This Cookbook Is a Road Trip Through the Georgian and Azerbaijani Mountains


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This Cookbook Is a Road Trip Through the Georgian and Azerbaijani Mountains

Olia Hercules retraced a family journey she made as a child from Ukraine to Georgia and Azerbaijan, exploring the spice-laden, pistachio-flecked cuisine of the Caucasus.

The aisles of Yasar Halim, a Turkish grocery store on London's Green Lanes, are heaving with produce. At the front of the shop, huge artichokes and juicy tomatoes are piled high next to wedges of shrink-wrapped watermelon the size of my torso. Crates brim with herbs in varying shades of green and the smell of freshly baked bread and pastries wafts in from the bakery next door.

Lavash in Yasar Halim, a London Turkish shop. All photos by the author.

I find Olia Hercules in the dried fruit section, scouring the shelves for barberries. The Ukranian-born London food writer is collecting the ingredients for shakh plov, a dish of spiced rice encased in buttery flatbread that hails from Azerbaijan. Unable to find barberries, Hercules settles instead on a box of cranberries, which she adds to her basket along with shallots, cumin seeds, dill, and lavash, a large, rectangular unleavened flatbread.


Food writer and cook Olia Hercules.

"There aren't really any specifically Azerbaijani markets or stores in London but I was thinking about where to buy lavash. And I thought, of course, Yasar Halim," she says.

It's this interconnectedness between countries and cuisines that forms the basis of Hercules' latest book, Kaukasis The Cookbook: A Culinary Journey Through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Beyond. It explores the landscape of the Caucasus: a mountainous region to the west of Asia and the east of Europe, encompassing countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, and bordering Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

Baked goods in Yasar Halim.

The dishes also trace a spontaneous childhood road trip taken by Hercules and her family.

"My aunt is half-Ukrainian, half-Armenian but she grew up in Azerbaijan. I travelled there many years ago with my mum and dad, from Ukraine, through Georgia, to Baku [the capital of Azerbaijan]. It was the most incredible place," Hercules says, as we take her basket to the till. "I was quite young but I remember the oil rigs in Azerbaijan which looked like massive birds."

RECIPE: Shakh Plov

In her book, Hercules also recalls sausages fried over a campfire in Abkhazia [the coastal region north west of Georgia], a roadside vendor selling huge breads from a clay oven on the way to the Caspian Sea, and people drinking wild thyme-infused tea in Baku.

Ingredients for shakh plov.

"I decided to repeat the journey we took as a family with my brother and we were shocked. The places stunned us. It was quite an emotional trip. I don't know why, maybe it was missing that time [as children]. Then I went back to collect recipes and shoot the book. We spent seven days travelling around Azerbaijan and ten days around Georgia."


A short taxi ride back to Hercules' East London flat, it's time to start cooking.

Herbs in Hercules' kitchen.

After a bumpy start when Hercules opens a full cupboard and sends pans tumbling to the floor ("That's so weird, everything that fell out is what we need to make the dish"), she begins chopping pistachios and cranberries and sets the rice to cook.

"Shakh plov is a regal dish, it's a celebration dish. You wouldn't eat this every day. Usually plov in Azerbaijan is just the rice encased and baked in lavash. If it's accompanied by meat, the meat is served separately," explains Hercules. "This is my friend Zulya's version and she mixes meat and caramelised onions into the rice. Normally she does it with chicken but I made khingal yesterday, which is pasta with crispy, spicy lamb. I've got a bit of the lamb mixture leftover so I'm going to use that today."

She continues: "For me, that is what food writing is about. I want to try and show where the recipes come from, preserve the techniques, and make them more human. There's not a lack of recipes out there. If you wanted one, you can just get it from the internet. Cuisines are made by people moving from one place to another, bringing their own things with them, and injecting them into the culture. Cooking evolves. If we stayed 'authentic' and super particular about these dishes, we'd still be eating some kind of crazy gruel."

Shallots soften in clarified butter.

Hercules fries the shallots on a gentle heat, causing them to hum in their clarified butter. The rice, now cooked, is drained and spread out on a large tray to cool. When the shallots become soft, she adds cumin, pistachios, and cranberries.


"That's why I think the stories are important. The stories are authentic."

In Kaukasis, recipe introductions often double as snapshots into the lives of the people Hercules met on her trip. These include a dulce de leche recipe named after a Georgian woman called Anna and "Ia's salad," a plum and beetroot dish in honour of "a school head teacher with a penchant for etymology, thin cigarettes, and coffee." As Hercules stirs the spiced lamb into the shallot mixture, she tells me that in the south of Azerbaijan, people "cook with intention," following age-old traditions like adding a copper horseshoe to stews to help someone who is ill.

Unlike Hercules' first cookbook, Mamuska, which focused on her Ukrainian family's recipes, Kaukasis involved researching and cooking from a food culture different to her own. Was there any pressure?

Hercules spreads out the cooked rice so it cools.

"Absolutely, I was completely freaked out at points," Hercules admits. "It's a massive weight of responsibility. Even though I do have a family connection to the area, it's still not the recipes that I grew up with. I think there is a danger of generalising cuisines which is why I tried to distinguish and give each area justice."

She continues: "I went to Georgia at the beginning of July with an advance copy of the book. A few young women at a bar I visited wanted to see it. One of them said they couldn't make khinkali [Georgian dumplings] and another one said they had no idea what they made in Western Georgia. For them to say that they'd seen a lot of new things was cool."


With the plov filling cooked and mixed with rice, Hercules lays the lavash on the counter and drizzles over clarified butter.

Hercules drizzles clarified butter over lavash.

"For this recipe, you're supposed to brush the lavash with the butter. But in Azerbaijan, they have these vats of clarified butter and just dip the lavash in," she explains. "I was a bit shocked at the amount Zulya was putting into her plov. But it was delicious."

Next, Hercules layers a cast iron dish with the buttery flatbread and spoons in the meat and rice mixture ("Zulya told me that you shouldn't pack it in tightly"). The bread that hangs over the side of the dish is folded over to form a casing. The plov is ready for the oven.

The shallot and spiced lamb mixture.

While it bakes, Hercules tells me that cities like Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is undergoing rapid urban redevelopment. Does she think that there's a danger of culinary traditions being lost?

"I guess there are loads of changes which is a natural thing. But I've also met loads of people who are interested in preserving traditions," she says. "In Georgia, there are people who have clocked that and there are young natural winemakers who care about the land. And there's a guy who has a company that specialises in reviving all the near-extinct Georgian crops. Hopefully Azerbaijan has a chance too. I met a guy there who does a TV programme about going to look for old recipes."

Hercules layers a dish with buttery lavash.

Hercules hopes that her book can also be a way of documenting dishes and techniques.


"There are a couple of recipes where the ingredients are hard to find like this really sour, curly, crazy herb called ekala from Georgia. I decided to include them to just show people and get them excited about the place," she says. "But I also give loads of alternatives. And for me, it's all these techniques that I wanted to show. You don't have to be in a particular country or have access to particular ingredients to do something."

Shakh plov fresh out of the oven.

Take alycha plums for example, which are plentiful in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Hercules says: "In Azerbaijan, they cook them down to make a plum paste called tursha. In Georgia, they make a runny sauce called tkemali which is used as a condiment for everything and as a marinade for beetroots. When I cooked it, I thought why not make a dressing out of tkemali? So there's a recipe for a kohlrabi, sorrel, radish, and chicory salad with tkemali dressing. But you could also use tamarind paste if you can't get the plums."

Hercules removes the plov from the oven and expertly flips it out of its dish. She cuts into the now-crusty, golden lavash and removes a slice. The heady spiced mixture inside gives way and rice, studded with red and green jewels, spills out in a cloud of aromatic steam.

Shakh plov.

"I wanted to show a different world and to get people excited and want to go these places," says Hercules, serving me a portion.

One forkful down, Azerbaijan here I come.