Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Food in Azerbaijan

I love the food here. I feel the food is of a better quality, more types of food are available, and it is healthier. Besides the fact that almost all the food here is locally grown without pesticides, most Azerbaijanis are excellent cooks and enjoy cooking.

The market in my town is amazing. It covers about four square blocks with huge quantities of lush, beautiful produce. This time of year, there are mountains of shiny, plump tangerines from southern Azerbaijan, cartloads of apples from northern Azerbaijan, every kind of winter vegetable you can imagine, the most beautiful spinach I have ever seen, and loads of freshly cut herbs.

There are stalls of freshly made yogurt, homemade cheeses and sausages, dried and fresh spices. Beautiful dried apricots, figs and prunes are displayed. The food is organically produced, but is not professionally certified, so is not technically organic. The food is inexpensive and mostly does not come in packages. Do you want yogurt, milk or cottage cheese? Bring your own buckets. Do you want eggs laid yesterday? They will be put into a small plastic bag instead of a carton. Round loaves of bread are stacked without any covering. As a result, Azerbaijani families generate very little trash.

The recipes are mostly quite different from the foods we eat. One snack food is lavash that is sprinkled with goat cheese. Different green herbs are chopped up and sprinkled over the lavash. It is then rolled up and eaten. This is made and eaten at home. Delicious. Another is a huge pot of freshly made yogurt with a couple of eggs, stirred on the stove until it boils. Then chopped herbs are dropped in and it is served. They also make a great sauce for meat and vegetables by mincing garlic in yogurt and leaving it sit for a day or so.

But snacks are not what they are in US. Azeri people in my town eat at meals, not in between. They don’t have paper cups or plates or plasticware because they don’t eat away from home. They don’t eat on the bus, drink while walking down the street or stash food in their purse or pocket. They are not very interested in eating out as the food is the same at the restaurant as it is at home. But they like to entertain and have guests often.

Men shop for food at the markets as well as women and men and women seems to be equally represented in owning and operating market businesses.

One of the disappointing things is that quite a few Azeris don’t much like fruits and/or vegetables. Bread and potatoes are staples as are paint-can sized buckets of beef fat. A family can easily use up one of these cans in two weeks. And my families have not spent much on food, even though it is cheap, so I go weeks at a time with only apples for fruit. Apples are the cheapest fruit in the winter. Of course, it is not appropriate to demand different fruit, so I eat apples.

Why is there so much cheap food here? One answer is that the food can’t easily be exported, as the transportation system is so poor. Bad roads, poor railroad tracks and little mechanization result in an inability to move crops out of the country easily. In Soviet days, the transportation system was better, and many canning factories existed to process food for the entire Soviet bloc, creating many jobs, which no longer exist. (In fact there are abandoned factories of many types in several regions of of Azerbaijan, especially near Baku. Near our training village, there are long stretches of road with huge plants abandoned in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. It is eerie to see the deteriorating infrastructure of huge buildings, pipelines, railroad tracks and abandoned boxcars that were ready in 1991 to take the goods to market.)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, crop production is down some 75 percent as irrigation systems and machinery that existed then are no longer available. Also, as the collective farms were split into small farms for families to run, the abilities of the families to manage their acreage and basic knowledge of how to farm varies widely. It is estimated that 20 to 40 percent of crops spoil in the fields for lack of a market or the ability to get it there.

My current host family makes different hot and cold soups, and has lots of bread and potatoes on hand. All of it is covered in fresh herbs. Despite the abundance of cheap food, many families have very little cash to spend. I will cover this topic and meat in future blogs.

Beginning in April, though, we will be able to renegotiate our agreements with our host families and just pay them for our room. This way, we can keep the food money, buy and cook food ourselves. I am looking forward to this arrangement, although my budget will still be limited.

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