It has been more than a year since my last trip to Azerbaijan. Memories are still hovering fresh above my head and it feel like I was there yesterday. I do miss many things about that trip. I miss our trip to Balaken and Zagatala in particular. It was a bittersweet trip, however, as I was no longer to see my dear grandmother who passed away a year before and to whom I did not have a chance to say good bye. But life had to go on and I was happy to see the familiar places again, my relatives who live there and who made our trip particularly memorable with their warmth and unparalleled hospitality, very much characteristic of the region.
Knowing that I was ever hungry for pictures of local delicacies and for sampling them too, they made sure they satisfied my unceasing cravings. One day, it was a makhara day (makhara is the local crepe, but different and original), another day it was surhullu (pasta dish prepared with dried meat), then one day we gathered for a gutab feast. Gutab is the general name given to half-moon shaped stuffed flatbreads, popular all over the country. The stuffing can be made with fresh herbs, butternut squash, ground lamb of beef, or farmer cheese – you name it. The process goes like this – you make the dough, roll it out, stuff it, fold it, and cook it (typically on a saj) then butter its top while still hot. Meat stuffed flatbreads can be cooked on a saj, a dome shaped pan that is heated underneath, or they can be fried in oil in a frying pan. The latter method, however is frowned upon in the northwest and is never used. If you ask me, I personally like saj-cooked flatbreads and that’s how my family has been making gutabs of all sorts.
Gutabs that you see in these pictures are rather big because we were too many to feed, so we thought that making our flatbreads big could save us a lot of time and could sate our appetites faster.
The recipe that I am suggesting below yields medium-size flatbreads, that are more typical in the country, and they should fit in your medium size pan easily. Also, I am offering two ways to cook the flatbreads, on a saj or a gridde without butter and in a pan, with butter. As I mentioned above, saj is the way to go in the northwest and in my kitchen too. But it’s your choice. Without much ado, here it comes – the making of gutabs, step by step. Enjoy!
Make the dough, divide it into balls and begin rolling each ball like this…
Roll more, until you obtain a thin circle.
Spread some meat mixture on one half of a circle.
Fold the other half of the circle over the filling and press the edges to seal.
Cook the flatbreads on a heated saj, then stack them on top of one another, buttering their tops while they are still hot. (Note that the flatbread on the left of the tray is somewhat overcooked – black blisters is a signal that the heat needs to be moderated! It is still edible though). Nush olsun!
Oh, wait, I forgot to mention something. There was also samovar tea party after the gutab party! Tea from samovar in the countryside is something everyone should try at least once in a lifetime. Seriously. Samovar tea rocks.
Meat-Stuffed Flatbreads (Et Gutabi)
Makes 12 (serves about 6)
For the Dough:
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups water, at room temperature
For the Filling:
1 pound ground beef or lamb, or a combination
2 medium onions, peeled and passed through a meat grinder (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon sour fruit paste (you can obtain it from sour fruit leather – soften it with water) or ½ cup fresh pomegranate arils (you can adjust these amounts to taste)
Salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste
Filling Variation (my favorite!)
In the northwest, particularly in the region of Balaken, a pinch of dill seeds (they add a FANTASTIC new dimension to the filling), some crushed garlic and sometimes chopped fresh cilantro is added to the filling too. Sometimes, sour paste slightly diluted with water is spread in a thin layer on a cooked buttered gutab for a piquant tart taste.
Unsalted butter stick, to brush (if using method 1 to cook)
Vegetable oil, to fry (only using method 2 to cook!)
Powdered sumac, to garnish
Prepare the dough: Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the salt and stir to mix. Make a well in the center. Gradually adding the water, stir with your hand, until a rough ball forms. Sprinkle a large working surface (you can use large round wooden board) with some flour. Scrape the dough the floured surface. Knead the dough until smooth and not tight, adding more flour if it sticks to your hands, about 10 minutes. Do not be tempted to add too much flour, or the dough will be tight and difficult to roll out. You will add more flour to the dough while rolling it. Divide into 12 equal parts and shape each part into a ball. Work with one ball at a time, keeping the rest covered with a kitchen cloth.
Prepare the filling: In a mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients for the filling and mix well. If using pomegranate arils instead of sour paste, mix the mixture gently so as not to smash the arils. (You can also sprinkle the pomegranate arils over the meat filling before sealing the bread in a half-moon.)
Roll out the dough: Transfer one ball onto a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle the dough with some flour. Slightly pat on top with your hand to flatten then begin rolling with a thin rolling pin, rotating the dough with each rolling, until it is about 5 inches in diameter. Now, sprinkle the circle with some flour and spread it evenly with to cover the entire surface of the circle (this will prevent the dough from sticking to the rolling pin and tearing and will also make it easier to roll). Begin wrapping the circle around the rolling pin at a slight angle from you. Wrap till the very end, then turn the dough so that the rolling pin is parallel to you, and unwrap the dough swiftly. Continue in this manner, sprinkling the dough before each wrapping and thinning process. Continue rolling until you obtain a thin 10-inch circle.
Fill the dough: Spreading half of the dough circle with a thin but dense layer of the meat stuffing. Then cook, following either of the methods below:
Method 1: Cook on a preheated saj or a griddle, or a non-stick frying pan, first on one side, until slightly brown blisters appear, then turn to cook the other side. Remove from the pan and transfer onto a plate. Brush the top with butter while still hot. Continue cooking the flatbreads in the same manner, stacking the cooked gutabs on top of each other and brushing their tops only. Sprinkle with sumac and serve immediately.
Method 2: Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a non-stick frying pan, large enough to hold one or two gutabs. Cook the gutab until light golden, turning once to cook on both sides. Add more oil to the pan if needed for each new batch. Transfer the cooked gutabs onto paper towels to drain (do not brush with butter in this method). Sprinkle with powdered sumac and serve immediately.