400 meters. You may read in travel guides that the road is impassable, but in summer it never gets worse than what you see on the pictures below. Compared to Georgia, this is a top-notch road that hardly justifies driving a four-wheel drive!

The very scenic road follows the valleys of the Tartar and Lev rivers, sometimes between impressive cliffs, before reaching the Zod gold mines in Armenia.

As you can see, besides the cultural visits, the geographical configuration of the region as a montainous plateau makes for spendid landscapes.

Expect a recipe for zhingalov khats, a specialty from Karabakh, in the near future. Then I’ll cross the enemy lines (figuratively!) and start a new series on my adventures in Azerbaijan.