For Azeri chef Orkhan Mukhtarov spending 12 hours to create a single dish is just another day’s work—but an especially satisfying one.
The dish he prepares will use locally sourced products produced without harming the environment. They will be of the highest quality purchased at a fair price from producers and will employ centuries-old local knowledge to get the most out of every ingredient.
Mukhtarov is part of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance — an international network of chefs that protects biodiversity as well as supporting local food producers. His signature dishes — try to imagine the taste of hot smoked river eel (marinated for 24 hours) with cream cheese and black olive powder — are being showcased this week at the Azerbaijan Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.
Asked what attracted him to slow food after a career spent mainly preparing international cuisine at prestigious hotels in Baku such as the Hilton and Holiday Inn, Mukhtarov said: “I can use interesting local ingredients I have never tried before, both seasonal and from the forest. It is very attractive because it is helping producers who are doing this at home. It is helping them to survive and to promote their products.”
Mukhtarov with the assistance of chef Abulfaz Habibov has created an “Ark of Taste” menu that respects Slow Food philosophy of using locally sourced good, clean and fair food.
In March 2021, the pair launched “Community-based Value Chain Enhancement in the Greater Caucasus Mountains Area”. The EU-funded project is coordinated by Slow Food, a global, grassroots organisation founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, in partnership with the Azerbaijan Tourism Board
The 15 dishes on the menu being presented at the Azerbaijan Pavilion include ingredients such as Caucasus Mountain chestnuts and Baltali rice, a soft-textured milky grain unique to the Shaki District. The menu is as extraordinary for its presentation as it is for its taste. “I think all chefs who love their jobs are artists. You need to be an artist,” Mukhtarov said.
Promoting Azerbaijan’s gastronomic heritage was a natural fit for his country, Florian Sengstchmid, the CEO of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board said. “The COVID-19 pandemic had created a new travel paradigm. People are looking for more eco-friendly safe destinations and this is what Azerbaijan naturally stands for. We are not inventing anything new. We are just taking existing resources, existing tangible and intangible assets of the country and creating new tourism experiences and products for travellers.”
Sakina Asgarova, Industry Associations Manager at the Azerbaijan Tourism Board, said her country was uniquely placed on the gastronomic globe. “When you look at the map of the world you will see that Azerbaijan is like an eagle flying from East to West, merging the Silk Road routes.”
Asgarova spent three years working with local food producers and stakeholders to promote slow food travel in the Caucasus Mountains of northern Azerbaijan and help preserve the region’s gastronomic and cultural heritage. “The Azerbaijan Pavilion’s location in the Sustainability District is not a coincidence. Our emphasis is on food that is clean, that is produced without harming the environment and obtained at a fair price from producers,” she said.