Azeri cuisine lacks the garlic-walnut fascination of Georgian cookery but has great strengths in fruity sauces, wonderful fresh vegetables and mutton-based soups. Outside Baku, the main problem can be getting beyond restaurants’ obsession with barbecued meat.
Note that in most rural restaurants, there will not be a menu. Almost all charge AZN4 to AZN5 for a kebab, but sizes and quality vary considerably – in many places you'll want two portions per person – and the quoted price won't include the bread, salad, cheese and other assorted plates that can very easily double or triple the cost.
If you look carefully behind any apartment block, you’re likely to see bags of discarded stale bread hanging on trees or hooks, separate from the domestic trash. That’s because bread is considered holy and can’t simply be binned or even placed on the ground, leaving superstitious Azeris with a disposal problem.
Eating bread with someone is considered to seal a bond of friendship. If you drop a piece of bread on the ground, it's good form to kiss it as an apology!
Staples & Specialities
Baku restaurants offer a wide range of cuisines but, beyond the capital Azerbaijani and Turkish food is almost all you’ll find. And in rural areas, the only dining options – commonly known as İstrahət Guşasi or İstrahət Mərkəzi – rarely serve anything other than flame-grilled kebabs.
Standard tikə kebabs consist of skewered meaty chunks, often including a cube of tail fat that locals consider a special delicacy. Lülə kebab is minced lamb with herbs and spices. Pricier kebab types include leaber antreqot (ribs) and dana bastirma (marinated beef strips). Barbecued vegetables are often available, too, though vegetarians might be alarmed to find lurking morsels of lamb fat inserted into barbecued aubergines to make them more succulent.
Whatever you order, don’t be surprised if a series of fresh vegetables, fruits, salads, cheese and bread arrive. Each costs extra, so refuse anything you don’t want to pay for.
In towns, for a cheap, unpretentious non-kebab meal look for a yemәkxana, which is likely to serve qazan-yemәkləri (plate foods) including various potato-and-mutton stews, such as buğlama, bozbaş (with kuftə meatballs plus the odd cherry) and piti (with chickpeas, requiring mashing). But the classic non-kebab dish is dolma. A common dolma meal is a baked-vegetable trio (tomato, pepper and mini-aubergine) stuffed with a herb-infused mixture of rice and minced lamb. You can also find kələm (cabbage leaf) or yarpaq (vine-leaf) dolma with similar fillings. Şəki dolma means a pot full of mini vine-leaf dolma.
Fish like sudak (pike-perch) or farel (trout) are sporadically available, tasting best when smeared with tangy sauces made from sour-plum (alça) or pomegranate juice (narşərab).
Typical of southern Azerbaijan, deliciously fruity Talysh cuisine is best known for ləvəngi (chicken or fish stuffed with walnuts and herbs).
Çoban (‘shepherd’) salad comprising chopped tomato, cucumber, raw onion, dill and coriander leaves is served as a preamble to most meals.
Azerbaijani breakfast foods (səhər yeməkləri) are bread (çörek), butter (yağ) and cheese (pendir), maybe with some honey (bal) or sour cream (xama), all washed down with plentiful sweet tea (çay). Scrambled eggs (qayğana) or fried eggs (qlazok) might be available on request.
So you’ve taken our suggestion and ordered piti. But all you can see in the conical earthenware dobu (pot) is a lump of lamb fat floating lugubriously in broth. Don’t panic! Before eating anything, start by tearing up pieces of bread into a separate bowl. Sprinkle with sumac (the purple condiment you’ll see on the table) and then pour the piti broth over the top. Eat the resultant soup as a first course. Then transfer the remaining piti solids to the dish and mush together using spoon and fork. Yes. Including that lump of fat. Without it the dish just won’t taste right. Another sprinkling of sumac and your ‘second course’ is ready to eat. Delicious.
Azerbaijan’s foremost fast food is the döner kebab. Much as in Europe, a large cone of compounded meat (ət; essentially mutton), or perhaps chicken (tovuq), is flamed on a rotating grill then sliced into small morsels that are served with mixed salad in lavaş (thin flour tortilla) or çörək (bread). Judge the quality by the queue of waiting diners.
Regaining popularity is the qutab, a very thin semicircular folded bready-pancake lightly stuffed with either ground meat or sorrel-greens. Peraşki are greasy, Russian-style savoury doughnuts.
The national drink is çay (tea), usually served in pear-shaped armudi glasses and sucked through a sugar lump for sweetness, or accompanied by jams and candies. Coffeeshops are a recent fad in Baku but in the provinces you'll rarely find espresso machines beyond top hotels.
Azerbaijan has long made decent konjak (brandy) but recently its wines (şərab) are steadily improving. Bottles of cheap, cheerful Ivanovka red (AZN3) are inoffensive. But for a good drop, reliable choices include the Savalan and Fireland brands. Be aware that many locals prefer their wine şirin/kəmşirin (very sweet/sweet). Kəmturş/turş (semi-dry/dry) options are generally closer to Western tastes.
Xırdalan lager is the best known of several unsophisticated beers (piva). Toasting with vodka (arak) remains an important social ritual between older men with significant social standing (and bellies) to maintain. However, it is less formalised than in Georgia and less compulsive than in Russia.
Drinking water (su) from the tap is fine in mountain villages, but not recommended in lowland towns. Bottled water is widely available: choose from sparkling (qazli) or still (qazsiz).