Peeling Chestnuts in Love

Story by Lindsay Sterling
Photos by Tiffany Converse

Tarlan Ahmadov and his wife Zemfira, two generous and kind-hearted people who immigrated from Baku, Azerbaijan, introduced me to their homeland by way of sharing their favorite meal. It was a Thanksgiving of dishes, but Zemfira insisted this was typical weekend fare. (I still don’t believe her!) A former teacher, she said she is very happy keeping Azerbaijani culinary and linguistic traditions alive at home. 

Tarlan and Zemfira spent the morning before I arrived peeling chestnuts together. This strikes me as extremely romantic and charming. If people propose in restaurants, can I ask my spouse on a Valentine’s date through the newspaper? “Wanna peel chestnuts together hon?” Zemfira’s aunt and uncle were the first to come to the states in her family. Their inter-religious marriage wasn’t going over well in Azerbaijan. They lived and loved freely for many years in the United States. The Ahmadovs followed for their own family’s adventure.

Khamrashy was served first, a clear broth soup with black-eyed peas, homemade noodles, lamb meatballs and a delightful sprinkle of crushed dried mint. Before I arrived, Zemfira had already ground the lamb with onions in their own grinder, formed balls and cooked them in water that would become the broth. I was lucky enough to witness her making the homemade noodles out of flour, egg and water. Her process was not like anything I’ve seen before. She used a two-foot-long dowel about a nickel in diameter with gradually tapered edges and rolled balls of dough on her kitchen table into perfect – perfect I tell you! – two foot wide circles of millimeter-thick dough. She folded the dough five or six times, then in half, and cut across it with a knife, making what looked like a snake pit of vermicelli-sized strips. I hoped her 4-year-old daughter, peering over the edge of the table, gets this down before she starts saying things like “why not just buy it?” or “This is boring. I’m going to the mall.”

The main dish, turshu kourma, is a mixture of whole chestnuts, sliced onions, beef cubes, and an ingredient that was new to me: sour, dried plums called albukhara. I found them under a different name, Persian golden prunes, at Sindbad Market, (207) 879-4469, 710 Forest Ave. Rich, sweet, savory, tangy, this dish is awesome, and I was successful recreating it at home. I love that all the ingredients keep their integrity, but their flavors meld thanks to a little ghee, some beef broth, and slow cooking. The dish’s counterpart, pilaff, was made of basmati rice, par-boiled like pasta, strained and then steamed with turmeric and ghee. The bright yellow grains were delightfully individualized. At home, though, I’d missed something. Mine came out all stuck together. Tarlan encouraged me over the phone “It takes practice!” Of course it does. Don’t all the really good things? There was more, oh there was more: pickled stuffed eggplant, a dessert that looked exactly like an anthill... so much beauty I couldn't possibly understand it all.

Get the recipes for Azerbaijani lamb soup, yellow rice, and beef with chestnuts