The increasingly indispensable Roads & Kingdoms blog has a wonderful new piece that takes a look at the Azeri tradition of cooking up khash, a hearty though labor-intensive stew made using a sheep's head, hooves and stomach that have gone through various processes in order to render the final product. What I found particularly interesting about the piece, written by Mark Hay, was its suggestion that for Azeris, cooking khash was as much a political act as a culinary one. From the article:
Staking out a claim on khash, naming it as something uniquely Azerbaijani, is a far weightier thing to do in the Caucasus than it is for Florida or Massachusetts to claim key lime or Boston cream pies, respectively, as their own though. Naming a food here is a political act, filled with fire and vigorm, as the contest over foods has been imbued with the long-simmering tensions of regional border disputes.
Azerbaijan may be surrounded by simmering geopolitical crises, but the country's Ministry of National Security knows what the real challenge facing the country is: Armenian "plagiarism" of Azeri national cuisine. The ministry, which is responsible for Azerbaijan's intelligence and counter-intelligence efforts, recently unveiled "Three Points," a documentary it was involved in making which, as one Azeri website described it, is "about the Armenian plagiarism of the Azerbaijani national cuisine and historical realities." The Trend.Az website reports on the film's recent Baku premiere, held at the ministry's "Cultural Center":
In his speech, Chief of the National Security Ministry's office, Major General Farhad Vakhabov stressed that Armenians not only occupied Azerbaijani lands, destroyed cultural and historical monuments in the occupied territories, but also change the place names, misappropriate Azerbaijani national values - folklore, gastronomy, music, presenting it as their own to the world public.
"The National Security Ministry, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Copyright Agency and other relevant bodies are fighting this phenomenon hard," he said.
Farhad Vakhabov said that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and president of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation Mehriban Aliyeva have a special role in promoting and developing the national values.
Head of "Azad Azerbaycan" TV and Radio Company Vugar Garadaghli said that the project aims to inform the world community about the true essence of the Armenian plagiarism regarding Azerbaijani national cuisine and historical realities.
In what may be a somewhat questionable act of architectural preservation, Baku's historic Sabunchu rail station, a Moorish-influeneced stone structure built in 1926, now has the distinction of the being largest fried chicken shack on the planet. Opened with great fanfare -- check out the this YouTube video from the restaurant's high voltage ribbon-cutting ceremony last month, -- this latest KFC outpost was reportedly built with an investment of 3 million euros, used to restore the railway station, which had been falling apart after years of neglect.
Considering the glee with which Azeri officials are bulldozing historic parts of Baku in order to make way for ever-taller buildings, the opening of this new monster KFC may ultimately be a good thing. Azerbaijan, that land of ironic twists, may be one of the few places in the world where turning a classic railway station into a fried chicken restaurant may actually be considered a step in a positive direction.
The Caspian Sea has long meant many things to many people, but one Azeri scientist is now claiming that the brackish body of water could serve as an irrigation source for his country's farmers. In fact, says the scientist, the Caspian's salty water is the "most fitting in the world" for irrigation. From a recent article in the News.Az website:
The scientific and production unit “Azerbaijan hydrotechnics and melioration” has developed recommendations to fight land degradation though nontraditional irrigation with sea water based on 30 years of studies.
According to the unit’s lab chief Seyfulla Amirov, for its chemical composition, water from the Caspian Sea is the most fitting in the world for irrigation of dry lands, subjected to moderate and severe degradation.
'During the studies we held at an experimental area in Absheron, we used salty water taken from the Caspian Sea to irrigate watermelons and decorative plants. The results of this study exceeded all expectations. We got a very good crop and trees grow wonderfully well.
As a result of the studies we came to a conclusion that by irrigation with salty water taken from the Caspian Sea we can raise productivity of dry lands, subjected to moderate desertion in the Absheron peninsula. Thus, it will be possible to raise the area covered with green plantation in the Absheron peninsula. Thus, we will be able to create more favorable conditions for development of tourism in Baku and its suburbs', Amirov said.
It's not clear how Mr. Amirov's claims square with those made in another article on the News.Az website, which reports that some 30 percent of Azeri farmland is in danger of becoming unusable because of too much salt in the soil, the result of improper irrigation techniques. Article here.
French actor Gerard Depardieu may be known for his string of movie hits and, lately, for his increasing girth, but soon he may be come to known as the public face of Azeri cuisine. According to the Azeri APA news agency, the French actor has recently signed on to star in a commercial the celebrates the glories of Azeri cooking. From APA:
Depardieu is a well-known gourmet and known as a virtuoso wine grower and this is one the reasons why he agreed to star in a promotional film of Azerbaijani cuisine. According to the filmmakers, Depardieu is delighted with the Azerbaijani dishes.
This is Depardieu’s second visit to Azerbaijan. He visited the country last year to be familiarized with local film industry.
The French hunk turned lunk appears to be something of a Caucasian sensation. Along with his ad work in Azerbaijan, Depardieu has also starred in a recent commercial for Armenia's Armavia airline.
A short video clip from RFE/RL has great footage from the Azerbaijan/Iran border, where thousands of Azeris now line up every day in order to get to the other side to buy basic food staples, which have become prohibitively expensive on their side of the border. You can watch it here.
With some suggesting that the recent wave of revolution and unrest in the Middle East and other regions is directly tied to the recent surge in the price of food, the scene at the Iranian border is likely making Azeri officials nervous. Which may help explain this.
Food is big business, even more so in Azerbaijan, as Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating reports in his "Wikileaked" blog. In one of the Wikileaks cables from the United States embassy in Baku, Keating discovers some very juicy details about Azerbaijan's all-powerful Minister of Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov, who seems to have his hand in just about everything that goes on in the country, including the manufacture of juice and caviar. From the cable:
10. (C) Many of the family,s operations are part of the
"Gilan," "Qabala," "Jala," or "United
Enterprises International (UEI)" family of companies. Gilan Holdings is
omnipresent in Baku, as the company is one of several major real estate
developers and has been in the forefront of Baku's highly speculative real
estate market. Observers compare Gilan to Dubai World or Nakheel, although
admittedly on a smaller scale. The Heydarovs have largely cornered the fruit
juice market in Azerbaijan, maintaining extremely high prices for locally
produced juices and watered-down juice drinks, while making life difficult --
with the help of State Customs -- for cheaper competitors from Turkey, Ukraine
and Russia. When USAID tried to support the production and distribution of
pomegranate products in Azerbaijan, they quickly learned that no one sells
pomegranate juice, concentrate, or derivatives from Azerbaijan without Heydarov's
permission. Azerbaijan's economy is largely dominated by monopolistic
interests, and observers suggest that the Heydarovs are at the top of this
mountain of non-competition.
Turkish Airlines recently started flying between Istanbul and the Azeri enclave of Naxcivan, but now something else is linking the two places: both are cracking down on street food vendors.
As RFE/RL reports, authorities in the enclave have started giving a hard time to people selling food on the street, most of them poor farmers who can't afford to rent government certified stalls. More disturbingly, some of the vendors who have protested the crackdown have been sent to psychiatric hospitals in punishment. You can read the full report here.
Meanwhile, in Istanbul, it looks like municipal authorities in some parts of town are also going after some of the city's unlicensed -- but, let's face it, very appealing -- food carts. According to one official in the city's heavily-visited Beyoglu district, the only kinds of carts that will be licensed are those selling chestnuts, corn and simit (a sesame-encrusted bread ring). So much for showing off the diversity of Istanbul's street food. You can read an article about this travesty here.