Republic of Azerbaijan
Before today, my experience with Azerbaijani cuisine was minimal – all I knew before starting to scout dishes was that Azerbaijanis really, really like pomegranate, so I wanted to be sure that I highlighted this fact in my selection. It turned out to be unavoidable, actually, since they put narsharab, or pomegranate sauce, on almost everything.
I’d used pomegranate molasses before, and even had a bit left in my cabinet from my post on Armenia (and an experiment involving lemon juice, basil and gin…) With gregarious confidence, I almost incorrectly assumed that pomegranate molasses and narsharab were one in the same. Quite the contrary – unlike the molasses, as well as many commercially-produced “pomegranate sauces”, real-deal narsharab is traditionally prepared without the addition of sugar. This yields a product that is more sour than sweet, and much less cloying. It also seems to be custom-made to accompany the natural sweetness of a rich, marbled piece of fish.
But wait, wait, wait… whoa. Before we hustle to the main course, let’s talk about the appeteaser – dushbara.
If there’s anything I love, it’s an unrealistically intricate task that yields an extremely small payout, which should theoretically make dushbara production my ideal dish. You have to roll out really thin pasta dough, cut it into tiny squares, fill each with a pinch of lamb filling and then, with the hand of a surgeon, fold them into little, pope-hat shaped quasi-tortellini.
It takes a long time, and is hard to do. So of course, I enjoyed it.
The sources I had examined mentioned that, when created at the proper size and dimension, anywhere from 5-10 dushbara should fit together on a soup spoon. I was able to juuuust fit five of mine on a spoon, so I felt like a success (which is rare).
In most cases the dushbara are to be served in a broth made from the bones of the lamb that you ground to make the filling, but… honestly dudes? I’m getting sick of lamb. One source mentioned that a lighter version of this soup could be made with vegetable broth and some fresh herbs, so I made that. My arteries thanked me.
I served myself a big bowl of soup, splashed with the recommended condiment of mashed garlic whisked into some red wine vinegar. The burn from the raw garlic and vinegar worked its way into every spoonful, with the thin pasta and slightly spongy lamb filling luxuriating in the light flavor of the broth. Surprisingly, the dushbara reminded me less of tortellini and more of wontons or jiaozi in their taste and consistency.
I pretty much inhaled this soup, which made me feel a little guilty after spending so much time painstakingly handcrafting each of those little dumplings. I guess if I were a grandma watching her family suck them down, I might have felt something more like pride or satisfaction. On my own, I just felt like someone who had finished putting together a massive puzzle and then just kind of casually threw it into the backyard. But it was delicious, regardless.
The most prized fish among the Azerbaijanis is the sturgeon, so much so that it is now dangerously overfished in the Caspian Sea, and can only be harvested during brief periods each year. Because of the popularity of its eggs and the unique tenderness of its flesh, the sturgeon gets hit from both directions. I’ll admit that I felt some distinct pangs of guilt in purchasing a piece for this entry – especially at $18.50 per pound. I spoke with the fishmonger at The Lobster Place in Chelsea market – the only place I could find fresh sturgeon in NYC – and he explained that, while absolutely endangered in Europe and Eurasia, this piece came from California and was raised in a strictly sustainable environment. I wasn’t sure if I should believe him, but I figured it would be a one-time purchase anyway, especially at such a prohibitive price. I could live with some minor cognitive dissonance.
It really was a thing of beauty – light pink meat, thick rainbows of fat and not an errant bone in sight. It smelled of fresh water, despite being a bottom-feeder (like a certain roommate I had in college).
The preparation for this fish couldn’t be simpler – a marinade of sour cream, dill, garlic and lemon, then a quick roast under the broiler on kebab skewers – a classic shashlyk.
Azerbaijani shashlyk is served over raw onions and tomatoes, and with a sprinkling of tart, gritty sumac (more on this ingredient in later entries, especially Lebanon!). I first wanted to try this fish alone, though, and then only with its intended accompaniment of narsharab.
What amazed me most was that the sweet flesh of the sturgeon – a strange combination of the flavor of salmon and the texture of swordfish – became even sweeter when slathered with the pomegranate reduction. As mentioned before, in my ignorance I had expected the opposite to happen, and assumed that the syrup would simply overwhelm the delicate, fatty taste of the fish. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The fish was wholly present, and the narsharab made a sweepingly sour, tart backdrop, which was as close to perfect as a condiment can get. I understand now why they love this fish so much, and what a tragedy it would be to have it pushed to extinction.
Azerbaijan, you are hard to spell and most people probably don’t know where you are, but damn it all if you can’t cook some fish.
Now you go:
½ lb. ground lamb
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup water
2 large onions
½ tsp turmeric
1 large carrot, peeled
Pinch of saffron, dissolved in ½ cup warm water
Salt & pepper to taste
Red wine vinegar
8 garlic cloves
Make the filling – mix ground meat, 1 onion that has been grated or pureed, and turmeric in a bowl. Use your hands to make sure everything is incorporated and homogenous. Set aside in refrigerator.
Make the dough – place flour in a large bowl, then add egg and 1 cup water. Knead with your hands until it forms a soft dough. Add more flour/water if necessary to reach correct consistency. Set aside to rest for 30 minutes under a damp towel.
Start the broth – place carrot, the remaining onion (sliced in half, skin left on), and 6 cloves garlic (crushed) in about 1 gallon of cold water. Slowly heat to boiling, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 2-3 hours until water is reduced by half.
While the broth reduces, make the dushbara – using a rolling pin or pasta machine, roll the dough out to app. 1 mm thick sheets. With a chef’s knife or pizza cutter, cut each sheet into as many 1-inch squares as possible. Place a pinch of filling onto each square. Fold one corner over to the opposite to make a triangle. Bring the remaining corners together and GENTLY pinch to seal them together. Each dushbara should look like a pope hugging himself. Set these aside as you complete them on a sheet of parchment sprinkled with flour. Let air-dry for about 1 hour.
Make the condiment – whisk vinegar and remaining cloves of garlic, minced, in a small bowl. Set aside.
Strain and discard all solids from the broth – you may wish to run the broth through a sieve or cheesecloth. Add saffron dissolved in water. Check for salt/pepper and season to taste. Bring to a boil, and slowly add dushbara in batches of 10-15. When they float to the top of the broth, they are ready.
Serve, sprinkled with minced dill and 1-2 tsp. of vinegar/garlic mixture.
1 lb. fresh sturgeon filet, thickly sliced across the grain into 6-7 pieces
6 oz. sour cream
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp fresh dill, minced
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
Salt & pepper to taste
1 large onion, sliced into rings
2 tomatoes, sliced
1 bunch scallions, sliced thin
3 tbsp ground sumac
½ cup narsharab (recipe to follow)
Mix sour cream, lemon, dill, garlic and salt/pepper to taste. Marinate fish in this mixture for at least 30 minutes, up to several hours.
Arrange fish on skewers and place either on grill over medium-hot charcoal or on a metal rack under a hot broiler. Roast for 6-10 minutes. (In the case of a broiler – if you keep the oven door closed, the convection of heat will eliminate the need to flip the fish; it will cook through by the time the top is browned.)
Remove fish from heat, serve still skewered over a bed of sliced onions and alongside tomatoes. Sprinkle with sumac and scallions and serve with narsharab on the side.
4 cups pomegranate juice
In a medium saucepan, bring pomegranate juice to a simmer. Slowly reduce until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Cool to room temperature.