The Gabala Garden Hotel was gold and glitzy and its restaurant looked large and soulless. So, when our guide, Ainura, suggested eating in downtown Gabala, we were delighted. The city is located between the Azerbaijan capital, Baku and Sheki in the northwest, and we were keen to try Azeri traditional dishes.
Arriving at Soyuq Bulaq, which translates as cold spring, we were led past the main entrance and down a side path to the rear garden. This resembled a building site, and as decorators were still working under floodlights, there was a strong whiff of paint fumes.
It looked decidedly unpromising until we were shown into an individual ‘cabin’ with a large table laid for three. It was decorated with a nautical theme, and we were told that the work was creating more cabins which would be individually decorated.
We were served the Azeri staple preamble, Çoban (shepherd) salad with chopped tomato, cucumber, onion, dill and coriander and tandoor bread.
This was followed by Üç bacı or ‘three sisters’ – an aubergine, green pepper and tomato stuffed with minced beef and cooked until they melted in the mouth.
Our next dish was a pan of Chigirtma which literally means ‘screaming’: said to be the sound the meat makes while cooking in hot oil. The pieces of chicken were cooked in rich tomato and onion sauce with soft pieces of chip-shaped potatoes which soaked up the beautiful juices. Although full, it was hard not to keep ‘picking’ as all the food was served in typical Azeri sharing style, in the middle of the table.
With a couple of beers, we left feeling very replete and a little guilty that the painters were still working hard.