Ah, Azerbaijan. That lovely land of…well, something. Truth be told, Azerbaijan – capital: Baku, GDP: $164 billion, drives on: right – is not one of those countries we hear much about. When I noticed an Azeri restaurant in the warrens around Yenikapı Station, it caught my attention.
A note about the area: The entire neighborhood between Yenikapı Metro Station and Yusufpaşa Tram Station hosts a dozen or more little ethnic restaurants: Uyghur, Uzbek, Turkmeni, Georgian, and out on the main drag a long block of Syrian and Arabic joints. By Istanbul standards, it’s a cosmopolitan smorgasbord. When you want something a little different, you could do a lot worse than Yenikapı. Just try to avoid the underground casinos and houses of ill-repute lurking in the alleys.
On a rainy afternoon, my friend-slash-coworker Hector and I caught the Marmaray to Yenikapı and made our way through the rough alleys to Azerbaycan Sofrası. The bright red of its sign stands in stark if pleasant contrast to the rather dreary Yenikapı ambiance.
Azerbaycan Sofrası is a tiny place, just a few tables packed in alongside the kitchen. After Hector and I took a place by the window – we’d gotten there a little after the lunch rush – a woman came out of the kitchen and looked at us expectantly. We asked for a menu. No menu. She beckoned us to a glass display case containing an old, dented pot of yellow rice and a skillet holding chicken in a curry-colored sauce. These were the dishes of the day.
“Iki tane, lϋtfen.” When in Baku…
A few moments later, two plates of yellow rice and saucy chicken were placed in front of us, along with a shared serving of pickled beets. A warm, pleasant aroma faintly reminiscent of curry wafted up from the dish. I started with the rice. Slightly dry, but not too much so, and plentiful, more than enough for a simple lunch. It had a subtle hint of butter, reminding me of Iranian style rice. There may have been notes of saffron and turmeric as well, and other seasoning that I couldn’t quite put my tongue on, so to speak. Overall, a decent pilav, as the proprietor called it when I asked her what the dish was called, which is just the Turkish – and Turkic language family – word for cooked rice.
The chicken was no doubt intended as the MVP of the meal. Unfortunately, it was a little overcooked, and while the flavor was fine, it was not unique or inspired. There was a touch of curry, as I had whiffed before, but just a touch. If anything, the sauce on it was more related to a simple brown gravy than anything else. A watery one at that. Still, the chicken did pair well with the rice, if the plating was not up to reality show cooking contest standards. My description might lead you to think it wasn’t good, but that’s not so. It was a very decent lunch; the meal just didn’t scratch my ethnic-cuisine itch.
Is this authentic Azeri cooking? Perhaps, though it would be at the low end of any continuum of authenticity, I suspect, if my travels along the Silk Road are any indicator. Like many of the small, ethnic eateries in the foreigner-heavy neighborhoods like Aksaray, they make do with what they can get easily and cheaply. Their brethren, like many migrants in Turkey, generally are employed in 3D work (i.e. dirty, dangerous, and demanding), so they aren’t in a position to pay for imported ingredients and first-rate cooking. A nice, tasty meal that doesn’t break the bank is more than enough, and that’s true for me as well. Given that the menu changes every day, regulars get a nice variety of dishes over the course of a week, and the occasional visitor gets a hopefully pleasant surprise.
I might not become a regular at Azerbaycan Sofrası, but I will definitely stop by from time to time. I’ll just check what’s on that day’s menu first.
And now, for a little taste of Azerbaijan…