Pilaf with fragrant saffron, juicy kebabs roasted over coals, freshly-caught fish, and sweet fruit and honey for dessert – Azerbaijan’s cuisine is full of flavors and surprises. The cuisine in Azerbaijan is a vital part of the country and its culture. The flavors and ingredients used to reflect the foods that can be grown or found in Azerbaijan, as well as the trading connections that brought new tastes to the Caucasus from far and wide. Even the cooking techniques used reflect the local lifestyle and customs, and the names of the dishes in Azerbaijani cuisine come from the terms used in Azerbaijani.
Hospitality is a large part of Azerbaijani culture, and cuisine is no exception. Guests are treated to an abundance of dishes, and turning down more and more servings can be seen as rude (even if you’re too full to eat more). Food holds a sacred place, and sharing food with another person creates a strong bond. Food culture is so rich that dolma (stuffed grape leaves) and its central place in Azerbaijani culture and families have been recognized in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Many dishes are delicious and healthy, which is why Azerbaijan is a country of centenarians. Beef and mutton are common, as are poultry, fish, fruits, and vegetables. Spices include dill, coriander, mint, chives, and basil can be found in many of the dishes, giving them full and rich flavors. The result is a wide variety of dishes that are substantial and nutritious, full of familiar and unusual flavors.
But don’t think that this is a whole list – there are endless foods to try in Azerbaijan. Whether you want a hearty soup (like piti) or a quick snack (kutab) or something to satisfy a sweet tooth (baklava), you’ll find plenty to explore. And the more you travel around Azerbaijan, the more you’ll discover since each region (and each cook) has its own recipes that bring out new flavors and delights.
Soups of Azerbaijani cuisine
Soup lovers will rejoice – Azerbaijan is a land that appreciates good soup. There are all sorts of soups available, from meat broth soups to soups made from sour milk and greens. Azerbaijani soups can make a great starter, a light meal during any weather, or a meal on their own. This great variety means that you can spend your whole trip exploring just the soups in Azerbaijani cuisine, without ever getting bored.
Mutton soup with peas, potatoes, tomatoes, mutton, fat, and spices. Each serving of piti is cooked in a separate clay dish, called a pitishnitsa. 15 minutes before serving, mutton fat is added to the soup, and piti is served with saffron and finely-ground mint. Piti is usually served with the soup in the clay jar as well as a separate plate or bowl, and the liquid is poured from the rest of the soup and often eaten separately. Try the most traditional piti in Sheki, where many restaurants have made a name as the best Azerbaijani piti.
Soup from mutton bones served with chickpeas, potatoes, spices, and large meatballs made from mutton, rice, and dried fruit. The spices include pepper, saffron, and salt, and then Kyufta-Bozbash is garnished with fresh coriander (and dried mint in the winter).
Dyushbara is Azerbaijani dumplings, served in soup. The unleavened dough is rolled to be a millimeter thick and then cut into small squares. The squares are filled with ground meat, usually about 2-3 grams per square, and then folded into little triangular pouches (similar in size and shape to Turkish manti). A broth is made from mutton bones, and then onion and spices are added to the broth. The dumplings are cooked for 5 minutes in the broth and then served with coriander and dried mint, with a separate serving of white wine vinegar infused with garlic.
Sulu khingal features thinly-sliced wide noodles and chickpeas boiled in a mutton broth. When sulu khingal is ready to be served, fried onions and chopped greens are added, and the soup is seasoned with dried mint. Vinegar is served on the side.
Dovga is a soup made from yogurt with added rice and greens. The rice is cooked, and then egg, yogurt and water are added and brought to a boil. Then the soup is stirred for 20-30 minutes, to give it a fine texture, and right at the end, salt and chopped greens are added. Azerbaijani dovga can be cooked with or without meat, making it a good vegetarian option.
Thin, homemade noodles are the centerpiece of khamrashi. These noodles are made from thin unleavened dough and finely sliced to make arishta, as the noodles are called. The noodles are then cooked in a mutton broth, sometimes with beans added too, and garnished with chopped greens and dried mint when served.
Start with some eggs, mixed with a bit of salty water, and then poured or sprayed into flour to make little doughy drops. Then onion, tomato, spices, and broth are cooked in a pot, to which the doughy egg drops are slowly added and stirred constantly until cooked. A little saffron and dried mint are added right before serving.
Meat Dishes of Azerbaijani Cuisine
Meat plays a big role in Azerbaijani cuisine, with many dishes featuring meat as a main ingredient. Meat can be served on its own, like the famous kebabs and shashlyks, or as part of another dish, like dolma. No matter the dish, you’ll find that Azerbaijani meat is always cooked to bring out the finer flavors, and spices are added not to change the flavor but to complement the fine pieces of meat used in traditional Azerbaijani dishes. Azerbaijani cuisine is perfect for meat lovers, but also is good for people who like meat but enjoy more varied and diverse ingredients.
Sometimes called kebab, sometimes called shashlyk, this dish is a stable of Azerbaijani cuisine. Though there are a variety of ingredients that can be used, the basic idea of kebab stays the same: skewers are used to hold the main ingredients over coals, where they are slow-roasted, bringing out a soft, juicy flavor. Mutton, beef, chicken, fish, and vegetables can all be used in Azerbaijani kebabs, as can fat and organs like liver and kidney. The flavors of Azerbaijani kebab tend to be simpler, with spices used sparingly to bring out the flavors of the meat. Try kebab with a fresh lavash (flat bread), a glass of chilled ayran (yogurt drink), and a plate of fresh greens and finely-sliced onions.
This is a special type of kebab, made from ground meat pressed around a skewer and roasted over coals. Onion, fat, and spices can be mixed in with the meat, and then served with flatbread and finely-sliced onion. Of all the many types of kebab in Azerbaijan, lyulya kebab is most often considered to be the most famous and the most “Azerbaijani”.
Another rather simple dish that lets the meat shine is korma. Made from bone-in mutton stewed with saffron, onions, tomatoes and other spices, korma uses fewer ingredients and a good amount of spices to make a flavorful dish.
Ground lamb is the starting point of this riza-kufta, made into meatballs and served with a rich tomato sauce. These meatballs are made without rice, and fried to a crisp golden brown. Onions, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and vinegar are stewed to make a thick and rich sauce, which is served over the meatballs and garnished with greens. Legend has it that this dish comes from Iran, where it was named after Riza Khan, the author of a famous book on Iranian foods.
These are large meatballs, with a little special twist. After a large meatball is formed into a circular shape, a small hole is made to the center of the meatball, and a bit of cold butter or an egg is placed in the center, and then reformed back into a ball shape. Then the whole meatball is fried in a pan, and served sprinkled with fresh greens.
Dolma is a dish that can be almost anything, with ingredients and cooking styles creating a wide variety of versions. The simplest dolma is rice and ground mutton wrapped in boiled grape leaves, and then boiled until soft and served with matsoni (similar to yogurt). Some chefs add more ingredients to the filling, like greens, spices, chestnuts, and tomatoes, whereas other versions swap out grape leaves for cabbage (kalam dolmasi), eggplant (badimjan dolmasi), pepper (biber dolmasi) and onion (sogan dolmasi), and some go even further, using quinces, apples and tomatoes to hold a filling. Dolma can be found in homes across Azerbaijan (and beyond), regardless of ethnicity or religion, and the techniques for making dolma are passed down through generations, making dolma central to Azerbaijani culture and traditions. In 2017, UNESCO added Azerbaijani dolma to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, recognizing this dish’s importance and rich culture. Visitors will also enjoy its rich flavors and filling ingredients.
The love for meat in Azerbaijan goes beyond just traditional cuts. Jiz biz traditionally features sheep liver, kidney, lung, heart and intestines, fried with onions and potatoes. The most traditional versions of jiz biz have a variety of organs, each cooked using special techniques, though modern versions may only have sheep or cow liver. A delicious and nutritious dish, jiz biz is nevertheless high on cholesterol.
With flavorful ingredients like pepper, tomato, onion, and meat (usually lamb or fish), buglama is a rich dish. The ingredients are combined in a pot, and water is added so that everything steams together (buglama in Azerbaijani means steamed).
Azerbaijani Poultry Dishes
There are a lot of wonderful chicken dishes in Azerbaijan, for those looking for something hearty that doesn’t include red meat. Some dishes have many variations, so keep your eyes peeled for “toyuq”, which means chicken in Azerbaijani. Even very traditional dishes that are most commonly made with red meat, like chigirtma and dolma, can often be found with chicken.
With hearty chicken and potatoes stewed in tomato and pepper sauce, this is a dish for a cold day. Since everything is cooked over low heat for a long time, the meat and potatoes are nice and tender.
Onions are fried, mixed with seasonings, before chicken and tomatoes are added to the frying pan. Once the chicken is a bit fried, then eggs are added, to make a thick dish similar to a quiche (but without the crust). There are tons of different ways to make chigirtma, with different ingredients, but the main idea of cooking everything together in a pan stays the same.
It’s hard to go wrong with chicken roasted over hot coals. Check out chicken kebabs with added seasoning, like chop shish, or just go for a classic kebab and let the natural flavors shine.
This dish is common throughout the region and features a whole chicken roasted under a large weight or screw press. With the added weight, the spices and seasonings used to become much more vivid and the chicken stays juicy. Also popular as fast food, tabaka can be found in many restaurants.
One of the most favorite dishes in Azerbaijani cuisine, chicken levengi is made of whole roasted chickens stuffed with a special filling. The filling is made of fried onions, walnuts, and dried fruits, and then put inside the chicken. The whole dish is roasted in a tandoor clay oven, to give it an especially rich flavor and aroma. When the chicken is coated in a rich paste of tamarind sauce or cherry-plum sauce, it will be extra tasty.
Azerbaijani Fish Dishes
Since Azerbaijan is so close to the Caspian Sea, it makes a lot of sense that there are many fish dishes in Azerbaijani cuisine. Perch, salmon, trout and Caspian kutum are quite common for seafood dishes, but the most prized fish is sturgeon. There are officially 6 species of sturgeon living in the Caspian Sea, though sturgeons are endangered because of overfishing and environmental problems. This makes both sturgeon meat and caviar quite expensive, but the exquisite taste makes it a delicacy worth the price.
Sazan in Tendyr
A whole fish is cleaned, washed, grilled and then seasoned and baked in a tendyr (tandoori) oven. Sazan is served with sliced lemon and onion and chopped parsley.
Onion is fried in a pan, nuts are crushed and wetted, Cornelian cherries are chopped, and seedless grapes are washed and added to make a whole mix. After a whole fish is cleaned, washed, and sliced, the filling is placed inside the fish, salted and then baked in an oven.
Since there are several types of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, kebabs made of sturgeon can be found in many places (and kebabs made of other fish are also quite common, since sturgeons are threatened). Sturgeon is cut into pieces, then covered in salt, pepper, and sour cream, and roasted on a small grill and served with fresh tomatoes and onions.
Finely chopped fish (often sturgeon) is mixed with onion, and then seasoned with salt and pepper. Hard white bread soaked in milk is also added, and then the mixture is formed into small cakes. These cakes are coated in crumbs, fried in oil, and served with fresh vegetables.
Though the most traditional dolma recipes feature red meat, a fish version is also quite tasty. Fish fillet is minced, and then mixed with finely chopped onion and coriander. This is used as the filling, which is wrapped in grape leaves and boiled in a broth made from fish bones until fully cooked. Then, fish dolma are served with matsoni, which is similar to yogurt.
Azerbaijani Dough and Flour Dishes
Though maybe not the most popular during the hot summer months, dishes made from dough and flour are common in Azerbaijan. As soups, bread, and main dishes, there are several tasty options in Azerbaijani cuisine. Bread is served with almost any meal.
The most traditional Azerbaijani bread is cooked in tandoor ovens. Charcoal at the bottom creates intense heat inside this beehive-shaped clay oven, and dough is worked into a circle or oval and stuck to the side. When done, a hook is used to retrieve the bread from the tandoor, and it’s best served hot with the rest of your food. There are several types of bread, depending on the size, shape, and cooking methods.
A simple and traditional food, kutabs are a great street snack but can also make for a filling meal. The unleavened dough is rolled thin and made into a full circle, and then half is covered in filling. Fillings may include greens like chives, minced meat, pumpkin or fruits. The dough is folded in half to make a half-circle shape, then fried.
This hearty dish features wide noodles and meat, served with yogurt on top. There are several options, with some featuring different types of yogurt and meat.
Erishte is a noodle soup, with noodles made from flour, eggs, water, salt and milk. The noodles are then added to a rich soup with vegetables, and served hot.
Even using relatively simple ingredients like rice, meat, and oil, Azerbaijani pilafs are full of flavor and variation. Different regions (and even different chefs) add their own ingredients and use their own techniques for cooking to make signature pilafs, which means that there’s more than enough to explore. Some people count 40 different types of pilaf (or plov), though there are probably many more. Rice is usually cooked separately from the rest of the ingredients, and only mixed when served. Pilafs are traditionally served at large events, like celebrations and weddings, or before a long journey.
The name of this pilaf already declares it as the king of pilafs. The most distinctive detail of shah plov is the crust, made of light and flaky flatbread that lines the dish where the pilaf is cooked. There are different ways of making shah plov, but all start with a base of saffron-infused rice. Chicken, meat, rice, raisins, nuts, dried apricots, roasted chestnuts, prunes, and other dried fruits and seasonings are used as toppings and additions on top.
Parcha-dosheme plov is cooked with all the ingredients in one pot, but placed in careful layers. Start with meat, then onions, then rice. Then there’s a layer of dried fruits and chestnuts, followed by a pyramid of rice at the very top. The whole pot of pilaf is then steamed, and saffron is added to the rice. When served, scoops of ingredients are piled onto plates, without mixing up the whole pot.
This sweet plov also features a crust on the bottom and plenty of dried fruits, but there’s no meat served with it. The rice should be light and fluffy, not sticky, and infused with saffron, and topped with dried apricots, raisins, dates, and other dried fruits. Shirin plov is best served warm, not hot.
While many pilafs traditionally feature red meat, like mutton, toyuq plov is cooked with chicken (toyuq means chicken). Much of the rest is the same – fluffy rice, saffron, and dried fruits are common.
This version of pilaf combines a rich stew of meat, pomegranate paste, and ground walnuts served with rice. Some versions use meatballs, some use chopped meat, and some use poultry.
Most traditional Azerbaijani sweets are most popular for events and festivals, whereas fresh fruits are served as a sweet course after a meal at home. Many Azerbaijani desserts feature natural ingredients, like honey, nuts, and fresh dough, to make intense flavors without overloading on sweetness. Like many other dishes in Azerbaijani cuisine, desserts can vary from region to region, with some regions specializing in certain desserts.
Pakhlava, or baklava, as it’s known internationally, is a rich dessert made of thin pastry layered with honey and chopped nuts. Most commonly served on Nowruz in March, pakhlava has a distinctive diamond shape, which symbolizes fire (called pakhla in Azerbaijani, and a prominent feature in many carpets). Make sure to try the pakhlava in Sheki and Quba, two cities famous for their sweets.
This pastry features a filling of sweet almonds or nuts, mixed with sugar and cardamom and wrapped in dough. The dough is then pinched shut with an intricate design, and the outside is decorated with special tweezers. The slightly crescent shape symbolizes the moon. Like pakhlava, shekerbura is often made for the Nowruz holidays in March.
Shor-gogal is a round yellow bun, filled with fennel and anise seeds, and seasoned with turmeric, salt, and pepper. Though they’re more savory than sweet, shor-gogal are cooked for Nowruz alongside shekerbura and pakhlava, since their round shape symbolizes the sun. The dough for shor-gogal is thin and flaky and is often made with 9-12 layers, though common wisdom says that the more layers there are, the more flaky and tasty the bread will be.
Guymag features simple ingredients, like flour, butter, water, and cinnamon, but it’s full of calories and a perfect warming treat on a cold day. Guymag is also served to patients after surgery and to mothers who have just given birth.
These cookies are made of butter, sugar, vanilla, and flour, with a little yolk dropped on top before they’re baked. A little powdered sugar on top, and they’re ready to be served.
When you’re sitting down for a filling meal, it’s always good to take some drinks to go along with it. In the winter, tea is most commonly served, while sherbet is a refreshing summer drink.
Sherbet features sugar, lemon, saffron, mint, basil and fruits and berries. Water is infused with herbs, left to sit for several hours, and then the other ingredients are added. Sherbets are popular at weddings and other large events served alongside pilaf.
This drink is made from yogurt mixed with salt and water, to make a smooth and savory drink. Ayran goes exceptionally well with kebabs and other heavy meat dishes, as a refreshing balance to the richness of the meat.
Black tea is the most common tea in Azerbaijan, often served with sugar, lemon, honey, jam, nuts, and other small snacks. Many people love tea after a meal, to help your stomach digest and also since the slight bitterness complements the sweetness of the dessert. Small curved glass cups are used, similar to Turkish glass teacups. Tea is served to guests as a welcome, and many long conversations are held over endless pots of tea.
As with most countries in the former Soviet Union, compote is a common drink. Various types of fruit are boiled, and then sugar is added to make a refreshing and sweet fruity drink. Try local varieties of compote, or seasonal versions made with fresh fruits.