September 24, 2018

Food, Family and Tradition in Azerbaijan: Celebration of Harmony

It is after dinner on Shabbat. We are all sitting around the table. The Bozbash (lamb soup) that my wife has made this week was particularly delicious, and everyone at dinner had asked for a second helping, not thinking to save room for what was to come. Immediately following the soup were the Yarpaq Dolmasi, or the stuffed vine leaves with rice and lamb, steamed fish Buglama with cilantro and tomatoes, and the saffron rice Plov to accompany it. As usual, my wife has made too much food, especially as we have no guest this week. Still, we, our children and our grandchildren have devoured a good deal of the food, and even writing about it now brings me hunger.

Of all the foods that we have consumed here tonight, I believe that my favorite will always be the Bozbash. Bozbash is a dish eaten widely throughout Azerbaijan, and each family has its own recipe which has been passed down through generations. My family is no different, and I grew up eating the Bozbash that my mother learned to make from her mother. Like a good son, I must write that my mother’s food has always been the most delicious and unchangeable, but as a good husband, I will also write that the Bozbash that my wife makes, the recipe she learned from her mother and has taught to our own children, is no less wonderful.

Although it sounds like a great deal of food, this is proving to be one of the smaller Shabbat dinners that we have had in our house.  A tradition with Azerbaijani Jews, as with Jews all over the world, is that we invite guests to our table, and there have been dinners at which many people have gathered to eat with us and then stay into the wee hours, nearly falling asleep over their plates after having eaten so much of this excellent food. When I see my friends later, they will bring up the delicious quality of the food and mention, offhand, that they should like to be invited again.  That we can give a feeling of home to our Shabbat guests through our tradition and food, is a great source of pride for my family, as it might for any Jewish household, here in Azerbaijan, or in Jerusalem, Los Angeles; anywhere a good meal is enjoyed with friends and family across the world.

Even as I sit at this table, after indulging in this Shabbat, my mind wanders from my empty plate to the delicious foods we eat at other times in the year. The festival of Passover is my favorite of the holidays. Of course to celebrate our redemption from Egypt but also think about the food. I find myself longing for the Khoyagusht, or meat and chestnut omelets, that we enjoy eating with our Matzah, and for the egg tapping game that we play every year, where we pass around colored boiled eggs and fight each other with them. This has been my favorite holiday tradition since I was a child, and my grandchildren are always especially excited playing it. But Passover is not the only celebration that comes with spring.

As Azerbaijani Jews, we do not only celebrate Jewish holidays, but Azerbaijani ones as well.  Every year, we gather for the spring holiday of Novruz with our Azerbaijani Muslim brothers, who share the same respect for our festivals that we do for theirs, and we all enjoy some sweet Pakhlava and Shekerbura together.

How do we manage to enjoy our delicious, kosher food in this majority-Muslim country we call home? Jews and Muslims in Azerbaijan have for many years enjoyed a mutual respect for traditions, and we have always been able to find kosher food along with the abundance of halal.  It may sound unusual in the world we live in today, but when it comes to food in Azerbaijan, as like many areas of life, we see the shared culture of a meal as a bond and not a challenge.

Over this last Shabbat dinner, as in any Jewish family, we spent several hours arguing about which Azerbaijani food is the most delicious, and trying to decide which family’s recipes should be used once a new Kosher restaurant is opened.  And now, almost bursting with this tasty food and thinking of my warm bed and Shabbat rest, I feel very grateful for my life, and hope that your Shabbat is also filled with these blessings. Maybe sometime soon you’ll spend it here with us?

Until then, here are some great recipes for an Azerbaijani Shabbat wherever you live: Bozbash, Buglama, Plov, Yarpaq Dolmasi, and Khoyagusht