GRUB! Azeri Style

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A short blog this week, because I'm taking RobH at his word that short blogs are better than no blogs.

The ceremony is still months away, but work is increasing stressful and time-consuming.  And in an odd turn of events, I’m on my way to Athens for a few days of meetings, which is not entirely unexpected but still a bit weird.  However, I am clawing out a bit of time to talk about one of my favourite foods of Azerbaijan, the qutab (pronounced “guh-TAHB”, because Q in Azeri sounds like a hard G.  So does G.  And also Ğ.  The soft G sound like in “giant" or “jerk" is represented by C.  Not to be confused with Ç, which sounds like CH.  Of course.  Don’t ask me to explain, just be grateful it’s not Cyrillic.)

Qutab are a sort of Azeri quesadilla.  The outer wrap is lavash, which is a flat unleavened bread that’s rolled out very thin and sometimes very big.  I first encountered lavash in Russia, when Gerald bought some at a supermarket in Moscow to make wraps at lunch.  When he pulled a piece out and started unfolding it just kept unfolding and kept unfolding until it caused him to remark, “This thing is the size of a swimming pool!”.  Therefore, in the increasingly arcane vernacular between Gerald and me, lavash is always known as “swimming pool wraps”.

Swimming Pool Wraps

Lavash is ubiquitous in Azerbaijan, appearing in many traditional dishes but also pinch-hitting where we in North America would expect to see flour tortillas.  For instance, the pub in my neighbourhood where the running club meets on Thursday nights does a passable chicken fajita that comes with small rounds of lavash instead of tortillas.  It’s not bad, though really lavash is so much thinner than a tortilla that it lacks the necessary structural integrity to successfully convey fajita filling from plate to mouth by hand. Baku fajitas are definitely a fork and knife job.

But back to the qutab.  Qutab have a street food feel to me, and consist of a round bit of lavash spread with a thin layer of savoury filling then folded over and quickly heated on a griddle.  There are three popular fillings: ground meat, mixed greens, and pumpkin.

These ones are greens, served up at Firuze restaurant, where I’ve been a few times since arriving in Baku.  (Note that Firuze is properly spelled Firuzə, but that upside down backwards E is a real pain...)  Regardless of their awkward spelling, they do nice qutab in three varieties and really good Azeri dolmas (different than the Greek ones) and many other excellent treats, including a fancy rice dish that cooked in a ceramic pot lined with layers and layers of lavash that ends up acting sort of like crispy phyllo pastry crust when its cooked.  Very cool.

Meat qutab are a simple mix of cooked ground meat and onion, and are usually sprinkled with sumac on the outside. Sumac is a reddish spice made from dried ground sumac berries.  It’s variously described as anything from lemony to astringent, and I’ve been enjoying it on all kinds of things lately.  The green veggie variety of qutab are filled with a mostly unidentifiable mix of leafy greens like spinach (Which is different here.  It's milder, without that funny puckering after effect).  There's also something else unidentifiable that adds an earthier taste. Slightly coriander/cilantro but not in that awful coriander/cilantro way.  If you know what I mean.

My favourite flavour of qutab is pumpkin, though the actual variety of vegetable that is called pumpkin here is shaped more like butternut squash than pumpkin, and has a sort of sad grey colour on the outside.  Still, they’re cheap and last for ages in the fridge, so Baku pumpkin has become a staple food for me.  It’s really nice roasted, and cooks much quicker than butternut squash.  Or perhaps it’s just fast because the oven is my apartment is, I suspect, nuclear powered.  It can roast a whole chicken (liberally coated in sumac and olive oil) in just over an hour.  Pumpkin cut into large chunks is cooked in about 15 minutes.  And, as an aside, when you turn the gas on for the stovetop it lights with a ferocity and enthusiasm that is positively eyebrow-singing.  Pumpkin qutab are filled with a thin smear of cooked pumpkin and are sometimes jazzed up with a few pomegranate seeds, which is a perky addition.

Baku Pumpkin

There’s a place just outside my metro station that sells qutab, and I’ve stopped a few times to pick some up on the way home.  They’re available all over, and are a reliable quick snack when needed.  And for the truly committed Go Stay Work Play reader, here's a recipe I found online for pumpkin qutab)  And that's genuinely all there is to say about qutab, except I could really go for a couple right now, only they're 4 floors down and 3 rainy blocks south and I'm just not that committed right now.

Plus I've got to pack to go to Athens.  Which is honestly not a sentence I was expecting to write this week.


Anonymous said...

They look yummy. How about a nice photo of YOU to really top off such a nice blog? rh

Unknown said...

Am curious as to the upcoming event... seems I missed why you are in Baku eating lavash!

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday!

Athens, eh? Interesting.

Laura C said...

Happy birthday! We're thinking of you over here, with our bitter Montreal winter. Excited to follow along on this adventure too!

ELF said...

I love the short blog! Definitely better than no blog. :-)

Anonymous said...

Another vote for more blogs and therefore whatever length you write. Interesting, as always.

Post a Comment