Azerbaijani food like most cuisines is quite heavy on the meat but that doesn’t mean you are missing out if you explore the non-meat Azerbaijani options on offer in Baku.
During my time in Baku at the end of April, I took the opportunity of exploring the vegetarian elements of traditional Azerbaijani food and I wasn’t disappointed. Highlights from this adventure include my experiences at Nakhchivan Restaurant on Parliament Avenue and Qaynana Restaurant in Kichik Qala in Baku’s Old Town. Both are excellent establishments and I would class Nakhchivan as my all time favourite restaurant. Very much hoping to be able to return one day soon! Anyway, here’s a rundown of my favourite elements from Azerbaijani cuisine that are also vegetarian:
The Azerbaijani qutab definitely has to come first in this list. Not only are they cheap and delicious, they are one of the most famous and iconic parts of Azerbaijani cuisine. A qutab is made with thinly rolled dough, folded in half with a filling inside, then cooked briefly on a saj griddle. There are a few different versions but in my opinion, the best are göy (greens – including fennel and coriander), balqabaq (pumpkin) and pendirli qutab (strong cheese). These crisp, tasty little things are usually accompanied by a little terracotta pot of creamy yoghurt which is really good just by itself.
Kükü is a type of omelette shared by both Azerbaijani and Iranian cuisines. There are a few different varieties but the one made with green herbs is the most common. I had this at the Qaynana restaurant where it was brought to the table in an impressive metal cauldron.
The Nakhchivan Restaurant also provided the opportunity to try a meat-free speciality from the Nakhchivan region of Azerbaijan, keta. The Nakhchivan region is an exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan and surrounded by Armenia, Turkey and Iran. Despite its isolation from the rest of the country, Nakhchivan has made an important contribution to Azerbaijani cuisine and was also the birthplace of the country’s former President: Heydar Aliyev. As you may have already guessed, Nakhchivan Restaurant in Baku specialises in food from the Nakhchivan region. Their keta was made with a floury casing, lightly browned, containing green herbs and served with that delicious yoghurt.
Aside from vegetarian meals, there are plenty of other non-meat elements of Azerbaijani cuisine to explore. One revelation for me was how good their tarragon lemonade was. I’m not normally a fan of aniseed flavours but this lemonade with fresh tarragon and slices of lime was better than words can describe. I could happily drink this every day until death.
Azerbaijan is an excellent place to find murabba, the preserved fruits popular in the Caucasus. Versions include white cherry, peach and quince. You should try the Nakhchivan cakes as well. Revani is a moist sponge made with semolina and Şirin Çörek is a glazed bread-like dessert with dried fruit inside.
Whilst in Baku, it’s well worth a visit to their Yaşıl Bazar (Green Bazaar) which sells all kinds of fruit and vegetables, including some not easy to come across in Western Europe. I went there specifically to buy zirinc or barberry, a fruit common in that part of the world but one I’d never found in Britain. These dried red fruits are sharp and full of flavour and can be eaten as they are or are sometimes used in cooking such as with a pilaf (rice) and in Iran they use them as a garnish on the kükü.
Also at the Green Bazaar were plenty of people selling sour green plums. The ones sold in the market had actually been grown in Nakhchivan, that cradle of Azerbaijani culinary heritage. Green plums are a common springtime snack in many Middle Eastern countries.
As you can see, there’s no shortage of vegetarian options if you want to experience a slice of Azerbaijani culinary heritage when visiting Baku. I’m not vegetarian myself but have a low meat diet and appreciate the benefits of vegetarianism (both for health and the environment). I think it is quite likely I’ll be returning to Baku, I had an amazing time in Azerbaijan and would happily relive the whole experience. When I do return, certainly one of the first places I will be heading for is the glorious Nakhchivan Restaurant.