One of our tour guides told us that Azerbaijan is a “vegetarian hell” and laughed. It was this kind of a joke that is actually a description of reality. Lamb is all around you in the Land of Fire. Both my husband and I are pescatarian so we eat fish from time to time but our experience was still rather rough. We survived two weeks, though so let me share some of my insight on the topic with you.
1. Lower Your Expectations
I know, I know. You’ve been really looking forward to this trip and you associate holiday with pleasures of the palate. Azerbaijan will not be an absolute disappointment because there are some things you can try (yay!). Still, you may decide to opt for eating in more often than you’d prefer during your holiday or for preparing food at home and taking it with you.
We’ve mostly given up with eating out after three days in Baku when starved after exploring the city we settled for the only place in the area that had anything vegetarian on the menu. We paid ZAR 500 (± USD 35) for a pasta with tomato sauce, hummus with bread, some pickles and tea. And yes, it tasted as sad as it sounds.
2. Vegetarianism is Rare, Be Prepared to Weird People Out
I have tried to explain to people numerous times that we were vegetarians in both Russian and English. The concept is largely unknown so explaining that you don’t eat meat and specifying that this means you also don’t eat chicken and fish is a better idea. People in Azerbaijan are friendly and even if they initially find the concept weird, they will help you choose the right items on the menu (sometimes available only in Azeri) or point out what’s okay for you in a bakery/patisserie/deli.
We weren’t particularly traumatised but we had to deal with a bunch of people making fun of us for most of a meal we ate in a local home during a trip to Khinalug. Russian tourists along with our Azeri guide made unfunny uncle jokes such as “I wonder what they ate for breakfast? Maybe LETTUCE!” and “Did you guys know that the tea you’re drinking is chicken-flavoured?”. And just btw the “vegetarian” option they offered us meant eating the rice from under the chicken. A stricter vegetarian would refuse to eat it but we were too hungry to care.
3. The Local Delicacies That You Can Eat
In terms of street food your options are quite limited but you can try perojki, which are deep-fried donut-like dumplings with fillings. The most common version has potato and/or cheese inside but always tell people that you don’t eat meat to be on the safe side. You can also find other pastry that doesn’t have meat in it but it’s usually sweet so not a perfect lunch option.
Another kind of vegetarian fast food is qutab, which you will often find close to many tourist attractions and by the road in various parts of Azerbaijan. It’s a flatbread with different fillings. The typical ones are greens and pumpkin and both are quite tasty.
In restaurants you can try ordering a number of starters and skipping the mains. A waiter usually comes to you with a tray or a big plate to show you available appetisers. Bread or flatbread accompanies them so if you get enough you can end up quite full.
The appetisers that are safe to try include: potato salad (but do yourself a favour ask whether there’s no chicken in it), spicy aubergine paste, tzatziki, hummus and a variety of pickles including cucumbers, green and red tomatoes, apples, beetroot, cabbage, cherries and other things that even though I’m Polish, I had no idea that you can pickle!
Last but not least, you can have a bag of chestnuts if you’re starving and vegetarian food is nowhere to be found.
4. Knock Yourself Out With Desserts
If you don’t mind eating sweets instead of normal food, your vegetarian diet will be much easier during your stay in Azerbaijan. There are many places where you can go just to have sweets and tea. You can also eat starters with bread as suggested above and top them up with a dessert to get a full meal (beggars can’t be choosers and all that).
You should definitely try Azeri diamond-shaped baklava with almonds or walnuts – paklava. There are many kinds of it, from more traditional to more creative ones. I’ve really enjoyed the chocolate one, for instance, so don’t be shy to experiment.
Now, to avoid confusion bear in mind that Sheki halva or halvasi is actually a type of paklava and not something resembling a typical halva. You’ll, however, find the “normal” halva in shops and patisseries (and cheap!) so keep an eye out.
Another pastry not to miss is a shekerbura. A half-moon shaped piece of heaven yet again made of almonds or walnuts. If you like, you can compare it to paklava in one sitting.
You can also grab a deconstructed fruit roll from one of the offroad stands around Azerbaijan. Just a fair warning: they’re quite tart and weird. I’ve tasted quite a few of them and still am not sure whether I like them or not.
5. Opt for Western-styled, Italian or Indian places
I really don’t love eating at places that serve food one can find everywhere else when I’m exploring a different country but Azerbaijan didn’t leave us much choice at times. Most Western-styled places will have some vegetarian options for you (often not many, though). Another safe choice are pizza and Italian places. Last but not least, for obvious reasons, you won’t leave hungry if you visit an Indian restaurant.
6. Drink a Lot, It Kills Hunger
Even though our guide was SO funny to suggest that tea in Azerbaijan is chicken-flavoured I’ll state the obvious and tell you that it isn’t. In fact, all drinks we’ve tried in Azerbaijan were meat-free! My recommendation to you is to drink a lot on your trip to Azerbaijan as it kills hunger.
I don’t mean alcohol, which can be found in many but not all restaurants. Remember that Azerbaijan is a moderate, but still, Muslim country. That’s probably when it comes to soft drinks and hot beverages, there’s a lot of variety.
First of all, there’s tea, often served in big pots in a traditional Azeri way with spices such as cloves and thyme. We actually managed to reproduce the special Azercay flavour at home that I will elaborate on at a different time.
Don’t forget that if you want to drink your tea with your meal, you need to specify it with your waiter because their expectation is you’ll drink it it after the meal.
Apart from teas you may want to try kompot. It’s a sweet beverage made of different fruit. In Azerbaijan I only saw it served cold. It’s also much sweeter than the variation I’m used to from visiting and living in Eastern European countries.
Don’t even dare to leave Azerbaiajn without trying a juice made out of a fruit symbolising the country. Pomegranate juice may taste a bit sour but it was a love at first sight for me.
7. Tips For Vegans
Guys, I really appreciate what you’re doing for animals and the planet but Azerbaijan is a super challenging location for you. If you don’t want to reconsider your trip, be prepared to make food at home and eat in to avoid problems.
Azerbaijan is certainly not a place where a vegetarian will feel inspired by his or her food choices. Still, if you plan well and you don’t mind eating pre-packed lunch on a park bench, you can manage to have a decent holiday.