At first glance, Gyrmyzy Gasaba is just another small wind-blown town in northern Azerbaijan. Hidden in the shadows of the Caucasus Mountains that separate it from the Russian republic of Dagestan, the town sits high above the rock-strewn banks of the Qudiyalcay River. Beaten-up Lada cars line the streets nose to tail, shops display trays of sticky diamond-shaped baklava in their windows, and watermelons are piled up at the roadside. Men play nard, Persian backgammon, under shady trees and in the main park, a statue of former President Heydar Aliyev stands next to a blue, red, and green Azeri flag.
Then, clues to the town’s true identity start to appear: a silver menorah here, a Star of David there. Azerbaijan might be a Shia Muslim country, but Gyrmyzy Gasaba is considered to be the world’s last surviving shtetl (pre-Holocaust Jewish village). Its sheer isolation has perfectly preserved its traditions, making it a truly unusual destination to visit.
In Yiddish “shtetl” simply means “town,” but in the collective Jewish imagination the word is laced with nostalgia. For many Jews, the word recalls traditional but hardscrabble Russian or eastern European villages, like the one depicted in the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof.
Walking the Sunday-quiet streets in the center of town I am first struck by its sleepiness. Men shuffle past me, shaking hands with one another and offering each other a “shalom” or “salaam” to Muslims from neighboring towns—religious harmony in action.
Locals here take great pride in being the descendants of the first Jews who traveled to Dagestan, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan via Persia (Iran), where they had lived as Jewry following their exile from Israel. Fleeing from forcible conversion by warring Arabs in the eighth century, they left Persia and sought shelter in the remote Caucasus Mountains. They have remained here ever since.
The community has long been known as “Mountain Jews,” who consider themselves quite separate from the world’s two major ethnic Jewish groups—Ashkenazi and Sephardi. For some, Gyrmyzy Gasaba is “Little Jerusalem,” possibly the only all-Jewish town outside Israel.
Turning on to Isaak Xanukov Street, I follow my nose, picking up some alluring smells—turmeric, eggs, roast chicken, and chestnuts—to the Bet Knesset synagogue. Once inside the synagogue, the soft aroma of warm fadi (a sweet round bread usually served with black tea) spills into the rug-lined corridor from a little kitchen at the back.
This kitchen is where Naomi Ruvinova cooks for the Sabbath and special occasions. She tells me she’s been expecting me and has been cooking all morning to give me a taste of what the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan like to eat. Her tiny feet, clad in glittery shoes, move fast while my brain tries to compute the complexities of her kitchen alchemy. Agreeing to my offer of help, she hands me a spoon and a handful of raisins to stir into a cauldron of plov. Azerbaijan is home to dozens of different plov recipes. Typically, plov is made with lamb in Azerbaijan, but Ruvinova’s is lighter and vegetarian. A small slick of corn oil has colored the rice a sunshine yellow, while a sprinkling of juicy apricots and sweet chestnuts lifts it from the doldrums, turning it into a dish for all the senses. While the plov takes on the flavor of the raisins, she presents a plate of steaming yakhny—a soul-food soup of onions, eggs, veal, and tomatoes—and places it on the table. It is filling mountain food, prepared from simple ingredients, designed to keep the cold at bay.
While I enjoy the warming yakhny, my eyes are drawn toward a plate of hasavyurt on the counter. Ruvinova tells me that this paste-like dip, usually served as a side dish, is made with ground walnuts, red apples, and grape juice, nothing else. I scoop a little onto a Matza cracker and when I bite into it I find its taste seductive, not-too-sweet, and bright as a summer’s day. Plump from sunshine, the cooked apples are so intense in flavor their Western equivalents seem tasteless in comparison.
Then, a little plate of glistening Russian-style golubtsy—cabbage rolls—beckons. Popular here since the Soviet era, Mountain Jews follow the standard recipe, using cabbage leaves to wrap the ingredients, but add an unorthodox sprinkling of cilantro, some acidic green plums, and tomato paste. Sour plums are popular with Jews across the border in Georgia too, where they are added to chakapuli, a lamb and tarragon stew.
Next, Ruvinova lifts her khoyagusht from the oven, a thick baked omelette containing poached chicken and chestnuts with a light-golden crust on the top. I note down the ingredients and the method and, struck by the cornucopia of creativity, I tell Ruvinova that her dishes are “a culinary poem to all things Mountain Jewish.” She laughs and then corrects me by saying, “yes, they are. But they are made all the better for also being a little bit Russian and a little bit Azeri too.” Ethnic unity on a plate.
For the poached chicken:
- 2 chicken legs
- 1 onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 carrot, coarsely chopped
- 1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
For the omelet:
- 2 tablespoons butter or oil
- 2 onions, sliced
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 7 ounces cooked and peeled chestnuts, halved
- 4 eggs
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper