A letter from an Azerbaijani

This concerns my Azeri menu posted at http://www.marga.org/food/int/azerbaijan/


Dear Margarita,
I recently came across your International Recipes web site and I was
thrilled to see the section you created on Azerbaijani food among many
others. Needless to say, I clicked to read what you had to say about the
cuisine of the country I was born and raised in.
Unfortunately, I was shocked. From the very first sentence, your
introduction to Azerbaijani cuisine sounded biased and I found the language
you described it quite offensive to say the least. I applaud and
appreciate your initiative, but I also believe if done it needs to be done
professionally and be grounded on sound research or at least personal
experience.
Let me bring clarification to some of the things you’ve mentioned in you r
article.
YOU SAID: At first glance (and at second and third), Azeri cuisine
resembles both in name and form the cuisine of its neighboring countries.
Indeed, it seems to me that Azeri cuisine falls right within what I know
suspect is a large Persian-Ottoman culinary tradition. It’s therefore not
surprising that I have encountered versions of many typical Azeri dishes in
my previous culinary journeys. Azeris love kebabs (skewered meats), for
example, and even have their own versions of kofta (meatballs, ). They
serve a variety of dolmas (stuffed vegetables) and among their desserts you
can find such Middle Eastern favorites as baklava and halva. They even have
a type of meat turnovers called kutabs which are extremely reminiscent of
Argentine empanadas. And of course, the crown of any meal is a well-known
pilaf.
I SAY: Yes, Azerbaijan has been influenced by the food of its neighboring
countries, but it is not a one way process.Many countries have been
influenced by our food as well. Show me a country with the “pure”
cuisines. There is simply none. Also, note that Azerbaijani dolma (dolma
in Azeri means stuffed by the way) is way different from its counterparts
from other countries so well known to you. Azerbaijani Pakhlava is in no
way similar to Baklava from the Middle East you are familiar with. And do
you really believe Argentine empanadas found their way to Azerbaijan and
turned into Gutabs? Gutabs are indigenous to Azerbaijan. Would you also
claim that Japanese Gyozas are where Azerbaijanis drew their inspiration
and created Gurza, a dough pocket filled with meat? Then you probably are
not aware that Azerbaijan was a part of Soviet Union for 75 years and
traveling to distant countries was a very rare and almost non-existent
thing to happen not to mention bringing food ideas from there.
YOU SAID: I was thus a bit skeptical when I read that Azeris consider their
cuisine to be “unique and original” and unable to be confused with that of
any other nation. While I still believe that such statements are
exaggerations, to say the least, I was pleasantly surprised by the
simplicity of Azeri cuisine.
I SAY: This is by far the most offensive statement I’ve read so far in your
article. Azerbaijani cuisine IS unique and original in its own way.
Perhaps you haven’t tried Piti in Sheki, lamb slowly cooked in clay pots,
or Dushbere, a clear broth soup with meat filled miniature dumplings. The
list can go on a on. There are hundreds of dishes in Azerbaijani cuisine
that do not exist in other countries. Moreover, Azerbaijani cuisine is not
simple at all. And the ingredients we use are not copy-cats from other
cuisines! The techniques we use to make our dishes are different too.
YOU SAID: Indeed I wonder if some of the ingredients that I encountered in
my Azeri journey, such as sour cream and salmon, are Russian in origin.
I SAY: Yes, Azerbaijan was a part of Soviet Union for 75 years and our
cuisine was influenced by Russian foods and visa versa. If you did a better
research, you would know that Caspian Sea is known for its rich fauna and
it is home to the most delicious Caspian Salmon. Oh, sour cream is used all
over the world, to my knowledge, not only in Russia.
YOU SAID: I chose the dishes I made based on their simplicity (I now have a
small baby which makes it impossible for me to spend long hours in the
kitchen), the ubiquity of the required ingredients and the overall balance
of the meal.
I SAY: Unfortunately, the dishes you chose to prepare are not the best
candidates to represent Azerbaijani cuisine. Some of the ingredients you
used as well as techniques are quite strange to me. For example, we do not
baste chicken in sour cream for Djudja Kebab.
I read that you have a baby and as someone who has young kids and writes a
cookbook at the same time I do understand it is not an easy thing to
compile such a comprehensive directory with international recipes, but I do
believe in the saying – ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST! Please research and ask and
you’ll have a different opinion on Azerbaijani cuisine.
In closing, I would like to invite you to visit my food blog dedicated to
Azerbaijani cuisine. It is still new and I will be adding more post to it.
I hope it helps you understand our food culture better and makes you think
otherwise about the beautiful cuisine deeply rooted in the history, culture
and the tradition of the people who created it. I would appreciate if you
revise the section on Azerbaijani cuisine in your recipe project.
If there is anything you would like to know about our cuisine, please do
not hesitate to contact me at my email address. farida@azcookbook.com. I
will gladly help.
Regards,
Farida
Farida’s Azerbaijani Cookbook
http://AZcookbook.com


I’m a bitter person

And here is another piece of feedback I got recently – I suspect from someone related to a restaurant I’ve given a bad review to:
“I don’t know who you are or what are you trying to do with all your “reports” about restaurants. there’s one thing I want to tell you, you have a problem with yourself because in most of the ” reports” you describe your experiences as negatives. I think that the places are fine it is just you who is wrong and needs help. ”


Comments on Appalachia

A few years ago I cooked an Appalachian dinner, and in my description of my impressions of the region I wrote how I’d imagined it to be “poor, backwards, even third-worldish.” Many people from Appalachia took offense with that description, and I have since gotten a lot of hate mail about my comments. I can’t, in good conscience, apologize for them as they were true. That’s how I imagined Appalachia to be. That’s how Appalachia has been portrayed by books, movies and TV – and indeed, that’s why Appalachia is of any interest at all. It is offensive to me, as a person from the third world, how many people take offense at being called “third worldish”. This “we are better than you” attitude that they have is, if nothing else, laughable.
Still, I believe in freedom of speech and here are a couple a comments I’ve gotten. I had more but I can’t find them now.

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Albanians are also angry at me

I have managed to offend many nationalities through my international food project. Some day I’ll post all the comments from Appalachians I’ve gotten for comparing Appalachia to the third world – but a more recent comment was from an Albanian who was sure I’d never been to Albania (true) and had never eaten Albanian food (true as well). She says that the only authentic Albanian food comes from women who have kept the traditions for generations, which I can believe. She’s been very gratious to send me some recipes, which I’m posting here. I may cook them someday.

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Another angry Bolivian

I got another message from a Bolivian woman angry at my comments about Bolivian food. Oh well, honesty just doesn’t jive with some people.
In any case, I understand her points. It’s true that I only spent a few days in Bolivia, and that I probably did not try the most traditional Bolivian dishes (honestly, I can’t remember what I had back then – just that it was not memorable), and I’m sure that cooked by an experience cook some Bolivian dishes would be wonderful. But if a cuisine does take years to learn, then it’s clearly not for me. What has been great about this project is discovering a whole lot of cuisines that are very accessible to a foreign cook.
In any case, here is her comment:

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Dictionary of Bolivian Food

Pork chops in orange-pepper sauceOne of my readers, a Bolivian living in Japan, was dismayed at my feelings about Bolivian food as represented on the page on the matter. She understood how difficult it was to get inspired by a cuisine when you can’t understand half the ingredients and dishes you come across. So she helpfully sent me a “dictionary” of Bolivian food, describing dishes and ingredients.
I cannot help her enough, and I that I’m speaking for many people who will come across this page searching for this information.

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Cou Cou

From time to time I’ve gotten comments on my write ups about the different cuisines I have explored. Mostly they are complimentary, but sometimes people are very offended at what I’ve written and want to set me straight. For example, I got a lot of hate mail regarding my write up of Appalachian cuisine – apparently a newspaper columnist there organized a letter writing campaign to let me know how offended they were at my thoughts. My Assyrian menu has also generated some mail from Assyrians who tell me that I did it all wrong. They’ve promised to send me recipes so I can cook a real Assyrian meal, but so far I haven’t gotten any.
But no individual recipe has received more comments than my recipe for coucou, a cornmeal dish eaten throghout the Caribbean. Apparently I did it all wrong. Here is the last e-mail I’ve gotten on the subject.
“Of course you, probably a white woman, would find the dish bland but if you were a native you would understand that cou-cou is not a stand alone dish. The national dish of Barbados is “cou-cou and flying fish” and like mash potatoes and gravy, the flavor of the cou-cou comes from the gravy of the fish. If you do not have flying fish, you could use any other steamed fish, liver, etc. anything that makes a good gravy.
If the picture on your website is the result of what you made no wonder it was bland cause it looks like poop which means you probably made it wrong.
Happy recipe hunting but next time maybe you should stick to hamburgers and french fries.”