HEART, SOUL + TASTE OF AZERBAIJAN

written + photographed by SANDY GARSON
recipe by ZEMA AHMADOV

Pomegranates, quince, apricots, saffron, lamb, figs in honey, pickled plums, fragrant black tea and buttery pastry … the Azerbaijani table is lavish and luscious, and the best part is that almost all its necessary ingredients are right here in Maine. That’s why Tarlan and Zema Ahmadov can cook what their grandmothers taught them back in their native Caucasian land. They have a big garden to grow vegetables they love; Tarlan knows the farms that have livestock; Zema goes to The Market Basket in Westbrook for the rest.

Once a year, to see family, they fly back to Azerbaijan, a country on the Caspian Sea they left over 20 years ago. They bring back the few missing ingredients, and bottles of pomegranate wine. Tarlan has a custom T-shirt he likes to show off: “I may live in the U.S. but my heart and soul always belong to Azerbaijan.” It should say his stomach does, too.

The climate of Azerbaijan is Mediterranean. The land has green mountains, fertile valleys and Caspian Sea coast. Food, especially fruit and grain, is abundant. Eggplants are the biggest anywhere. Persian cooking has significant influence because Iran is next door. Like those neighbors, the Azerbaijanis celebrate the new year on March 21 as Novruz with a very elaborate, traditionally dictated meal. Some think the Azerbaijani version, especially the lamb pilaf, more spectacular. Blended into the food is the fact that most Azerbaijanis are Shia Muslim, but there are Orthodox Christians among them, and Tarlan was proud to add that the Jewish Community in Krasnaya Sloboda town in Azerbaijan is the largest Jewish-only settlement outside of Israel and New York City. It’s been sheltered up in the mountains for hundreds of years and keeps its own traditional recipes, many involving chestnuts. The bestselling English cookbook writer Caroline Eden, who explores the Caucuses and Central Asian “-stans,” says every time she goes to Azerbaijan and sits down to eat, she wonders why more people don’t know about this “amazingly good food.”

The Ahmadovs produce it every day in their Falmouth kitchen, sometimes just for themselves and their two children, sometimes with Zema’s mother who lives in Portland and knows what Tarlan calls “all the old recipes.” Sometimes they cook with and for the 50 or so other Azerbaijanis who live in Maine. Some came for studies and stayed. Some came for jobs. Nazrin, who showed up for lunch, told me she originally came to America as a high school exchange student in Florida and stayed to attend college in Colorado, where she met and married an American. They came to Maine because he had a job offer in the Bangor area. They divorced, but she still lives there with her blonde teenage daughter. “She’s in a Catholic school,” Nazrin says, “and I’m half Jewish, half Muslim. Go figure.”

When I arrived as requested, at noon, Tarlan had just finished butchering a whole lamb and was rubbing his sore muscles from the strain. The day before he had driven to see an Iraqi farmer who slaughtered it for him. That’s how it would happen back in the Caucuses. Admittedly, he might not have been as particular there as he was here about the farm he chose for his lamb. It just so happened he knew all about this Iraqi refugee, his business ups and downs, marriage, lambs and ducks, because Tarlan Ahmadov is Maine’s refugee coordinator. It’s his job and his passion to support and comfort foreigners in our state with what he calls “hands-on understanding.” Getting this lamb helped this particular Iraqi farmer who has been struggling through the pandemic.

Tarlan sees a transaction like this as the heart of his job. It was his encouragement that got Maine Public to start a weekly newscast in four languages other than English, so Maine’s refugees could learn what was happening in a voice they understand: Somali, Portuguese, French or Spanish. He is now on Maine Public’s board of trustees.

From the left: Family friend Nazrin, with the Ahmadovs:
Jamila, Tarlan, Zema and Rustam.

As I went into the house, the Ahmadovs’ son Rustam, a pre-med student at USM, was sweeping leaves out of the garage. In the big kitchen, Zema had already taken some of the bones and a few chunks of meat to make broth for the special Azerbaijani tennis-ball-sized meatballs. She had just mixed a bit of crushed rice into the minced meat, the way Americans might use breadcrumbs, to hold it together. Also a pinch of beef, she confided. Now in her hands, the meat was formed into huge balls. She poked her little finger into each to insert the tiny sour plum that’s the hallmark of this recipe.

Nazrin broke the rapt silence. “My daughter usually eats only pizza, but she always tells me this is her absolute favorite dish. This is when she’s happy to be Azerbaijani.” Nazrin was taking a big bag of the butchered lamb back to Bangor.

The meatballs went into the freshly made broth along with potatoes and chickpeas. This combination, in many variations, is the Azerbaijani national dish, Kufta Bozbash. While it boiled away, Jamila, the Ahmadovs’ daughter, a Falmouth High sophomore, beckoned us to the table where she’d put out apricots and figs Zema had preserved in syrup. The honeyed fruits in glass compotes came with fresh Azerbaijani black tea served Russian style in glasses pressed into silver holders. It was eating dessert first, but this is done symbolically, I was assured, to sweeten the occasion. Cake and pastry dessert are served at the end.

As if to balance this sweetness, Tarlan disappeared and came back with pickles. Not just a jar of pickles—one at a time, he brought out enormous glass urns filled with them. In the first were cut-up vegetables from his garden: cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, celery, green tomatoes. Then came a glass urn almost as big, this one filled with plums pickled in a special way. And finally, his masterpiece: hollowed-out green tomatoes filled with some of those cut-up vegetables from the first urn and pickled whole with their tops back on. He made a platter of pickles for the table. There was already a platter with fresh radishes and scallions, another platter of cut-up fresh fruits: pomegranates, peaches and apples. And a basket of bread. This was just lunch! The family had a dinner engagement.

Zema was making a special pastry (see recipe below). She said it was easy but also it came from her grandmother’s province of Azerbaijan. She called it Karabakh-style sweet bread or kata. Her grandmother had left Shusha to go to Baku, the capital city on the Caspian, to college and Zema was born there, but still that land held the family roots and traditions like this pastry. Her eyes welled with tears as she choked out that this was the territory the Armenians had usurped. Now the Azerbaijanis had gotten it back, but it was larded with land mines. Nobody could go there. They could only remember. With a few sniffles, she went to fetch an Azerbaijani cookbook to show me a more formal version of the cake, different from her grandmother’s.

She formed the dough by hand from ordinary white flour, butter (which she grated in), eggs, yogurt and salt. She rolled it out and sprinkled a light filling on it. She separated an egg and brushed the white on the dough every time she folded it over the filling. When she was done, she pulled out a special cutter she said she bought in Portland and chopped the roll into sections. Then she brushed each with the egg yolk. The effect was extremely professional and Zema was proud of it. She loved doing this when not working at her real job, an accounting specialist at Sun Life Insurance. But she had dreams!

While the pastry baked, Tarlan showed me his antique backgammon set from Azerbaijan and Rustam played the grand piano. We got back to the kitchen in time to see Zema brushing the browned, hot pastries with honey to glaze them. She told me she’d made batches of these during the first year of the pandemic when the Azerbaijani community organized a fund-raising dinner of their cooking. The $10,000+ raised went to support struggling countrymen back home and   Maine immigrant/refugees from countries Azerbaijanis can speak to: Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Balkans. They supplied vaccines, food baskets, PPE and hand-holding comfort. (Azerbaijan was a Soviet Socialist Republic—SSR—until 1991 so everyone Tarlan and Zema’s age speaks Russian, which helps them understand related Slavic languages. Since the country borders on Iran, they can understand Farsi. They can also understand Iraqis. Their daughter’s name Jamila is Arabic for beautiful.)

News of this banquet led straight to talk about another fund-raising dinner, one where everybody could taste the luscious, lavishness of Azerbaijani cooking and feel the warmth of their hospitality. Soon! Maybe after that, a restaurant! Zema’s eyes were bright with hope as we got up from the table and my hosts went off to a dinner engagement.

. . . . . 

Karabakh-style Filled Sweet Bread

Makes about 12 pastries

Basic Dough
3 cups all-purose white flour
1 pinch salt
10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 extra-large egg
1 cup yogurt (it can be softer than Greek)

Filling
1½ cup sugar
1 pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon grated coconut
1½ cup all-purpose white flour

Glazes
2 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon ghee (or you can use melted butter)
2 teaspoons honey

In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt. Grate in the butter and blend it in evenly. Add the egg, then the yogurt and make the mixture into a flexible dough. At some point you may want to use your hands. Divide the dough into 2 even balls. Roll each out into a large square. Put these on a baking sheet in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

To make the filling while the dough refrigerates, combine all the filling ingredients in a large bowl, blending them evenly.

Preheat oven to 355°F.

Get out a large baking sheet pan. Have the separated eggs and 2 pastry brushes within reach.

Bring the dough squares from the refrigerator. Working with just 1 at a time, sprinkle half the filling lightly but evenly over the square. Starting from the top, the part farthest from you, fold over 1½ inches of dough onto the filling. Brush the newly exposed dough with egg white. Continue this folding, brushing process until you have what looks like a flat jelly roll. Do the same to the other square.

Put both rolls on the baking sheet if they are not already there. Using a serrated chopping instrument, cut each roll into 2-inch pieces, or servings. Brush all the exposed with the egg yolks.

Bake at 355° for ½ hour.

While the pastry bakes, combine the ghee and honey in a small glass or bowl and have a clean pastry brush handy.

Remove the pastries from the oven and immediately brush the tops with the honey mixture to glaze them. Let them cool 5 minutes before serving.

. . .

Zema Ahmadova’s two English-language Azerbaijani cookbooks are:
Pomegranate and Saffron by Feride Buyura
The Azerbaijani Kitchen by Takir Amiraslanov

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