Azerbaijan is home to one of the oldest and most enigmatic Jewish communities in the world. Some say Jews arrived as early as the eighth century BCE from Persia; others say they came later, seeking a safe place to hide from the persecution of warring tribes. Speaking a language known as Judeo-Tat, they built homes on the sides of Azerbaijan’s beautiful mountains.
By the time of the 1926 census, about 59,000 Jews lived there. With the opening up of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, Jews started emigrating; only about 5,000 remain today, many of them living in red-roofed houses in the Red Village of Quba, about two hours from Baku on the Caspian Sea. Those who left went to Israel, and later Toronto and New York, where I first came across Azerbaijani restaurants in Brooklyn.
Food is key to Azerbaijani Jews’ culture—and to their wandering. At several Azerbaijani restaurants I felt a definite Silk Road connection, particularly with kukusas, an omelet with lots of vegetables in it, like the Persian kuku. And as I dipped my fork into a delicious grilled eggplant salad with tomatoes and peppers—served with flat bread and a side of fresh herbs including cilantro, fenugreek, and purple basil—I thought how this dish could be almost as old and boundary-crossing as the Silk Road itself: The eggplant came from Asia; it was grilled and the smoky pulp eaten with garlic and herbs. Then, as tomatoes and peppers came from the new world, they were added on to make a salad that’s a perfect harbinger of summer anywhere in the world.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.