Azerbaijani hospitality is a thing of legends. I have experienced it far and wide, both in Azerbaijan itself, and in the gracious company of Azerbaijanis around the globe. I have been received by Azerbaijanis in their homes, been helped by them during a late-night car breakdown in the mountains, and in many other ways shown a kindness by them that is sadly uncommon in the Western world these days. Even in my home city of Minneapolis, I got the surprise treat of meeting a Baku native in the parking lot of our local grocery story. I could tell where he was from by the sticker, “Baku, AZ” on the back of his car. When I mentioned to this stranger that I had been to Azerbaijan, he quickly invited me into his car (a welcome relief in the cold Minnesota November weather) and split his Snickers bar in half to share with me as we conversed about life.

At the heart of Kyiv lies the Dniper river
Hot-blooded hospitality

In the light of these many experiences, I was not surprised at all when I met Kamran Mustafayev for dinner and he presented me with a large box of pakhlava. Kamran, his friend Fuad and I sat at a table on the bustling second floor of the Tatar restaurant Musafir in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine.

Something else I love about spending time with Azerbaijanis is the depth of the conversation. Just like the massive spread of Turkic delicacies that lay before me, everything was on the table. We talked about work, family, faith, politics, and every other topic that came into our minds that evening. Azerbaijanis have what they would call isti qan, or hot blood, so as the conversation gets deeper, the volume tends to get higher, and passions boil to the surface.

I made a joke about the rising tension, and Fuad responded, Why would we only talk about things we agree about? Imagine if I said, “I don’t like war,” and Kamran said, “I agree.” And then what would we talk about? That would be boring. It is good to have friends that you disagree with.

Azerbaijanis have what they would call isti qan, or hot blood, so as the conversation gets deeper, the volume tends to get higher, and passions boil to the surface.

Conversation turned at that point to things that these two men missed from life in their homeland. Friends and family topped the list, but Kamran added, I miss the city [of Baku] itself. But I also miss the atmosphere there. That is, there are so many nations that live there. I went to a school where my classmates were Jewish, Russian, Georgian, Lezgi, and also Azerbaijani.

I also find that living outside Azerbaijan, there is not enough access to “ağ saqqal.” In Azerbaijani, this means “white beard,” and it has the connotation of an old man. They are someone who is wise, intelligent, a person of age who you can sit and share your life with and learn something from them. There just aren’t enough people like that I can find here.

There are approximately 500,000 Azerbaijanis living throughout Ukraine, with large populations in Kyiv, Odessa and Kherson, among other regions. They have come steadily for various reasons throughout the Soviet and post-Soviet era, though many became stranded there after the collapse of the Soviet Union or immigrated as a result of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijanis work in many fields in Ukraine, including business management, food importing, television production and the restaurant business. While many long to return to their homeland, they have also taken root and prospered in Ukraine’s fertile soil.

Among the things they missed, and that they found was at times misunderstood by their Ukrainian friends, was the hospitality.

I remember the first time I took my [Ukrainian] wife to Baku, Fuad reminisced. The first shock for her was the 15 or so friends of mine that met me at the airport. They took me one way, her and our baby one way, our bags to another car, and we went home. It was nighttime. Our friends came with us to the apartment [where we were staying]. It was only a small three-room apartment, but there were at least 30 people there, and after a while, my wife turned to me and said, “What, do all these people live here?” For my wife, this was all strange, but I was used to it. For me the shock was when we came back to Ukraine and no one met us.

Taste fit for a sultan

It was things missed from home, however, that had given Kamran an idea, which has since turned into reality. If you have been a guest in Azerbaijan for any amount of time, you probably have enjoyed some pakhlava. Living in Ukraine, however, Kamran and one of his acquaintances, Elmar, noticed that it was very difficult to come by. Sure, you could buy it in some Turkish or Azerbaijani restaurants, but you rarely saw it in stores.

Kamran and Elmar started out in 2011 with a small rental property on the edge of Kyiv where they and a Turkish friend began making both Turkish and Azerbaijani pakhlava. Little did they know that they had hit a niche market, and soon sales took off. Their business, Smak Sultana (Ukrainian for “Sultan’s Taste”), soon had to find a larger facility and increase their staff to 17 fulltime workers, mostly Azerbaijani women, plus administrative staff. They landed clients like Ukrainian supermarkets Silpo, Furzhet, Ekko Market and Mega Mart as well as smaller fruit and nut venders.

Elmar (far left), Kamran (far right) and three of their workers show off the fruits of their labour

Kamran not only enjoyed the success, but he loved the business itself. When I got into business, I didn’t want to sell anything like alcohol or cigarettes. I didn’t want to tempt people to something bad, but instead give them something good... something encouraging. And sweets are always good! With eight Azerbaijani and eight Turkish varieties of pakhlava, there is no shortage of encouragement to be had. In addition to traditional recipes, they also created a more Ukrainian pakhlava with poppy seeds, and a house pastry called top-tops. Top-tops utilize leftover ingredients and dried fruit to create bite-sized cake balls.

The Euromaidan Effect 

Kamran invited me to meet him a few days later at their bakery on the left bank of the Dniper in Kyiv. Here, I not only saw his staff in action and sampled some of their delectable creations, but got to hear the rollercoaster story of the life of Smak Sultana.

In 2012, riding high on their success, Kamran and Elmar left their company in capable hands and set out for Moscow to try to duplicate their exploits there. Unfortunately, they found that the niche market was not as strong there, and their investments were for naught. By the time they returned, a new threat to their business loomed on the horizon: political unrest.

The Euromaidan Revolution of winter 2013-14 had started a process that led the country into a state of war and economic crisis. When we left, the hryvnia was eight to a dollar. When we flew back, we arrived to find it was over 25 to a dollar. Coupled with the financial loses they sustained in Russia, Smak Sultana threatened to sink in the waves of the rising storm.

The “Freedom is Our Religion” banner hangs over the Kyiv Trade Unions building, which was damaged by fire in February 2014 during the Euromaidan Revolution. It is scheduled to reopen this year a museum to the revolution. Photo: Natalie Maximovich

I had been in Ukraine around that time and commented on how I saw the price of bread jump to more than double almost overnight. Yes, flour prices went up, responded Elmar. For a business that’s sole product is pastries, this bode ill for their future.

We always try to use the exact same ingredients, Elmar said. The same brand of flour, the same brand of sugar. It helps us maintain the quality of our product. But one day, we noticed the dough started to tear more easily. Then some of our customers complained about the quality of some of our pakhlava. We realized that the flour companies were changing their quality in order to keep their prices from rising too much. We had to look for a different brand of flour, which took time and trial and error, and in that time we lost a few customers.

They also saw a decrease in their staff in this season. Due to the instability of the situation in the country, many of their Azerbaijani and Turkish employees chose to return to their home countries, and a few Ukrainian employees chose to find new jobs of their own accord. We never had to fire anyone, said Kamran, but it worked out that these people chose to leave because it allowed us to scale our business back.

At the peak of their sales just before the Euromaidan, their kitchen was turning out roughly 100 kg of pakhlava a day, and shipping it all over Ukraine. Now, their five full-time employees make roughly 30 kg a day. But things are looking up.

A worker at Smak Sultana displays a pan of pahklava just before placing it in the oven to be baked

As fruit trees bloom all across the city and temperatures climb into the upper 20s, summer is quickly approaching. We sell to some venders in Odessa, said Elmar. In the summer, tourists there love our pakhlava. In a spirit of optimism that matches the weather, they hope to move to a new location soon, expand into the cakes market, and launch their own line of rahat lokum (Turkish delight).

We have done some test batches that have turned out great, but we want to get some new equipment and bring in a specialist for a month or two to teach our workers the right way to do things, explains Elmar.

Having weathered the storm, and with a track record of pastries that would rival any that I have had in Turkey or Azerbaijan, I am sure that Kamran, Elmar, and the workers at Smak Sultana will be tasting the sweetness of success again in the very near future.