Trac­ing a Soup’s Roots

EatingWell - - FEATURES - By Naomi Duguid

This herb-in­flected yo­gurt soup tells the story of Azer­bai­jan’s ties to the Mid­dle East.

i learned to make this Herbed Yo­gurt-rice Soup from a woman named Chamala, a metic­u­lous cook who lives with her hus­band and chil­dren in Sheki, a beau­ti­ful old town in Azer­bai­jan. Along with the for­mer Soviet states Ge­or­gia and Ar­me­nia, Azer­bai­jan is wedged be­tween Rus­sia, Turkey and Iran in a moun­tain­ous re­gion known as the Cau­ca­sus. Lo­cated be­tween three his­toric em­pires—rus­sian, Per­sian and Byzantine—the Cau­ca­sus has over the cen­turies suf­fered in­va­sions and con­quests. Bor­ders have shifted and peo­ple, too, have been moved, some­times forcibly. To­day the Cau­ca­sus is not con­sid­ered part of the Mid­dle East by most ge­og­ra­phers. But when you trace the ori­gins of this soup, the ties are clear. Yo­gurt was likely in­tro­duced through­out the re­gion by no­madic shep­herds. So yo­gurt soups, served cold and warm, can be found ev­ery­where from North Africa to Iran to Turkey. In the Cau­ca­sus, each coun­try has at least one take on it. In Ar­me­nia, it’s of­ten made with cooked po­ta­toes and pureed squash or pump­kin en­riched with yo­gurt. In Ge­or­gia, tangy lo­cal yo­gurt (mat­soni) is sim­ply thick­ened with a lit­tle egg and flour. All of these soups are fla­vored with lots of chopped herbs, char­ac­ter­is­tic of Cau­casian cuisines and of north­ern Ira­nian cook­ing as well. In the last 100 years, Sheki has been part of Ge­or­gia, then of Azer­bai­jan, but ear­lier it was con­trolled by the Per­sians, whose in­flu­ence ex­tended from Turkey to In­dia. Azer­bai­jan shares a bor­der and lo­cal cul­ture with north­west Iran and has a big rice-grow­ing area along the Caspian Sea. That may ex­plain why, un­like the Geor­gian and Ar­me­nian ver­sions, Chamala’s soup is thick­ened with rice as well as an egg. In the heat of sum­mer, Chamala cooks out­side. Like most houses in Azer­bai­jan and Ge­or­gia, hers has a cov­ered bal­cony where herbs are hung to dry. When I was there in Oc­to­ber, we worked in her kitchen, chop­ping herbs and watch­ing the yo­gurt to make sure it cooked at a slow, steady heat with­out boil­ing. Chamala had gone to the lively mar­ket in Sheki to get the yo­gurt. The soup tasted de­li­cious when it came off the stove, but it trans­formed when she sprin­kled sev­eral lines of ground cin­na­mon on top, a Per­sian touch and a re­minder that cul­tural and culi­nary bor­ders tran­scend the geo­graph­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal ones. NAOMI DUGUID’S most re­cent book is Taste of Per­sia: A Cook’s Trav­els Through Ar­me­nia, Azer­bai­jan, Ge­or­gia, Iran and Kur­dis­tan.

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY PENNY DE LOS SAN­TOS

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