Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Feride Buyuran was not a cook while she was growing up. Her mother did all the cooking for their family, actually packing her lunch until she was in her 20’s! Even so, she was obsessed with food, collecting recipes from radio programs, newspapers and magazines through her growing up years. After moving to California, her love of the recipes from her home country led her first into the kitchen and then on a cooking odyssey to write Pomegranates & Saffron: A Culinary Journey To Azerbaijan. I had the pleasure of meeting Feride earlier this year, and was excited to have the chance to hear the whole story of how her beautiful book came to be at an event hosted by Melissa’s Produce.
Azerbaijan was part of the former Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991 when Feride (pronounced fair- eh -day) was a teenager. Kids in the USSR didn’t have a lot of exposure to the outside world, but she wanted to learn English, so she studied literature in college and worked for an Azerbaijani culture magazine, which gave her the opportunity to travel to California. After arriving in the US she began to cook and found that it was something she really enjoyed, so she began asking her mom for the Azerbaijani recipes she missed, literally learning to cook with her mom on the phone!
In 2007 the idea for her book came to her. Still passionate about food and recipes, Feride would go to the library to look at cookbooks, being especially drawn to those from around the world. She discovered that there was no single cookbook on Azerbaijani cooking in the US. Her mom was visiting at the time and Feride asked her to share all her recipes, which she did – and because this did not cover all the regions of the country, she began asking friends, other family members and even complete strangers to share their recipes. Since many were not exact (envision your grandma giving you one of her recipes – “a little of this, a little of that…), it took dedication and research to fine tune them all – 7 years worth, in fact. The result was a gorgeously photographed book with detailed recipes and history from “…a country where East and West are beautifully intertwined in the cuisine and culture…” The fact that publishing companies did not take the option to publish Pomegranates & Saffron didn’t deter Feride; she decided to publish it on her own.
We all wondered how she come up with the title…which on its own can make your mouth water. Pomegranate is the national food of Azerbaijan (they grow everywhere and they are used constantly in cooking, being stirred into stews, stuffed into flatbreads, etc…). Saffron, also widely used, is considered the king of spices there. It takes the three stigmas from each of 70-75,000 crocus plants to make just one pound of saffron – which is why it costs about $100 per ounce! It made sense to feature these two majorly important ingredients as the title…and it sounded perfect, too.
Feride was exposed to many regional flavors as she grew up, and as always, regions have their own flavors which blend with those of the regions close to them. Baku is very famous for pasta dishes, like dumpling soup, and dried and fresh beans are very common there. So are rose petals, which are common to a neighboring region very close to Iran. Her second home region of Balakan, where her grandparents lived, borders Georgia, and uses walnuts and dill seeds. It’s also known for Saj Crepes (a Saj is a cooking vessel used to make crepes). These crepes are symbolic of the sun – one of so many interesting pieces of tradition and lore that fills this multiple award-winning book.
Ganja Style Chicken with Eggs is a lovely dish that I think would be perfect for brunch, lunch or a light dinner- the recipe uses dry turmeric – but you can use double the amount of fresh.
When I made this dish at home, I took Feride’s advice to wear gloves and refrain from using white plates – the color is so beautiful but it stains!
I also made the Vegetable Kabab Salad, adding Fresno Peppers from my garden (since I didn’t have a jalapeno on hand). I roasted the vegetables in the oven. I love the flavors of all the vegetables together and the salad was delicious at room temperature and also chilled the next day.
Since there aren’t any local Azerbaijani restaurants, you’ll have to try the recipes yourself. Good news, though: Feride is going to be holding cooking classes in her home in Long Beach – all classes will be hands on, with everyone sitting down to eat together at the end…and, she hinted that there might even be dancing!
If you decide to plan a trip to beautiful Azerbaijan, Feride recommends you to allow at least a week, and two weeks would be even better. See the southeast part of the country, with its Persian influenced food and lots of rice. As with travel to any country, you can experience a plethora of different flavors as you travel to the various regions. In the meantime, enjoy this Vegetable Kabob Salad, so fun and easy to make, with lots of flavor that complements almost any main dish.
I’m inspired by Feride’s story, her determination, her pride in her beautiful heritage, and her joy in sharing her gifts with others. Pomegranates & Saffron has already become a treasured piece of my cookbook collection, making me feel in a way a little closer to my Ukranian heritage. I know many of the recipes in the book will be making their way onto my family’s table. As the Azerbaijani saying goes: May your table always be abundant!
Known as kabab salati, this lovely and flavorful combination of grilled or roasted vegetables is a wonderful complement to grilled meats, chicken and fish. Use many colors of vegetables for a beautiful presentation. Serve in small cups for an appetizer.
Author: Feride Buyuran (with Sue Burns' adaptations)
Recipe type: Vegetables, Side Dish, Appetizer
Cuisine: Ethnic ~ Azerbaijani
Serves: 4-8 servings
8 medium dark-skinned eggplants
3 medium green bell peppers (you can use multi-colored, such as Enjoya from Melissa's Produce, or orange/yellow/red peppers)
1 green chile pepper (I used a red Fresno pepper from my garden)
4 medium-ripe but firm tomatoes, cored and seeded
1 medium onion, finely chopped (I used a red onion)
1 cup mixed chopped fresh mint and cilantro
1-2 Tbsp. olive oil, for drizzling
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 425F.
Line a baking sheet with foil and drizzle a bit of olive oil over.
Finely chop the onion and set aside.
Cut the rest of the vegetables into medium, uniform pieces.
Drizzle the vegetables (except the onion) with the olive oil and sprinkle with a bit of the Kosher salt and pepper.
Toss the vegetables together, coating all with the oil, salt and pepper.
Bake for 15 minutes, then turn and redistribute with a metal/heatproof spatula.
Bake another 10 minutes, until tender but not mushy.
Remove from oven and allow to set until cool enough to handle.
Dice the vegetables into smaller but fairly uniform pieces and toss together in a bowl.
Stir in the chopped onion, fresh herbs and taste; add more salt and pepper if necessary.
Serve warm, at room temp or chilled.
Note: appetizer portions will yield more servings than side dish portions.
Note: Melissa’s Produce generously provided the cookbook and vegetables for this post. I was not compensated in any other way, and all the opinions stated are my own.