Azerbaijani cuisine has been one of the ancient, rich and tasty cuisines in the world. The Azerbaijani cuisine is not only the basis for the meals and methods of their preparation but is also the material culture. The Azerbaijani cuisine comprises the culture of cuisine, its history, philosophy, meal psychology, customs, physiology, hygiene, chemistry, equipment, ethics, aesthetics, poetry and various other aspects, as well as practical skills created by the Azerbaijani people in the territories where they had historically lived in full harmony.
The Azerbaijani cuisine has been created by the genius of the Azerbaijani in today’s Republic of Azerbaijan, Southern (Iranian) Azerbaijan, Iravan Khanate, Zangazour, and Goyja provinces, where Azerbaijanis were forced out of their homes, in the territories of districts (Borchaly) where Azerbaijanis of Georgia have lived since the old times, in the territory of Dagestan, including Darband, which had been the centre for former Azerbaijani people, and surrounding territories.
Of course, the most important factor having an impact on the creation of the cuisine is the climate. It is sufficient, in this connection, to mention that 8 climate zones exist in the territory of Azerbaijan, and these conditions, in its turn, the diversity and richness of the flora and fauna of this region creates favourable conditions for the lives and development of all animals and plants. And they are the basis for the creation of rich cuisine.
In addition to using wild animals, birds, fishes, and plants in the creation of rich cuisine, the production of agricultural products is required in the later periods of development of the society. For this, a population has to have a high level of cropping and cattle-breeding culture. For example, complex meals made from dough and grain crops could only have appeared if the need for the production of agricultural products had been over the need for cooking bread and products that would replace bread. Only in cases when there had been the need for keeping grain for the sufficiently long term, there were opportunities to carry out experiments with complex meals and create them. As this had continued for centuries, gradually new meals appeared and remained in the memory of the people. Only the existence of “chatan” (archaic form of a colander) takes the history of preparing meals from grain crops back 5-6 thousand years B.C. and allows us to talk about stable crops and, accordingly, a high level of farming.
Production of a large number of grain products talks about the high level of farming culture, the existence of irrigation systems, and development of cattle-breeding etc.
All this could not have been possible without having a stable lifestyle.
It should be mentioned that in the Southern Caucasus raw products necessary for cuisine had mainly been produced by Azerbaijanis having a high level of farming and cattle-breeding culture. For example, Georgian scientist M.I.Tkeshelov wrote in 1888 about the Azerbaijanis living in the territory of Iravan khanate: "people in villages are engaged in grain-growing, farming and gardening. Of course, Azerbaijanis not only engage in cattle-breeding on plains, summer pastures in mountains, but they could also be named as farming people as they live at the banks of rivers. We can say that Azerbaijanis live everywhere at the banks of rivers, while Armenians are settled on uplands. E.K. Artamanov mentioned in 1889 when he wrote about Iran that “Grain is mainly supplied by Azerbaijan, Khorasan, Kirmanshah, Phars, Isfahan and Yazd”. G.V.Sologub wrote in 1852: “Armenians have mainly focused their activity on trade and collecting wealth. And Azerbaijanis, in turns, have focused their activity on farming and cattle breeding according to the places of residence and are the main producing element in Transcaucasus”.
I.V. Segalov mentioned in 1902 that “Muslim people mainly live at the banks of Bazarchay, Ayrichay, Bargushad, Okhuchay rivers and their branches, as well as of Araz River; and Armenians have scattered on uplands in places with sharp weather conditions. The majority of Armenian men (from 15 to 40) go each year to the coast of the Caspian Sea, Baku and Tbilisi for earnings. Here they are attracted by the job of servant and street life. As regards the Azerbaijanis, they live on plains and in good conditions for farming”.
This, of course, was in the progress of a natural process. Until other nations arrived, the local population had settled in productive lands and been using them. This is confirmed by an Armenian scientist G.A. Yezov (1908): “New homeland did not welcome Armenians, because they were very little lands for an independent state”.
Notes of travelers, scientists, traders, diplomats, and others, as well as archaeological excavations, prove that since ancient times people cultivated here large volumes of grain, rice, kunjut, soybeans, beetroot, melon, watermelon, grape, apple, pomegranate, quince and other similar farming, gardening, and melon/watermelon/gourd growing products. Not only local population had been provided with these products of plant-growing, as well as fresh and dried fish, caviar, honey, butter, and other cattle-breeding products, but these products had also been exported to neighboring, close, and far countries. This is an indisputable fact that for centuries-long the Caucasian markets were supplied with cattle-breeding and plant-growing products produced by Azerbaijanis. For example, Y.D.Angabadze and N.G.Volkova wrote referring to the sources in the book “Old Tbilisi”: Cheese was brought to Tbilisi markets by Ossetians and Azerbaijanis, and people from Borchaly (Azerbaijanis) too traded with cheese. There was a great demand in Tbilisi markets for salmon brought from Azerbaijan, “Goyja Lake” (After giving that area to Armenia it was renamed “Sevan Lake”.)
Thus, the Azerbaijanis had been the main nation to have the possibility to create and develop a rich cuisine in Transcaucasus and a strong raw product basis for the cuisine. Attachment of the source of the large majority of the meals in Armenian, Georgian, and Persian cuisines to Azerbaijani Turks, in terms of name, is just explained by this factor.
After the climate, the main factor having an influence on cuisine is the hearth. For example, in Slavic cuisine, especially in Russian cuisine, a number of sweet meals cookies, meals cooked in water or scalded meals have appeared with the possibilities of the Russian oven. The creation and development of Azerbaijani cuisine are largely associated with the existence of many types of open and closed hearths such as tendir, hearth, fire-place, kulfa (an oven built of bricks to bake bread), chala-ojag (pit-hearth), saj (iron disk for baking bread), brazier, etc.
Unique tableware and kitchen utensils have also had a certain influence on our cuisine. Even today our housewives have been using various tablewares made of animal skin, stone, wood, clay, glass, metal, etc.
In addition to gas and electricity, firewood, charcoal, manure briquette, etc. are used in Azerbaijani cuisine as fuel. The use of briquette is especially interesting. In places where briquette is used as fuel, cutting trees and shrubs for fuel is prevented. At places where briquette is used, there are no lung diseases and respiratory ducts. According to Indian doctors’ researches, the smoke generated as a result of burning briquette has antiseptic properties.
One of the indices of the level of a nation’s cuisine culture is how this nation treats water and its purification and its capability to use water. Since the old times, the Azerbaijani people have divided water into two parts, white and black. Water containing many salts, ions, metals is hard–black water. And water containing fewer salts, ions, metals are soft-white water.
Only soft white water is used in the preparation of drinks and meals. The weeping willow is planted at the banks of rivers, irrigation ditches, canals because roots, branches and other parts of a willow that have antiseptic properties make water healthier. For this purpose, branches of willow are cut and immersed in containers with water. Sometimes a silver item is thrown into the water. In the absence of them, the stone of apricot is thrown into the water in order to cause the settling of additional substances contained in water.
Maybe the first and best natural water purifier in history has been used by Azerbaijanis. This is a water stone used for the purification of water. Water stone is a pyramid-like black or white stone, which is craved to make a volume in the stone to contain water to be purified. It is placed, with the pick downwards, on special wooden supports and a container is put under it to collect the purified water. The stone is filled with water; in some cases, a silver item or branch of willow is thrown into the water. Water passing through the capillary of the stone is collected drop-by-drop in a container and during this process water is not only purified but also is cooled in a natural way due to the difference of pressures in the porosity of the stone and passing through the capillary.
It should be noted that the oldest (3700 years old) samovar was found in Azerbaijan (Sheki) and it is older than the Egyptian samovar being 2000 years old. And this was one of the main points of the culinary. Transfer of a hearth from outside the pot to its inside, change of water-air balance in water has caused the change of the volume of separation of food substances and, accordingly, the taste of the liquid.
The next important factor that has had an influence on the cuisine is the historical and geographical place of location of people and mutual relations with neighboring nations.
The fact that ancient trade caravans and military roads passed through Azerbaijan have had a certain impact on our cuisine. Although the relationship to all-Turkish ethnos has led to meals with the same root, the Azerbaijani cuisine may be considered as the crown of the all-Turkish cuisine. In terms of taste, Azerbaijani cuisine is much closer to Anatoly cuisine.
Long-term relations with Arabs gave us coffee, the historical “Silk Way” has brought tea from far China to these places. On the other hand, getting to know the Russian cuisine gave the Azerbaijani cuisine “shee” (cabbage soup) and “borsch” (it is famous among people as “borsh”), on the other hand, allowed us to get to know the European cuisine misinterpreted by Russia. A direct acquaintance had started at the end of XIX Century and at the beginning of XX Century due to the development of the oil industry (this process is being observed nowadays too), which has not only had an influence on restaurant cuisine but also taught people to use aluminum tablewares, and this intervention has not added anything positive, but harm to the health of people.
One of the factors that have had an impact on the Azerbaijani national cuisine was the religion and faith of the nation. (Zərdüştilik), fire warship and the Avesta philosophy have not only found their reflection in customs and mentality of the Azerbaijani people, but also in the cuisine. Respect for the first assistance of a cook — the hearth — comes, to our opinion, from here. Customs associated with meals formed under the influence of the faith in light and fire are living today. Christianity has for a long time existed in Azerbaijan and exists today, and this factor has left its footsteps in our cuisine. At the same time, the fact that the Azerbaijanis have been Muslims for more than a thousand-year and the influence of Islam on the cuisine is also indisputable facts. Refusal to use golden utensils, eat pork, forbidding drinking alcoholic drinks, etc. talks about the strong influence of Islamic traditions. Various holidays, ceremonies, and fasting have also had a strong impact on the cuisine.
Let us mention that the cuisine customs associated with religion, prohibition, recommendations are the subject of special researches. Here must be mentioned only one thing that the requirements of the religion, especially of Islam, regarding the meal and food products, have a serious scientific basis. For example, Islam recommends eating fruits and grain crops without removing their skin. However, it was only recently discovered that most parts of vitamins and microelements that do not dissolve in water are contained in the skin of the plants, etc.
Azerbaijani cuisine occupies a worthy place in the world in terms of taste and quality. Anyone who has tasted our dishes at least once admires them. In Azerbaijan, 2 of the 11 elements included in the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List are associated with food: lavash (2016) and dolma (2017).