Tracing a Soup’s Roots
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.