Sensational soups from Azerbaijan

Cooks’ use of tart fruits as flavorings and of generous amounts of fresh herbs give Azerbaijani soups a distinctive flavor.

Meat dumpling soup - dushbere (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Meat dumpling soup - dushbere
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
We learned to prepare dushbara, Azerbaijan’s most popular soup, made of lamb dumplings in a light broth, in a cooking class taught in Los Angeles by Feride Buyuran. Buyuran, the author of Pomegranates and Saffron – A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan, emphasized that the tortellini-like dumplings should be tiny, and that making perfect ones requires practice and patience. Yet even though none of us in the class had ever made dushbara before, the soup was superb.
In Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, we discussed how to prepare dushbara over lunch with Leyla Rakhmanova, the author of Cuisine d’Azerbaidjan. She mentioned that you can make the filling for the dumplings from beef or veal in addition to lamb. (See recipe.)
On chilly days, the Azerbaijani meatball soup called kufta bozbash is an ideal soup to serve. In addition to the large meatballs – made from lamb, beef or both – the soup has chickpeas and potatoes.
Each meatball has a surprise in the middle – one or two dried sour cherries or a dried tart plum. When we met chef Tahir Amiraslanov, author of Azerbaijan Culinary, he told us that the soup can be seasoned with either saffron or turmeric. (See recipe.)
We also enjoyed eating a similar potato and chickpea soup with pieces of meat on the bone instead of meatballs, with the same tart fruit added to the broth; some cooks add fresh quinces and chestnuts as well. There is also a meatless version of this soup that comes with fish balls, which are traditionally made from sturgeon.
A group of Israeli tourists we met in Baku enthusiastically recommended that we dine at Nakhchivan Restaurant, which specializes in foods from the region of Nakhchivan in southwest Azerbaijan.
At the restaurant we asked to visit the kitchen, and there we saw the chef poaching eggs in a red-hued soup. We ordered it, and it turned out to be a tasty red bean and meat soup flavored with tomato and mint and finished with fresh coriander and fresh dill. The satisfying soup was served with just-baked tandir bread, which resembles laffa but is thicker. (See recipe.)
What made many of the soups we tasted in Azerbaijan so delicious was the freshly made pasta, slowly simmered meat, beans, or a combination of these. Cooks’ lavish use of tart fruits as flavorings and of generous amounts of fresh herbs – especially dill, mint and coriander – gave the soups a distinctive flavor.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
MEAT DUMPLING SOUP – DUSHBARA

This recipe is from Cuisine d’Azerbaidjan by Leyla Rakhmanova.
For the filling it’s best to use meat that is not too lean. The dumplings should be very small.
“One spoon should contain 5 to 8 dushbaras, on average,” wrote Rakhmanova. “However, the best cooks in the... villages are able to make them so small that 20 dushbaras can fit on one spoon!” In restaurants these dumplings are served in meat or chicken broth. At home, some cooks simply serve them in their cooking liquid, which gains flavor from the filling as the dumplings cook. The soup is accompanied by mild vinegar flavored with garlic.
Serves 7 or 8
Dumpling dough:
500 gr. all-purpose flour (about 7½ cups)
½ tsp. salt
1 large egg, beaten
200-250 ml. (0.8 to 1 cup) water
Filling:
400 gr. finely ground lamb, beef or veal
1 medium onion, finely chopped or grated
¾ tsp. salt, or to taste
¼ tsp. black pepper, or to taste
For serving:
50 ml. (scant ¼ cup) mild wine vinegar, apple vinegar or other mild vinegar
2 or 3 cloves garlic, crushed 8 cups meat broth (optional, for serving)
Dried mint (for sprinkling)
Dumpling dough:
Combine flour and salt; sift onto a work surface and form a mound. Make a deep well in the center and put the egg and 200 ml. (4/5 cup) of water into it. Draw the flour from the inside walls of the well into the wet ingredients in a circular motion, using a fork or your fingers and adding more water if dough is too dry.
Knead the dough, pressing it with the heel of your hand and pushing it away; fold it over and turn. Continue kneading this way until dough is smooth but stiff. Divide dough into several smaller balls, cover and set aside to rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
Filling: Combine ground meat with onion, salt and pepper. Knead by hand to mix well.
Prepare accompanying sauce: Combine the vinegar and garlic in a bowl. Whisk to combine and set aside.
To shape the dumplings: Flour a baking sheet. Lightly dust a large work surface with flour. Put one ball of dough on floured surface and flatten it. Using a thin rolling pin, roll the piece of dough, turning the round of dough slightly after each motion, until it is very thin, about 1.5 mm. thick. Work quickly from this point so dough won’t dry.
Cut the thin sheet of dough into 2- to 2.5- cm. squares. Put a bit of meat mixture on each square and fold it over to form a triangle. Join two of the points and press them lightly together to seal. The dumplings will resemble tiny seashells. Transfer to floured baking sheet. Continue shaping dumplings from rest of dough and filling.
If serving dumplings in broth, bring broth gently to a simmer; keep warm.
In another saucepan bring 2 liters of salted water to a boil and add a pinch of salt. Reduce heat so water simmers. Add the dumplings in small batches. Cook them uncovered until they rise to the surface of the water and are tender, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Serve dumplings in their cooking liquid, or drain them and serve them in hot meat broth. Serve sprinkled with dried mint. Accompany with the garlic vinegar sauce.
MEATBALL SOUP WITH CHICKPEAS AND POTATOES – KUFTA BOZBASH
The kufta, or meatballs, in this soup are studded with tart dried fruit, traditionally cherry plums (mirabelle plums) or sour cherries. In Azerbaijan this soup is often made with lamb, but you can also make it with beef, veal or turkey; some cooks combine lamb and beef, and some add chunks of meat to the soup in addition to the meatballs.
For a richer soup, make a broth from bones. For a lighter soup, cook the meatballs in water; the soup will gain flavor from the meatballs and the seasonings. If you like, add fried onions to the finished soup to enrich it.
This version of kufta bozbash is based on the recipe in Azerbaijani Cuisine, edited by Teymur Karimli, with a foreword by Tahir Amiraslanov.
The soup is sprinkled with fresh coriander when it’s available; in winter dried mint is used. Some serve the soup with sumac for sprinkling at the table. To accompany the soup, serve fresh bread and pickled vegetables.
Serves 6
600 gr. boneless lamb or beef
1 small onion (85 gr. )
1 large egg
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
1⁄4 tsp. black pepper, or to taste
2 tsp. dried mint
60 gr. (1⁄4 cup) uncooked short- or medium-grain rice, rinsed
40 gr. dried tart cherries or small dried plums, preferably tart ones, rinsed and dried
6 or 7 cups meat broth or water
400 gr. potatoes, peeled and cut in half or in large chunks
Pinch of saffron or turmeric
1 cup cooked chickpeas (from 100 gr. or 1⁄2 cup uncooked chickpeas) or canned chickpeas
2 Tbsp. cilantro (fresh coriander) or a few pinches dried mint (for sprinkling)
For meatballs: Mince meat with onion in a meat grinder; transfer to a bowl. If you don’t have a meat grinder, mince onion and meat separately in a food processor and then process to combine them, or buy ground meat, mince or grate the onion, and mix it well with the meat in a bowl. Add the egg, 1 teaspoon salt, 1⁄4 teaspoon pepper, dried mint and rice. Mix well. Form mixture into 6 to 12 balls.
Put 2 or 3 dried cherries or 1 plum into the middle of each meatball. Reserve any extra dried fruit to add to the broth.
Bring 11⁄2 liters (about 6 cups) broth or water to a boil. Add the potato pieces, saffron and a pinch of salt. Carefully add the meatballs one by one. Add chickpeas and reserved dried fruit. Return to a simmer. Cover and cook the soup over medium-low heat for 35 to 40 minutes, or until potatoes are tender and meatballs are cooked through, adding more broth or water if soup boils out.
Remove from heat. Taste broth for salt and add pepper to taste. Transfer meatballs gently to bowls and ladle rest of soup over them. Serve sprinkled with cilantro or dried mint.
BEAN SOUP-STEW WITH LAMB AND POACHED EGGS – MASH SHORBASI
This recipe is from Feride Buyuran’s book, Pomegranates & Saffron – A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan. Buyuran described this soup/stew as “the very heart and soul of cooking in the regions of Nakhchivan.” In that area, the recipe varies from place to place. Buyuran makes it with pinto beans, following her grandmother’s recipe.
We had this delicious soup in Baku, where it was made with red beans and was topped with fresh coriander and dill. Some cooks flavor the soup with dried sour plums, walnuts or mint.
The traditional meat to use in this soup is govurma – lamb cooked slowly in its own fat, which is similar to French confit, but the soup can be made with fresh lamb, as in this recipe. Buyuran uses butter to sauté the meat; we use oil to make the recipe kosher. If you like, at serving time sprinkle the soup with cilantro (fresh coriander) and/or fresh dill. Serve the soup with fresh flatbread.
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup dried pinto beans, soaked overnight in cold water
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
450 gr. boneless or 680 gr. bone-in lamb, cut into 2.5-cm. pieces
2 medium onions, finely chopped (2 cups)
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into thick wedges
4 to 6 dried plums, preferably sour ones
1 medium quince, cored and cut into thick wedges (optional)
2 tsp. crushed dried mint (optional)
Salt and ground black pepper
4 to 6 eggs
Drain the beans and boil them in a saucepan filled with water about 15 minutes; they should not be fully cooked at this point. Drain the beans and rinse well under cold running water. This prevents the soup from becoming too dark.
Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add meat and fry until evenly brown, about 20 minutes. Add onion and cook until the released juices have reduced and the onion is soft and just begins to brown, 7 to 10 minutes.
Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Add the drained beans and 7 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until meat and beans are tender, about 11⁄2 hours.
Add potatoes, dried plums, quince and dried mint. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook until potatoes and quince are done, about 15 minutes. The soup should be hearty but not overly thick.
If soup is too thick, add some boiling water so there is enough liquid to poach the eggs. Just before serving, break the eggs one by one into the soup at a distance from one another. Cook over medium-low heat, without stirring, maintaining a gentle simmer, until the egg whites are set and the yolks are firm. Serve immediately.