Sunday, May 31, 2015

Azerbaijan, aka We Made it to Absurdistan!

After a 15-hour train ride (which was all fun and games and midnight train car dance parties until they turned off the AC at 2am and I fainted), our group finally arrived at the inspiration for this entire trip: Baku, Azerbaijan. 

This once cosmopolitan capital on the Caspian is today a bizarre combination of old Azeri culture, early 20th century Italian architecture, Soviet Union utilitarianism, and Dubai-esque super-modernism. 

We're here in a large part because my friends all read a book called Absurdistan, based in a fictional post-Soviet country inspired by Azerbaijan's capital city. (I read the book too; it was definitely absurd, though to be honest I wouldn't recommend it.)

Overall, however, this strange outpost of Baku is far nicer than expected! The aforementioned Kyle has lived here for a year studying language, so we stayed at his apartment. He showed us around the city center, which, with its fountains and walkways and parks, appears totally normal (seriously, it could be LA). 

However, despite "normal" appearances, things are not quite what they seem. For example, the government subsidizes luxury stores that no one shops in (Tiffany, Hermes, etc.) for appearances sake. The romantic and exotic-sounding Caspian Sea, rimmed by a beautiful boardwalk-type park, is a brown disgusting almost lifeless oil-stained still mess. The seaside park itself is FULL of policemen patrolling in groups (don't try to nap on the grass). Usually billboards everywhere depict the president's face, but were recently taken down because of the upcoming European Games (which Baku is hosting...even though it's not really Europe...hrmmm). And relatively recently the intelligencia has fled due to an influx of refugees, thus no one quite knows what the population of Baku is. 

So it's weird here. But I kind of like it. And overall I can't believe I'm in Azerbaijan, a country most Americans have never heard of and of which I knew nothing about until a couple months ago.

After showering off the dirt and grease of the train, we ventured out into the city. Our first stop was the Cultural Center, which is by far the coolest building I've ever been in. It's designed based on the former president's signature, a structure of swoops and curves both inside and out. We saw an exhibit called Mini Azerbaijan, which was a series of models of the city's major sites, as well as an exhibit of Azerbaijan's traditional culture.  

Outside the city center and beyond, the countryside is a desert. The earth is torn up in chunks, dotted by the accoutrements of an oil-dependent nation: metal towers, cranes, and oil wells upon oil wells upon oil wells scattered across the land and sea. The palate is grayish blues brownish (sky), tan (sand), and grayish bluish brownish (sea). 

I know this because on our one full day in Azerbaijan we drove an hour outside the city to experience the country's mud volcanos. (Readers of this blog may recall that mud volcanoes and I have a history, starting in Colombia last spring break.) 

It's just a series of pools of mud out in the middle of nowhere. You drive up, look, play in/on them, get mud all over yourself, and drive home. The mud is cold and bubbles up in blurping burps. Totally bizarre, but weirdly fun. 

We leave this great metropolis at 2am tonight. It's been a bit absurd, but also totally enjoyable. Bye bye Azerbaijan! Next stop Budapest (via a brief stop in Riga)!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Georgia (the country): Eating in and around Tbilisi

I could give you a detailed description of every aspect of our Tbilisi experience, but in the interest of time and attention-span, I have decided to abbreviate the site-seeing and instead focus on the food. 

Because Georgian food [swoon], Georgian food! It's your new favorite cuisine that you've never heard of. The best dumplings (khinkhali) and kebabs (shashlik) and tomatoes and eggplant and bread and cheese! So so so sooo much cheese! 

Where do I even start? Each meal was a tour de force, with our trusty Kyle leading us across the region's cuisine, our six hungry bellies ready for whatever he deemed desirable.

The first night we walked to a basement hole-in-the wall in Tbilisi, which ended up being one of my favorite meals of the trip. We had a spinach and walnut and herb pesto-type of "salad," roasted eggplant with walnut paste, the best tomato and cucumber and parsley salad (there is nothing better than a perfectly fresh tomato with a sprinkling of salt), and the piece de resistance: a plate of warm melty cheese that tasted like a combination of mozzarella and super-mild cream cheese and pulled up in long luscious strings from the plate (not pictured in its full glory because we were distracted by eating...sorry but not sorry).

And the best part is that even when cold this cheese maintains its creamy texture (unlike moz, which when cooked turns into an unappetizing rubbery chewy ball in my opinion). The waitress scolded us for putting the cheese on the bread. Apparently it is to be eaten plain, and the same goes for all Georgian food. They're really opposed to mixing, so I snuck my mixing while her back was turned.

On the way to see churches outside of Tbilisi (we saw Georgia's ancient capital including its 5th century church, the tombs of the first Christian king and queen of Georgia, and a church high atop a hill overlooking the river), we stopped for lunch at a well-known roadside restaurant. There the specialty was pots of Georgian beans and dense fried cornbread. Plus savory kebabs of ground beef wrapped in lavash-like bread, and another peasant's salad, this time with a ground walnut dressing. 

And now that brings me to the bread! After an evening of bathing in Tiblisi (literally, we went to a natural sulfur spring bath house and rented a room to steam and soak and scrub for an hour and a half), we finally tasted Georgia's most famous food: kachapuri. There are two kinds of this magical dish. One is a flat pizza-like pastry filled with chunky white cheese. 

The other comes like a bread boat -- the bread is like pizza dough and completely full of melty cheese, with an egg yolk and pat of butter on top to be stirred in before eating. We destroyed a flotilla of kachapuri boats that night, plus a few more the next day. Healthy they are not, but 100% worth it. 

Not pictured in this post are the dumplings, which are round pockets of juicy broth and meat. You bite into them then suck the juice out before it spills, then proceed to enjoy the dumpling. Soooo good! 

On our second full day we drove a couple hours out of the city the wine region of the country. This so-called City of Love, high up looking out at the countryside was absolutely beautiful. We sat down to a luxurious lunch and wine tasting at Pheasant's Tears Winery. Georgian wine is delicious! Really dark dry reds, and surprisingly good whites. If you're in the DC area apparently this winery export to you, so pick up a bottle if you can!

Apparently there are no Georgian restaurants in the US. None. This is a travesty and any entrepreneur reading this should seriously consider starting one. Preferably somewhere I live.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Georgia! (the country) -- Getting There

I'm happy to report that I just started my most recent international excursion -- a 3-week trip through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia!

I find myself again in a transition, again on an adventure. A lot has changed since I blogged about my pre-grad school Nepal/Southeast Asia trip. For one, I now have a Master's degree. But much more importantly,  I have a whole host of new friends -- people I love so much I can't believe we've known each other for such a short time.

My Fletcher people are all going in different directions -- quite literally all over the world -- but while the world is large our interconnectedness makes it small (sorry, cheesy I know, but true). I'm now on my way to Georgia with a group of six friends: one Dutch, one Kiwi, one American who lives in Baku, one Hungarian-American, another American American, and myself of course.

I'm becoming a pretty well-seasoned traveler, but I don't think I'll ever lose the excitement. That thrilling feeling of stepping onto an airplane and not knowing exactly what to expect when I step off. Our first city is Tbilisi, Georgia, and we're immediately heading into the mountains to a region called Kazbegi that looks absolutely amazing. Beyond that I have minimal expectations and maximum enthusiasm!

Right now though the trip has barely even begun. So far all I can tell you is that a New York bagel with cream cheese eaten in a Lower East Side park is quite pleasant on a late May morning. That our cab driver incredulously exclaimed, "Azerbaijan?? Ha! No, Azerbaijan is not for tourism," semi-scandalized but mostly amused by our young American idiocy. That Azerbaijan Air is pleasant surprisingly fancy. And that an 11-hour flight totals to one nap, two movies, three meals, and 192 pages of reading. 

(The "cocoons" at Baku's airport where we transferred.)

It will get more exciting I promise. I will, of course, keep you posted! 

Georgia (the country): Mountains of Kazbegi

Here I am in Georgia, traveling with six friends from school! Led by our brilliant Kyle, who is fluent in Russian and Azerbaijani (not to mention French, Spanish, and Kyrgyz), we couldn't go wrong.

Meal after meal, ancient church after ancient church, beautiful vista after beautiful vista after beautiful vista he led us through the country, translating and explaining and herding us just-graduated cats along the way. Operating the switchboard was his Georgian friend, and at his beck and call was our trusty cab driver Rati who not only drove us all over the country in his minivan that "seats seven" (aka would comfortably seat 4-5) but also ensured our salvation by buying us mini Saint Neno paintings and Georgian wine at lunch (because according to Georgians this food CANNOT be appreciated without the appropriate house wine brewed in beeswax-coated clay pots buried in their yards). 

The first stop was Kazbegi, a mountain and a town and a region in northern Georgia. We stayed at Rooms Hotel, an absolutely gorgeous outpost of luxury boasting expansive mountain views without and rustic chic relaxation within. While our catalog-like life began as Restoration Hardware, it quickly progressed to Patagonia as we hiked up (literally, straight up), to a 5th century church across the valley. We acquired a canine friend along the way (lovingly dubbed Kazi), as well as a Britt named James who is in the process of cycling around the globe. (Check out his blog at

You know that feeling when you stand on top of a mountain and breath in? That fully alive and free and purely happy atop-the-world exhilaration? We spent two beautiful days in that, whether we were literally on top of a mountain or on the deck at our hotel looking out at the mountains. I love open space!!! 

The second morning we decided on a brief hike up part of the mountain behind the hotel. Not sure if we were trespassing, we scrambled through the woods until we reached a road, a church, and a clearing. Nowhere else to go but up! We hiked a bit more until we were sitting on a ridge overlooking the town and the mountains beyond, just taking it all in. 

We watched a white jeep zipping up the road, past the church, and into the valley below us. "Uhoh are we about to get in trouble?" We wondered. "Apparently the Russians are coming for us," we joked. Until we saw combat boots hit the green springy grass on the far side of the jeep, and made out a fatigue-clad figure carrying a giant rifle. "No but really..." our jokes took on a concerned edge as five more militant types, all carrying massive guns, exited the vehicle. Nothing to do but wait and see. They strutted out, pointed at the rocky cliff face of the mountains above, and then proceeded to unfurl and set up their "guns," which turned out to be tripods! We breathed a collective sigh of relief and made our way down. Turns out they were Polish bird watchers searching for the coveted Caucasian Grouse, as the English-speaker among them explained. Though they continued to glare at us and did in fact look military (buzz cuts, camo, unfriendly expressions), they let us look through their telescope (idk what else to call it) to see a bird perched high on the mountain. 

That afternoon it was time for us to go. The driver spoke with Kyle in Russian as he tied our bags to the top of the minivan. "He says the girls should get in because it's cold." The three of us dutifully squeezed into the back seat meant for two. FYI, according to Georgians, women need to keep their ovaries warm, otherwise they'll be infertile. 

The drive back to Tiblisi, though long, was interesting in and of itself. The rocks and mountain faces along the way we're fascinating. The earth had pushed up vertical mountains of stratified ancient volcanic rock that splinters and looked more like a broken tree trunk than the collection of minerals that it was. 

As on the way up, seas of shaggy sleep with curly horns, dreaded wool, and double butts (bred for the extra fat coveted by the Turks) flooded the road, stopping traffic entirely and freezing our van amidst an oncoming flood of baa-ing wooly beasts.

The next post will be about Tiblisi and surrounding areas...

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Chilled Parsley Pea Soup

Imagine jumping off a dock into a cold clear lake on a hot July day. The water at first surprises you and then refreshes you in the best possible way. All you want to do is jump in again and again and again.

That, my friends, is what this soup tastes like. Or so decided my dinner guests after their first few bites the other night.

"Wow. I'm just going to sit back," groaned one friend. "I don't even like peas," stated another, looking into my eyes with all sincerity. "I actually hate peas. But this?" He signed. "This!"
The final accolade captured it for all of us, "Hands down, best soup I've ever had. Seriously, ever."

Who knew this simple concoction of peas and parsley and lemon could elicit such emotion? It's so so easy to make, surprisingly healthy, and, as already explained, insanely delicious.

I served this soup as the third course in a spring-themed celebratory five-part eating extravaganza (cheese and fruit plate, assorted amuse bouches, soup, salmon, cheesecake). We were celebrating the end of grad school, the 36th and final Wednesday Dinner Party, and our general love for one another.

I made the soup the night before, and I think that is CRITICAL. It needs time to sit and for the flavors to make friends with each other.

Without further ado, here you go. Eat this like we did, as a light appetizer course, or a summertime lunch on your back porch, or serve it with crusty bread and cheese and call it dinner in and of itself. Whatever you do, make this -- you will not regret it.

Chilled Parsley and Pea Soup

aks "Zapasoup"
Serves 8 (though I served 12 appetizer-sized servings)


  • splash olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions 
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • sea salt
  • 2 lb. shelled peas (frozen is fine -- so two bags)
  • 2 cups flat leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped
  • 6-8 cups vegetable broth (depends on how thick you want it) -- and I'll be honest, I used water and vegetable bouillon cubes. 
  • zest and juice of of 1 lemon 
  • 1/2 cup half and half
  • fresh ground pepper (about 1/2 teaspoon)
  • another splash olive oil


  1. Ideally you should make this one day in advance. 
  2. Roughly chop the onions and mince the garlic.
  3. In a large pot, heat a generous slash of olive oil. Add onions and a couple pinches of salt, stir to coat, cook for 5-10 minutes until onions become translucent and start to brown. Add garlic, stir to coat, cook three minutes.
  4. Add 6 cups hot vegetable broth, add peas, bring to a simmer and turn off the heat. Add parsley and fold in to wilt leaves. 
  5. Let the soup cool for 15 minutes. Add half and half, pepper, and a splash of olive oil. Use an immersion blender (or a regular blender) to blend the soup on high until smooth. Add more broth if needed. Add in lemon zest and juice. 
  6. Let the soup chill in the fridge overnight. Before serving, blend it again if it's looking not quite smooth enough.
  7. Serve cold or room temperature. Swoon. 

*Beautiful soup photo by the talented Jon White.