“What-fried? Saj-fried?” you may ask.
And I will explain. Saj is a nifty kitchen utensil, my friends. And it has a long history.
Before the invention of frying pans and a gas stove, Azerbaijanis used a saj, a slightly dome shaped iron pan that resembles a shallow wok, both for cooking and bread making, depending on the side used. Rounded side up, saj was used for baking flatbreads, plain and filled, and Azerbaijani pancakes and crepes, while inverted to the hollowed side, it was used to cook various dishes. Actually it is still used for the same purposes.
Traditionally saj is placed directly over fire or wooden coals. In the days of yore, ever traveling nomads used to carry it with themselves, using it when necessary to satisfying all the baking and cooking needs. First saj found on the territory of Azerbaijan was made of clay and dates back to as long as 4 thousand years BC. Beginning from the XVIIth century clay saj was replaced with a larger and sturdier cast iron saj, that is used today.
Dishes cooked in a saj are called sajichi, that can be literally translated as “inside the saj.” Meat, chicken, fish – anything can be fried on a good cast-iron saj. The oldest saj dish is called saj-govurma, in which succulent cuts of meat and sheep’s tail fat are browned in butter, with onion added. So delicious! (That recipe will be in my cookbook).
Saj-cooked dishes are served hot right off the saj that is mounted onto a sajayag, a three legged stand. I don’t own a sajayag, so my saj ends up landing on the table without any “legs.” I use a 13-inch (33-cm) saj for cooking (you can replace it with an equally sized wok, or Spanish paella pan, or a good old non-stick frying pan, but note that the effect will not be quite the same).
Below is the recipe for chicken cooked in a saj with vegetables. A typical sajichi toyug will have pieces of chicken and slices of vegetables browned separately in butter on a saj, then combined together right on it and served. This recipe, although it follows the basic principle, has a new flair to it – here, the chicken is cooked in a piquant tomato sauce that adds nicely to the finished dish. I received the recipe from the charming Mehriban Alizada in Baku. Note that I cook this dish on a gas stove – a deviation from the traditional method, but better than nothing. Enjoy!
Saj-Fried Chicken with Vegetables (Sajichi Toyug)
1 medium chicken (about 3 pounds / 1 1/2 kg), cut into serving size pieces (leave the carcass to make broth for other uses) or 2 pounds (1 kg) combination of chicken parts, such as legs, thighs, breast, and wings
About 1/2 cup clarified butter (you can use regular unsalted butter with a few spoons oil added to it – this will prevent the butter from burning)
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut lengthways into medium-thick slices
2 medium green bell peppers (can use a combination of green and red), cored, seeded, and cut into quarters lenghways
Handful of white mushrooms, wipe cleaned, sliced in half, or if big, in three
2 meduim dark-skinned eggplants, cut into medium-thick slices lenghways (remove bitterness: put slices in a colander placed in the sink, sprinkle generally with salt, put a weight on top, let sit about 20 minutes, gently squeeze the bitter juices, rinse, and pat dry).
2-3 medium ripe tomatoes, cut into halves or wedges (small tomatoes can be left whole)
1 cup chicken broth (from the recipe)
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar or apple cider
3 tablespoosn tomato paste
6 large cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Ground black pepper
Put the chicken in a medium saucepan and fill the pan with enough water to just cover the chicken. Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat, skimming off the rising froth with a slotted spoon, until the chicken is almost cooked, about 20 minutes. Strain the chicken, reserving the clean broth.
Prepare the sauce. Combine the ingredients for the sauce in a small mixing bowl and stir to mix well. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a saj over medium heat. Fry the potatoes in one layer on both sides, until golden, about 3 minutes per side. Remove the potatoes onto a large plate. Brown the peppers in the same pan, adding more butter if necessary. Remove onto the plate. Cook the mushrooms about a minute, stirring often with a wooden spoom. Transfer onto a separate plate. Fry the eggplants in a single layer until golden on both sides, a few minutes per side, adding more butter if necessary. Remove onto a plate.
If the saj has dark bits in the butter, pour the old butter out, add some and heat up. If it is clean, leave as is. Arrange the chicken in the pan in one layer, and cook, turning once, for a few minutes, until only slightly golden. Gradually add the sauce to the chicken, pouring it along the sides of the saj. Cook the chicken, turning it once, until the released juices have evaporated and the oils release. Arrange tha tomatoes around the chicken and cook until they are tender, a few minutes.
Arrange the vegetables in a decorative manner around the chicken. Cover the saj and heat briefly. Uncover and serve in the saj, with bread. If you cooked the ingredients in a frying pan, arrange them decoratively on a large serving platter, except for the tomatoes— should be placed in a separate bowl along with the cooking sauce.