Subversion, Sex, and Savoy Cabbage: Reclaiming Azerbaijan’s Jewish Cooking

Photo credit: Lou Robinson

Photo credit: Lou Robinson

“Can I cook with you?”

“Repeat what you said.” Blatant surprise lingered in my mother’s voice.

That was to be expected. I can master only the contents of a kid’s menu: mac and cheese, home fries, perhaps, if I’m feeling fancy, breaded chicken cutlets. What my mother makes, however, is the Russian novel of cuisine—layered, complicated, and undeniably time-consuming.

But I was having guests over for Shabbat dinner and I wanted to be as Martha Stewart as possible. My guests were Ashkenazic millennials who, after decades of munching on potato kugel, craved to challenge their palates with Eastern saffron and sumac.

“Can you cook a dish with your mom?”  Erica asked, as she was lounging on my couch one day.

“Yes. You’re from Azerbaijan. Cook lamb!” Josh piped in from the kitchen.

But my friends didn’t quite comprehend how Azeri Jewish cuisine signifies a weighty inner conflict, and why I often resist cooking it.