My daughters always complained that I would take them travelling to the strangest places on earth when they were young. Aleppo. Yalta. Zakopane. Guernsey. Kastillorizo. Lofoten islands.
And they could never tell classmates about their holidays, because instead of having been to the Swiss Alps or London, we went to places no one had ever heard of.
One of the more falling-off-the-map spots we did visit in 2003 was Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, where my cousin Jyoti Pande was posted as the Indian ambassador. To reach this country, we took an Azerbaijan Airlines flight from Istanbul to Baku on a rickety, shuddering plane that had graffiti on its tray tables and the back of its seats.
What a delightful country Azerbaijan was. Small, sleepy, pastoral, not exactly in tune, then, with the modern world, Azerbaijan in the early 21st century was sort of cut off from much. This former Soviet republic ran on its oil wealth and the landscape was dotted with what they called nodding donkeys or strange-looking pumps used in onshore oilfields.
In spite of the alleged rampant corruption in higher government echelons, supposed crony capitalism, a non-stop low-key war with Armenia over the disputed region Nagorno-Karabakh for the past 35 years (!) and strange electoral events like how in 2013 Azerbaijan released election results before voting had even started, it came across as a prosperous nation, with wonderful scenery and inhabitants who were warm, simple folk, whose younger generation wore the strangest of fashions.
The perks of being guests of the ambassador was that wherever my cousin's Nissan Patrol traveled, we had a wide-open road and plenty of starchy salaams from the local police. He took us to see steaming yanardaghs or mud volcanos and drowsy villages in the shadow of the snowy Caucasus mountains in the Sheki region.
My daughters got to help hoist the Indian flag at sun-up and sundown in Jyoti's slightly oddly-built, rambling ambassadorial bungalow, swim in the private indoor pool and lounge among the hookahs in the formal dining room.
All told it was a holiday of a lifetime thanks to my cousin. The food contributed to it in a major way.
Azeri food has elements of Turkish, Middle Eastern, East European and Mediterranean cuisine. The giant Soviet GUM-type grocery stores sell a bewildering bunch of goods and are noteworthy for a very fine Azeri variation of caviar and also its mulberry and pomegranate wines or najib and grape-based wines or sharab.
The farm-style vegetarian meals that Jyoti's cook -- a pretty, young, woman named Jhale, who prided herself on being a white Muslim -- put together were equally splendid. Like kutabi, a soft kind of lavash, closer to a rumali roti, stuffed with tomatoes, scallions, parsley, dill and a variety of local white cheese that was a cross between paneer and feta. Or a garlicky, chana pulau or rather pilaf, called plov, with saffron and a crispy egg crust.
Pumpkins are plentiful in Azerbaijan. This excellent pumpkin soup, which I named Azeri Pumpkin Soup, locally called Balgabag Shorbasi, owes its origins in my kitchen to Azerbaijan and it is a super tasty way to utilise pumpkins.
Azeri Pumpkin Soup
- 200 gm raw (not over ripe) lal bhopla or kadu or orange pumpkin, peeled and chopped
- 1 medium-sized potato, cut in half
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 8 pods garlic, finely chopped
- 2 tsp butter or extra virgin olive oil
- Salt to taste, about 1½ tsp
- Dash black pepper powder
- Dash Tabasco, optional
- 1 handful, about ¼ cup uncooked basmati rice
- 2 heaping tbsp cream cheese or 2 tbsp grated cheese
- 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley, for garnish
- Boil the chopped pumpkin with the two halves of the potato, in a saucepan, with enough water to cover the vegetables, over medium heat.
Take off heat.
Do not drain and allow the boiled vegetables to cool.
Peel the potato.
- Grind the pumpkin with the peeled potatoes and the water in which the vegetables were boiled in a mixer till it's a smooth paste.
- In a large saucepan, saute the chopped onions, garlic in the butter (or olive oil) over medium-low heat, till soft.
Add in the ground pumpkin-potato mixture.
Add in the basmati rice, salt, pepper, Tabasco.
Bring to a boil and simmer for about 12-15 minutes till the rice is cooked.
Add water if the soup has become too thick and bring to a boil again.
Take off heat.
Add in the cream cheese/cheese.
- Serve piping hot in soup bowls and sprinkle the parsley on top in each bowl.
Zelda's Note: Do choose a raw pumpkin and not an excessively ripe or sweet one.
Adding a potato is not strictly necessary. Two tbsp of maida or all-purpose white flour can thicken the soup.
The more traditional versions of this soup require a scattering of pomegranate arils or seed pods as garnish. A sprinkling of roasted pistachios and sumac also makes an excellent way to finish off the soup. Sumac is a tangy, lemony spice used in Middle Eastern cooking, that can be purchased online.
Depending on how health conscious you are, consider upping the cream cheese or grated cheese by 1-2 tbsp. For vegans, vegan cheese will do just as well.
Add 1 chicken cube to the soup, if preferred, and adjust salt accordingly.