Culinary power in Azerbaijan _the land of fire

CC BY SA 3.0 Fire Temple

By | Rachel Brooks

Editor/Reporter| Republic Undergound, New African Living Standard

Pictured above, the Fire Temple of Baku, as it appeared in 2014. People gather around the eternal flame that is in a way symbolic of the nation’s soul. Created by ANAS Public Relations in 2014, CC BY SA 3.0 License.

Food is at the core of culture. In Azerbaijan, a country of great diversity that has survived intricate and holocaustal conflicts, cuisine is more than the cornerstone of culture. Cuisine is identity and power.  Power and politics. For Azerbaijan, called the gateway between the East and West from Silk Road days, cuisine has taken on the diversity of the region’s diaspora. It enforces the identity of Azerbaijan as it survives adversity, as a nation spread abroad. 

Food holds a sacred power in establishing the rights of the Azerbaijani diaspora spread across the global map. By the same token, hunger has been used as a domestic political tool, whether by chosen fast or man-made famine, to fan the flaming challenges presented to the people.

In a region that’s entire history has been shaped by the food offering it has presented to the Silk Road trade, this action was as spiritually symbolic of the Azerbaijani as it was politically significant in the context of the issue it addressed. 

There is a marked pressure placed on the culinary aspect of Azerbaijan to secure foreign relations. Culinary relations with foreigners have, in the past, been the focus of controversy. This controversy comes when foreigners fail to fully grasp the immense cultural foundation of culinary rights in the region. Western media has provided the most notorious example of this in recent history. 

Azerbaijan banned the late chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain of CNN’s Parts Unknown from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been the scene of immense brutality as war tore it apart.

 The region was reeling yet from conflict at the time that Bourdain traveled via Armenian military helicopter into the Azerbaijan territory. Azerbaijan then informed the Agence France-Presse that Chef Bourdain was persona non grata due to his lack of reverence for Azerbaijani sovereignty.  

This sovereignty has been hard-wrought after Azerbaijan, a former member of the 15-nation composed Soviet Republic, gained its independence. Breaking away from the dissolved Soviet Union came with the greatest of political complications, see research from the University of Florida for more information. In the years to follow the breakaway, Azerbaijan has found a need to engage with its ancient roots. This spirit shapes a resolve within the core of Azerbaijani people scattered in the diaspora, to prevail above government corruption and conflicts. At the heart of this shared spirit is the cuisine that has made Azerbaijan famous and treasured among all its regional peers. 

Azerbaijan has existed as a socialized territory for 5,000 years. The name itself means “the land of sacred fire” from the ancient Persian word “Aturpatakan,” which translates “the land where the sacred fire is preserved.” The region received its name from the sacred fires that were and are kept continuously lit in its mountain region. Yanar Dag, or “burning mountain,” and the Ateshgah Fire Temple of Baku are some of the proudest heritage sacred fire sites. 

The Ateshgah Fire Temple has a noble simplicity. The Fire Temple is made of sand-colored brickwork that takes on the air of piety in its simple design. It is adorned with the flames that burn in torches at its four corners and in an outdoor fire pit that blazes against the night like a wellspring of flame. 

The Capsian-bordering nation is known to its natives as “an exotic country,” and this shows in the cuisine. Azerbaijani cuisine is characterized by an array of colorful herbs. Many a plate is decorated with snapping saffron, dates, nuts, and bright fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, pomegranates, and tomatoes. The plates themselves_ an array of brilliantly crafted porcelaine_cast a wheel of color into the midst of the cuisine’s natural aesthetic. Sweet peppers, greens, sweet bread, and bread stuffed with other herbs and rice, all compose common elements of Azerbaijan’s cuisine. 

The cuisine is the merge of eastern and western delicacy, but in recent years relies more heavily on its eastern roots. Irani and Turkish cuisine have a heavy influence on today’s Azerbaijani cuisine. One of the nation’s most famous dishes is Qutab or Azerbaijani Stuffed Bread. It is a flatbread grilled with green onions, herbs, spices, and a filling of choice. Qutab is traditionally paired with ayran, a cold yogurt beverage. The nation’s capital Baku is believed to be one of the best places in the whole country to seek out traditional food. 

Azerbaijani people put their fine china to the test in elaborate teapots which hold their signature black tea_a substitute for coffee. Black tea is consumed all hours of the day. Tea is the center feature of establishing good social graces in Azerbaijan. Every guest who enters the home is invited to tea. From the electrician to kin, Azerbaijani people share in the herbal tea that is a staple of the local culture. This was stated by Khuraman Armstrong, an Azerbaijani woman chef who has made televised appearances with her cuisine. 

As conflicts continue to escalate in the region, Azerbaijan is distancing itself further from its former dominating foreign influences in pursuit of self-defining culture. This will likely drive the nation to delve deeper into the power of its roots. Culinary power brings again to life all of the histories of the “land of fire” and dries the concrete in the foundation of a modern Azerbaijan’s world position.