Thanks to tipster EO, I recently discovered the excellent blog "Caucasian Circle of Peace Journalism," which is bringing together journalists from different parts of the Caucasus in an effort to publicize some of the more positive developments taking place in the conflict-prone region.
One very interesting story on the blog is by Lusine Musayelyan, a reporter for RFE/RL who lives in Stepanakert, the largest city in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been in Armenian control for some 20 years after a war with Azerbaijan. In her story, Musayelyan reports on restaurants in NK that, despite the ongoing conflict, still serve Azeri food to nostalgic locals. From her fascinating story:
Azerbaijani dishes are still in high demanded at the restaurants of Karabakh. All over the region people speak about the Azerbaijani cuisine with respect. Despite a conflict that is ongoing between the two nations for more than twenty years, in many restaurants patrons can taste typical Azerbaijani dishes alongside the rich offerings of Karabakh cuisne.
Despite the Azerbaijani “ethnic origin” of this dish, many diners come particularly to taste khangyal, as the employee of a restaurant in Stepanakert, who preferred not to be named, told us.
“There is demand, and we cater to it with great pleasure. We serve not only khangyal but also piti and bozbash. It may be interesting for you that usually those meals are ordered by members of the elder generation. It seems that they are nostalgic for these dishes,” our respondent said.
Vania Grigorian, a 58 year old lady, remembers that during Soviet times she went with friends for a weekend to Shushi, just in order to enjoy pita – a meal of lamb meat and peas – at an Azerbaijani restaurant there.
“This was real pita! It is also prepared nowadays, but the taste of pita of the old times is just unforgettable” says Grigorian, and her mouth is watering at the memory.
While the Karabakh cuisine makes wide us of greenery and herbs, Azerbaijani dishes, according to the gourmets, are heavier and are invariably served with matsoni (a fermented milk product similar to yogurt).
“This is a matter of taste. Just because I like piti, it doesn’t mean our cuisine has not its own dishes to offer. What about our jengalov ats (herb pies), our shashlik, tolma, pokhendz, and many others – it is difficult to list all of them,” Vania Grigorian tells us.
Curious to hear more, I wrote Musayelyan to get more details about her article. Our email exchange is below:
How did you come across this story?
I’ve been to many restaurants, and I’ve come across and have ordered the mentioned foods. I remember, 5 or 6 years ago when the Sadakhlo market was still around, shop owners from Karabakh use to bring in “Azerchay” and it was still possible to find the product in our local stores. That fact was always interesting for me: Two opposing people have many commonalities. Hence the similarities and common interests intrigue and interest me more than the differences.
Why do you thinks these restaurants are still serving Azeri dishes?
There’s still a generation that’s used, love and prefer the cuisine. Even the bloodiest of all wars can’t stop someone to eat “pakhlava” or “jingyal bread”. They might not eat from the enemy’s hand, but can’t stop loving the dishes.
How do people know about these restaurants? Is it commonly known which restaurants serve Azeri dishes?
There aren’t any specific restaurants that serve Azeri food in Karabakh. But there are restaurants that beside local dishes also serve an Azeri food. Even if the Azeri dishes aren’t mentioned on the menu, I’m sure if you ask for it you’ll be served.
One of the people in your story asked not to be named. Are there some people who object to Azeri food being served in Nagorno Karabakh?
I’m sure there are some people who might object, but I haven’t met any yet. The cuisine is a matter of pure taste and politics doesn’t play a major role. Some might not purchase Azeri products nor use their services, or Azerbaijan might try to put a stop for Karabakh products to be sold in Russia, but I doubt anyone has stopped eating “piti” or drinking Armenian brandy. Yes, they have stopped eating “piti” prepared by an Azeri, or drink brandy in an Armenian restaurant, but haven’t stopped enjoying it.
The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has sometimes spread even to the area of food. Based on your reporting, do you feel like food culture is something that can still unite people?
Yes, I think food, music, art and other elements can unite two opposing sides. I’m not talking about becoming one, but at least be civilized neighbors without killing each other.