Author: Vafa ZEYNALOVA Baku
It is no secret that vegetarianism being so widely spread around the world (830 million people, according to 2003 statistics) has followers in Azerbaijan as well. Like any trend, vegetarianism has its rules, varieties and, so to speak, its ideology. The latter also varies, by the way. Some give up meat for reasons of dietary expediency. Others are sure that vegetarianism is a path to health and longevity. Many people view vegetarianism as the core of the ideology of good and mercy: they refuse to consume the meat of slaughtered animals. There is no denying, everyone chooses a convenient dietary pattern and a range of dishes for themselves. What can Azerbaijani cuisine offer to meat abstainers?
We live in a wonderful land. The richness of its climate zones not only presents us with an abundance of natural landscapes but also with a broad variety of agricultural crops growing in its territory. Azerbaijan largely owes its highly diverse cuisine to the wealth of its natural resources. Our land once stood on the Great Silk Way and ranked among the largest trade centre of the East. This fact also made a contribution: Azerbaijan enriched its cuisine with the best traditions of the world's cookery, while retaining its unique nature and identity.
A well-balanced nutrition
It is certainly difficult to imagine an Azeri family that would not like to eat well and with gusto, especially the satisfying and tasty pilaus with various fillings; kebabs, the inimitable lavangi [poultry or fish stuffed with walnuts smashed with onions] and dusbara [dumplings stuffed with ground meat] that are so attractive in cold weather. Still it is not this that makes Azerbaijani cuisine so special. Its main advantage consists in that meat and vegetable dishes are balanced so well that food consumption is not merely a satiation process but also a benefit to the body. It so happened in Azerbaijan's cooking traditions that vegetarian dishes present in our cuisine organically supplement heavy meat food, regulating our day-to-day nutrition process and enriching it with vitamins.
Once William Pokhlebkin, the author of the famous "Book on Tasty and Healthy Food" (in Russian: Kniga o Vkusnoy I Zdorovoy Pishche) wrote about the singularity and originality of Azeri cuisine. Thus for instance, according to Pokhlebkin, one peculiarity of Azerbaijan's cuisine that would please vegetarians is that, unlike the neighbouring country's cuisines, fruit and vegetables are cooked with minimum heat treatment. They lose practically no vitamins while cooked. The share of vegetables is more than half in some dishes, for instance, kuku [omelette with greens] and acab sandal [aubergine, tomato, pepper, onion, spices cooked in oil]
As for spices, they are a source of vitamins and health! It was not until recently that we learned about world trends in the use of spices in cooking: ginger, curcuma, cinnamon, cardamom. Scientists' researches have repeatedly proved the indisputable benefits of spices, the heritage of the Oriental and the Silk Way lands. Thus for instance ginger has a tonic effect and in addition it burns fat. Consumption of fragrant cinnamon - one of the wide-spread flavourings in Azerbaijani cooking - hampers the formation of thrombi. Speaking about flavourings, we cannot pass over saffron - a truly Azerbaijani flavouring described as golden spice. It is a unique flavouring famed not only for its savoury taste but also its medicinal properties. It is also a gold mine of vitamins and microelements: manganese, copper, calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, selenium, magnesium and others. Each of them performs an important function in out body.
About cigirtma, yalanci dolma etc.
The lavish use of diverse fresh greens such as dill, cilantro, watercress, basil, tarragon and again spices reduces the amount of salt used in food which can but have a positive effect on our health and, incidentally, on our weight. Azerbaijani cuisine is characterized by a competent and verified combination of neutral-tasting foods - for example, rice and chestnuts - with markedly acidic cherry plum, pomegranate, lavasana (sour marshmallows). Acidic additives reduce the use of salt which, incidentally, was less common in classic Azerbaijani cuisine.
As regards vegetarianism in its own right, its history is not all that rich - only since the mid-19th century - and could hardly have become a widely accepted practice in Azerbaijan. At the same time we can see that healthy eating traditions were adopted here in times immemorial. They were formed, maintained and enriched for generations.
Many vegetarian dishes are widely used in our daily diet. Thus for instance the vegetarian dovga (without meatballs) - cold soup with chopped vegetables, qutabs [thin pancakes stuffed] with greens and pumpkin. In Italy, omelette enriched with additional ingredients is called frittata. It is the pride of Italian cuisine included in the list of the world's culinary achievements. And this world-level culinary achievement has been used in Azerbaijan for centuries under the name of cigirtma. The literal translation is "screaming". Its vegetarian counterpart is kuku, a cigirtma made from green beans, aubergine and tomatoes.
The main requirement to a vegetarian diet is to make dishes rich in vitamins, fats and carbohydrates so as to fully make up for the lack of meat in the diet. Azerbaijani cuisine has since ancient times provided for this, too, by introducing such dishes as yalanci dolma ("false dolma"). It is made from vine leaves stuffed with rice, onions and greens completely replacing meat (even in ordinary dolma, meat is tangibly diluted with vegetable components). Or take vegetarian cabbage roles in which meat is also substituted with rice and chestnuts. In general, chestnuts, beans and nuts are very rich sources of protein and they are very widely used in Azerbaijani cuisine also enriching the vegetarian diet.
Vegetarian dishes certainly have their advantages especially as regards the use of large amounts of fresh vegetables and this certainly has an effect on the body's resistance to colds and germs. Meanwhile the wealth and the inimitable combination of ingredients in Azerbaijani vegetarian cuisine will certainly offer us healthy food and authentic culinary delights to all gourmets. So do not hesitate to enrich your table with vegetable dishes for the upcoming celebrations.
Apropos, here is good news for those wishing to enjoy the healthy vegetarian dishes of Azerbaijani cuisine. The Organization of Young Educators of Azerbaijan with the support of the Azerbaijani Youth Foundation under the country's president has published a colourful book "Vegetarian Cuisine in Azerbaijan." The reader can not only familiarize themselves with information about vegetarianism and veganism in the world and in Azerbaijan but also with recipes for tasty and healthy vegetable dishes of the national cuisine.
Lavangi from aubergine for 4 persons
Cooking time - 1 hour
Small aubergine - 12-15 pieces
Shelled walnut - 200 g
Onions - 6 pieces
Dried plums - 1 teaspoon per litre
Salt and pepper
1. Cut the stalk of the aubergine, peel the rind, make a cut from one end and add some salt.
2. After 20-30 minutes, squeeze the aubergines in water so that they are not bitter, fry them in vegetable oil on a frying pan and place them in a bowl.
3. Mince the onion in a mincing machine and squeeze it through cheesecloth. Then add minced walnuts to the onion, turshu (dried plums in the liquid state), salt and pepper. Fry it in vegetable oil for 10 minutes. The filling is ready. Fill it into the roasted aubergines, put them on the pan in one layer, cover them and cook them.
Fisincan from beans for 4 persons
Preparation time - 30 minutes
Red beans - 200 g
Onions - 2 pieces
Walnut - 60 g
Vinegar - 40 g or pomegranate juice - 30 g
Cilantro - 1 bunch
Salt and pepper
Cook the beans and mince them with shelled walnuts. Fry the chopped onion. Mix it all and add some salt, pepper, vinegar or pomegranate juice. Fisincan is ready. While serving it on the table, decorate it with sliced onions and cilantro.
Milk porridge from arista for 4 persons
Preparation time - 30 minutes
Flour - 0.5 kg
Milk - 1 litre
1. Knead dough, roll it out as thin as possible with a rolling pin and leave it to dry. Then chop it.
2. Add the same proportion of water to milk and put it on the stove. Once the milk starts to boil, add the arista and leave it on the stove until it is ready (10-15 minutes).
3. Once the porridge is ready, sprinkle it with cinnamon and add some butter.