On the evening of Valentine’s Day, like many people, we went out for a meal. Fortunately this was not an overpriced restaurant cashing in on lovebirds, but a bookalokal verification. Our host, Natalia, was born in Azerbaijan, and grew up in a multicultural neighbourhood where Azerbaijani, Georgian and Russian cuisines mixed freely. Add to that five years living in Israel and you can imagine what a fascinating melange her cooking offered. Her meal was described as “zakouskis”, which is the Russian term for a selection of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres or starters.
But first things first: drinks. Natalia’s husband Eugene is something of a Belgian beer connoisseur and offered me a Paix Dieu, which is an abbey beer only brewed during a full moon.
The table was already laid and waiting for us.
There was caviar d’aubergine, hummus, potato with beetroot and red cabbage, a red bean, nut and coriander salad, walnut and beetroot, and a spicy sauce called adjika from Georgia. Feast your eyes.
They joked that most zakouskis from the Caucasus are basically different mixtures of a few key ingredients: garlic, coriander, beetroot and walnut. They talked happily and enthusiastically about their own cuisine and their travels and their life in Brussels as we helped ourselves to multiple servings of everything.
For the main course Natalia had prepared a dovga. This is essentially a hot soup based on yoghurt with mint, a selection of herbs, and rice.
You then add meatballs.
The dill, coriander and mint come through strongly, and the meatballs make it a filling main dish. Natalia explained that the zakouskis are the focus of her meal but that for the main course she also offers pilaf or stuffed cabbage.
Finally, and perhaps as a small concession to the date, there was a heart-shaped and very moreish dried fruit and nut cake.
This was a great evening: our hosts were warmly welcoming and keen to share their culture and experiences, and the food was a revelation. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten specialities from that part of the world before, so it was a real discovery for me. And we’re keen to discover more; we’ll be back!