The national cuisines of the South Caucasus as a melting pot of Mediterranean, Persian and Central Asian influences
As was pointed out by Martin Lewis in an earlier post, Caucasus is “a key place, one that historically linked the Black Sea and Caspian Sea basins, and, more broadly, the greater Mediterranean world with the Central Asian realm of the Silk Roads”. The complex mosaic of intertwining influences of the Mediterranean (especially, Turkish and Greek), Central Asian and Iranian cultures are nowhere better revealed than in the culinary traditions of the Caucasian peoples. In this post, I focus on the national cuisines of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the next post will be dedicated to Georgian food and wine.
A word of caution before we proceed: as is true in many other parts of the world, there is no uniform Armenian, Azeri, or Georgian cuisine. For instance, the world-famous “French cuisine” is but a collection of distinct regional culinary traditions stemming from Normandy, Alsace, Provence, Languedoc, and other regions of France; similarly, “Chinese cuisine” consists of Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Szechuan, and other regional foodways. In the same fashion, one can talk about regional cuisines in the South Caucasus: for example, “Georgian cuisine” is an umbrella term for cooking traditions and peculiarities from Adjara, Abkhazia, Migrelia and Svanetia, Kakheti (see map on the left), and other regions. Such “dialectal” differences within each national cuisine in the Caucasus are due to both geophysical and cultural-historical factors. For example, high mountain ranges and deep ravines separated such groups as the Svans, the Khevsurians, and the Tush from other Georgian-speaking groups. In addition, cultural influences of major powers – Turkey, Iran, and to a lesser extent Russia – have affected different parts of the South Caucasus in different proportions, thus creating a kaleidoscopic culinary landscape, well-preserved to this day.
While each national cuisine can be seen as a collection of regional culinary “dialects”, the whole of the South Caucasus region is also in effect a culinary “sprachbund”,tied together by cooking ideas and common ingredients (particularly lamb, eggplant, and savory herbs). A certain unique flavor is shared by the three national cuisines. Food similarities stem in part from climate. Although South Caucasian climates range from humid subtropical (Circassia, Abkhazia, and Western Georgia, and Lankaran in Azerbaijan) to dry subtropical to semi-Mediterranean, all have long and hot summer season and relatively mild winters. Climatic similarities translate into similar agricultural traditions, and since Armenians, Azeris, and Georgians grow similar crops, they eat similar foods.
But physical geography is not the only explanation for the many commonalities among the Armenian, Azeri, and Georgian culinary traditions. Cultural factors, such as the mutual penetration among the various cuisines and the influences of other culinary traditions from the Mediterranean, Central Asian and Near Eastern worlds, have played a significant role in creating convergent gastronomic motifs in the South Caucasus. Extensive borrowing between the Armenians, the Azeris, and the Georgians often makes it hard to tell which dish is original to which group. Take, for example, pilau, a rice dish known as palav in Armenia and as shilaplavi in Eastern Georgia. Although the Armenians and Georgians would claim it as their own, its Turkic-derived name, as well as the peculiarities of the cooking technique, indicate an Azeri origin (more on the pilau below).
While it was probably the Azeris who brought pilau to the South Caucasian table, it is the Armenians – and not, as often thought, the Georgians – who devised another popular dish (and cooking technique), that known as “chicken tabaka” (or more precisely, tapaka, after the skillet in which it is cooked, known as tapa). Somewhat similar to the American “chicken under brick”, tapaka involves chicken butterflied and cooked in a wide lidded iron skillet under heavy weight. In Georgia, chicken prepared in such a manner is often slathered in the famous Georgian sauces (more on which in tomorrow’s post). Yet, despite its frequent association with Georgia, the tapaka technique comes from Armenia, as do numerous other Caucasian cooking methods, kitchen implements, and dishes. This spread of Armenian culinary tradition is due largely to the Armenian trade diaspora (which will be discussed in more detail in a forthcoming GeoCurrents post). In many areas, the typical caravan-serai (a roadside inn where travelers could rest and recover from the day’s journey) was maintained and manned by members of the Armenian community.
Another shared gastronomic concept in the Caucasus is that of grilled skewered meat, known as khorovats in Armenia, kebap in Azerbaijan, and mtsvadi in Georgia (note the complex consonant cluster in the beginning of this word, so typical of the Georgian language!). Russians call this dish – which they consider to be quintessentially Caucasian – shashlik, using a Turkic word they borrowed from Crimean Tatar in the 18th century and which they later loaned to many other languages. While the idea of “meat on a stick” seemingly unites the three national cuisines of the South Caucasus, it is common to many other mountainous regions inhabited by pastoralist groups. In the Caucasus, Georgians, Armenians, and Azeris each have their own peculiar techniques for cooking kebabs, as they are generally termed in English.
Despite the many commonalities among the South Caucasian cuisines, each country has an authentic culinary tradition of its own, as well as its own distinct tastes. The names of dishes may be the same, but the aroma and the flavors reveal the cultural sensibilities and the distinctive histories of each group. Let’s consider them one by one.
We’ll start with Armenian cuisine. Rooted in antiquity it is thus one of the oldest culinary traditions in Asia. Throughout its 3,000-year long history, Armenian food culture has been influenced by the Roman, Persian, and Byzantine empires, and by the Arabs, Mongols, and Turks. During the 16th century, Armenia, weakened by incessant Mongolian and Turkic invasions, was divided between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia. In the early 19th century, the Russian Empire incorporated Eastern Armenia, consisting of the Erivan and Karabakh khanates. After the Bolshevik Revolution Armenia was integrated as one of the fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics constituting the Soviet Union. In August 1990, Armenia become the first non-Baltic republic to secede from the Soviet Union and proclaim its independence. Through all these political changes, gastronomic influences changed as well.
All of these twists and turns of Armenia’s history left an indelible mark on the cuisine of its people. Already in antiquity, the particular natural conditions in the Armenian highlands and the Ararat plain nurtured a diverse agricultural system that produced a great variety of meats, vegetables, grains and legumes. For centuries, Armenians have been raising cows, sheep, buffalo, pigs, guinea fowl (today, also turkeys), chickens, geese and ducks, in addition to utilizing wild game. Armenian cuisine is unusual in combining different kinds of meat in one dish. One noted traditional Armenian dishes, arganak, combines chicken and venison. Similarly, grains (such as spelt, millet, barley, wheat, and rice) and legumes (e.g. beans, broad beans, lentils, and chickpeas) and nuts are often used in combination; for example, zernushka soup is based on wheat, lentils, peas, broad beans, and nuts, and is flavored with onions, mint, basil, and savory.
Contacts with Persians, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks influenced Armenian cuisine as well. But culinary penetration was not a one-way street, and Armenian traditions have been adopted (and adapted) by many invading groups, especially the Seljuq Turks. Several of the better known “Turkish dishes” have their roots in Armenia, and have been spread across the Ottoman Empire and into Russia, the Middle East, Azerbaijan and Central Asia by both Turkish military conquest and the Armenian trade diaspora. One dish closely associated with such processes is dolma, which includes not only the familar grape-leaf dolma, but also a variety of other vegetables stuffed in a similar fashion, including onions, zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes and peppers. The stuffing may or may not include meat, and dolma can be served hot or cold. The name of the dish seems to be Turkish in origin (from the Turkish verb dolmak ‘to be stuffed’), but the dish itself is more Armenian, where it is known as tolma. Traditionally, minced lamb or beef is mixed with rice and wrapped into grape leaves (in Armenian, tpov tolma – թփով տոլմա) or occasionally in cabbage leaves (in Armenian, kaghambi tolma – կաղամբի տոլմա). Coriander, dill, mint, pepper, cinnamon provide flavor, and melted butter adds richness and yogurt with garlic often serves as a sauce. One specific variety of Armenian tolma, which hails from Echmiadzin (or Vagharshapat, the spiritual centre of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church) utilizes eggplants, green peppers, tomatoes, apples, and quinces. A vegetarian version, useful for Lent and other fasting days, is based on lentils, red kidney beans, peas, wheat grits, fried onions, and tomato paste.
The Middle Eastern and especially Persian influence on Armenian cuisine can be seen also in the use of fruit, both fresh and dried, in soups and main dishes containing meat and even fish. Cooked fruit gives a characteristic taste to many Armenian dinners. Meat soups may contain not only vegetables like potatoes and onions, but also fruit, including apples, quinces, dried apricots, and even walnuts. Fish dishes may contain the fruit of the dogberry-tree, and mushroom dishes are often flavored by sour plums (alycha), prunes, or raisins. Such quintessential Near Eastern fruit as lemons and pomegranates also find their way into Armenian soups and stews.
Armenian cuisine is peculiar in the South Caucasus in its use of fish, which is much less commonly eaten in Georgia and Azerbaijan. In Georgia, fish is not very popular, except in mountainous areas, where lightly cooked carp and trout from clear mountain lakes are a real delicacy. In Azerbaijan, fish dishes are more common that in Georgia, and in contrast to the subtle cooking techniques favored by Armenians, grilling is common. Azeris especially like to grill sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, which is sturdy enough to withstand such treatment, over open fire, shashlik-style; it can also be baked, cooked into soups, or smoked.
The Azeri culinary tradition – like that of their Armenian neighbors – shows an amalgam of different cultural influences. The basic formula of Azeri cuisine can be stated as “Turkic (or Central Asian) with an Iranian (Persian) accent”. Take, for example, the pilau (better known in English as pilaf, probably a Turkish or Uzbek borrowing). As mentioned above, this rice-based dish has spread from Azerbaijan into the cooking of neighboring peoples, but what of its origin? The name suggests roots with the Turkic-speaking peoples of the Near East and Central Asia. However, Azeri-style pilau is closer to the Iranian version of the dish. Thus, in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, the rice and the so-called zirvak, a variable blend of meat, fish, vegetables, dried fruit, and spices, are cooked together, whereas in Persian cuisine – and in that of Azerbaijan – the two components are cooked and served separately. The Persian terms are chelow for the rice and khoresh for the delicate stew of meat, fish, vegetables, and/or fruit. And as in Iran, Azeri pilau is traditionally washed down with a cold sharbat (which, unlike the familiar sorbet, is a sweet drink rather than a cold dessert).
This strong Iranian influence on Azeri cuisine is old, dating to the 6th-4th c. BCE, when most of the territory of present-day Azerbaijan was part of the Achaemenid Empire (sometimes known as First Persian Empire). From the 3rd-4th c. CE this same area became a vassal state of the Persian Sassanid Empire. During this period many aspects of Azeri material culture seem to have been formed. The later invasions of the Arabs (8th c.), the Seljuk Turks (11th-12th c.) and the Mongols (13th-14th c.) brought changes to the area’s religion and language, but did not significantly transform its cuisine, although the influence of Seljuk Turks can be seen in the predominance of lamb, compared to other types of meat. In the 16th-18th c. Azerbaijan once again fell under Iranian rule, and came to share with Iran the Shi’a denomination of Islam, even though the closest linguistic relatives of the Azeris – the Turks – are Sunni Muslims. This commonality of religion allowed for the continued penetration of Persian cultural influences. Despite the difference in language, the Persian and Azeri cultures are closely linked. Far more Azeris, after all, live in Iran than in Azerbaijan.