by Ahmed-Jabir Ahmedov
The country’s cuisine has a long and noble history and culinary culture is a matter of great pride in the Azerbaijani household. No one who tries the delicacies produced here ever forgets the aesthetic appearance or taste and is always back for more. Alongside the historical monuments, culture and modern development, the cuisine of Azerbaijan is an equally intriguing discovery for visitors.
Thus we decided to run a series of articles about the gastronomic delights to be found here. We hope it will help visitors when they browse a menu, as well as those who wish to try their own hand at cooking our national dishes. We will be happy to answer any questions readers may have or to pass on a favourite recipe. As we say “Nush olsun!” (Bon appetit!)
Levengi is essentially a stuffing made from onions, walnuts, raisins, albukhara* and alcha* seasoning (lavashana*, rub*, joo* paste) and is used to stuff both poultry and fish. The levengi is commonly associated with Lenkeran, but is prepared in different ways in the Shirvan and Sheki-Zagatala regions.
1. Purple onion and walnut are chopped finely on a wooden board (sometimes the onion is then fried in butter) and then added to the paste (lavashana, rub, alcha paste) together with salt and pepper and mixed well. The stuffing is placed into the already prepared and salted whole fish or poultry. The sides of the fish (or poultry) are sewn together and it is cooked in a tendir (an oven made of clay in a hole in the earth) over burning embers or in a gas or electric oven.
2. Grate the onions, not too small, and squeeze in muslin over a sieve to remove excess juice. Finely chop or grind the shelled walnuts with a pestle and mortar, or in a food processor. Mix the onion, walnuts, alcha paste (rub or joo), cinnamon, salt and pepper in a large bowl and stuff into the prepared fish or poultry.
3. Fry chopped raisins and ground walnuts in butter, add the separately fried onions, sour paste, cinnamon, salt and pepper, mix well and stuff into the fish or poultry.
For a better roasting process, rub the surface of the poultry or fish with turmeric, soaked saffron, sour cream, mayonnaise, alcha paste etc. Bake in a tendir or an oven. Sometimes the stuffed poultry is placed under steaming rice.
4. In the Sheki region a stuffing similar to levengi is made from chestnuts instead of walnuts. Onions fried in butter, chestnuts boiled in water and chopped quite finely, raisins, dried, pitted and finely chopped albukhara, cinnamon, ground coriander seeds, salt and pepper are mixed together. A gutted poultry bird or wildfowl is scalded in hot water for 10 minutes, coated with soaked saffron, filled with the stuffing and placed under steaming rice. This dish could also be made using pheasant, partridge or ptarmigan, or other wildfowl.
Various methods of cooking levengi dishes are given below.
1 poultry bird, 150g walnuts, 5 medium-sized onions, 25g pitted zogal akhtasi or 40g dried plums, 50g raisins, 1 tablespoon dried alcha, salt and pepper.
Peel onions, grate them and squeeze in double muslin over a sieve to remove excess juice. Prepare the levengi (stuffing) by adding ground walnuts, soaked and finely-chopped zogal akhtasi or albukhara (you can also use lavashana) and raisins to the onions and mix well.
Gut and rinse the poultry. Rub it with salt and alcha paste inside and outside and fill with the stuffing. Bake the stuffed poultry in an oven until both sides are crusted.
Garnish with herb leaves, slices of a cucumber and a lemon when serving.
You can cook coot, geese and ducks this way.
2 x 800g chickens, 150g walnuts, 100g raisins, 100g lavashana or albukhara, 120g onions, 40g melted butter, salt and pepper.
Gut and rinse the chickens, scald for 1-2 minutes in hot salted water. Fry the onions in butter. Add finely-chopped lavashana or albukhara, raisins, ground walnuts, salt and pepper to the fried onions. Stuff the chickens, rub the surface with butter or sour cream and bake in a hot oven. Garnish with herbs and slices of cucumber.
Chicken kebab, Lenkeran-style
1 chicken, 100g walnuts, 70g onions, 25g zogal akhtasi, 40g albukhara, 50g raisins, 1 tablespoon alcha paste, salt and pepper.
Make the levengi by mixing fried onions, ground walnuts, soaked and finely-chopped zogal akhtasi or albukhara and raisins.
Clean a whole chicken, rub the inside and outside of the chicken with salt and pepper, alcha paste and fill with the stuffing.
It can be cooked in two ways: 1) fill a pan with 1.5 - 2 glass of water, place the chicken inside and boil it. This is called cholme kebab; 2) add some water and melted butter (or oil) to a baking tin and bake the chicken in the oven until it is browned all over.
You can cook coot, geese and ducks in this way.
1 kg or more of fresh whole kutum (a fish, the Caspian Roach), 200g shelled walnuts, 40g melted butter, 100g zogal akhtasi (or 2 pomegranates), 200g raisins and salt.
Gut the kutum, remove the fins and scales, but leave the head on and rinse it. Make a mixture from the fried onions, ground or grated walnuts, soaked and finely-chopped zogal akhtasi (or alcha paste) and raisins. Salt the kutum and spoon the stuffing into the cavity of the fish, packing it firmly inside, sew up and bake in the oven (or a tendir).
Cut into pieces when serving.
The quantities and preparation are the same as for the kutum levengi. Use chub instead of kutum.
Kutum dish, Azerbaijan-style
1 kg fresh kutum, 150g onions, 100g shelled walnuts, 60g dried apricots, 2 eggs, 40g butter, 100ml full-fat milk, 200g chopped sweet pepper, 100g marinated cucumber, 20g narsharab (pomegranate sauce), 4-5 cloves of garlic, 80g spring onion, 50g coriander, salt and pepper.
Scale the kutum, remove the skin and put to one aside. Gut the fish, fillet and mince it. Fry the onion in butter. Heat the walnuts, skin them and crush them in a pestle. Finely chop the dried apricots and grate the garlic. Mix these ingredients, add salt, eggs, narsharab and milk, then stuff the mixture into the kutum skin and bake in the oven.
Cut into cross pieces when serving. Garnish with sweet pepper rings, slices of marinated cucumber and herbs.
1 kg carp, 150g shelled walnuts, 120g onions, 40g melted butter, 150g raisins, 200g tomatoes, 80g lemon, salt and pepper.
Scale the carp, gut it and rinse. Leave it to drain. Finely chop the onions, fry in the butter, add ground walnuts, rinsed raisins and mix well. Then rub the carp with salt and pepper and stuff with the levengi, sew it up and bake in the tendir or oven.
Serve the fish whole on a serving dish, garnished with onion rings, tomato and lemon slices.
1 medium-sized (about 1 kg) carp, 1-2 onions, 1 cup walnuts, 2 tablespoons alcha paste, 2 teaspoons dried wild gilamarzi (barberry), 0.5 cup raisins, 2 tablespoons melted butter, salt and pepper.
Scale, gut and rinse the whole fish. Rub the inside with alcha paste. Lightly fry the chopped onions, mix with roasted and crumbled walnuts, raisins, and the dried, pitted gilamarzi; add salt and pepper. Stuff the fish. Bake in an oiled baking tin or in a frying pan in the oven. Serve hot or cold.
Tava (frying-pan) kebab with levengi
1 kg boneless veal (beef), 2 onions, 1 cup walnuts, 2-3 tablespoons alcha paste, 1 egg, 2-3 tablespoons melted butter, salt and pepper.
Cut the veal into pieces of 40-50g and chop with a special hammer until it is thinned. Prepare approximately 18-20 thin pieces of meat. Lightly fry the chopped onions, add crumbled walnuts, the alcha paste, salt and pepper and mix well. Brush a piece of meat with the whisked egg, put some levengi onto it, cover with another piece of meat and fry both sides in a frying pan. Repeat with the other pieces of meat. Garnish with herbs and cucumber slices when serving.
Levengi aubergine (eggplant)
12-15 small aubergines (eggplants), 2 tablespoons melted butter, 200g walnuts, 6 onions, 1 tablespoon alcha paste, salt and pepper.
Cut the stalks off the aubergine, peel stripes down the sides and cut a long slit lengthways, being careful not to cut right to the bottom or top. Salt the inside of the aubergines and after 30 minutes press with the hands to get rid of the bitterness. Lightly fry the aubergines for a few minutes in hot butter or vegetable oil.
To make the levengi, grate the onions, put into a muslin bag and squeeze out the juice. Add ground walnuts, alcha paste, salt and pepper to the squeezed onion. Lightly fry the mixture in a frying pan for 5-10 minutes. Spoon the levengi into the fried aubergines and lay the aubergines on their sides in the pan, filling side up. Pour 3-4 tablespoons of abgora* onto the aubergines, cover with a lid and cook in the oven for 8-10 minutes. Levengi aubergine is served with chicken kebab and pilaf.
*Abgora – the juice of unripe (green) grapes.
*Albukhara – a kind of dried plum
*Zogal akhtasi – a dried, pitted cornelian cherry
*Lavashana - thin rolled sheet made from sour or wild plum paste
*Rub – a paste made from sour wild alcha, sour yellow alcha or blackthorn
*Joo – a thickened paste made of sour yellow alcha
About the author: Ahmad-Jabir Ahmadov is head of the Department for the Study of Food Products at the Azerbaijan State University of Economics. He is a qualified cookery expert, a PhD and professor. He is the author of more than 300 research works on Azerbaijani cuisine, including more than 50 books. He has created a range of sweetmeats.