If you were to google facts about Azerbaijan, a small country bordered by Russia, Iran and Georgia, one of the first to come up on the list is ‘bread is sacred.’ Bread is absolutely sacred in Samira Damirova’s house, who grew up in Azerbaijan and is now sharing her love of their traditional cuisine from her home in Margaret River. Having attended Samira’s sourdough workshop and also being treated to a few hours in the kitchen with her for this interview, I can say with certainty that everything that comes out of her kitchen is treated with love and care. We chatted about her journey to Australia, her ancestral love of cooking and culinary pursuits, over a full table of incredible food.
Azerbaijan to me, is an ancient land of fire, wind and sea.The capital Baku where I’m from, is a paradox of deep history and brazenly modern ways. We have such a diverse and rich cultural background, with food being the essence of our culture. If you wandered the narrow and winding cobblestone streets, you’d find tea rooms, colourful market stalls and traditional eateries with teasing aromas floating around you.
I met my husband Troy in Baku, he’s Australian but he was over there for work. We came to Australia when I was in my early twenties. I really struggled in the first two years as my family and community were now so far away from me. It was hard to adjust to the new way of living, and I felt like I had to reinvent myself in some ways. In Baku, everything you needed was just a walk away, you didn’t have to drive anywhere. I used to complain a bit about it, and every now and then I’ll still have a little moan, but then I just step outside and see the ocean, forests and clear skies and think, nothing else matters. I feel extremely lucky to have ended up here. I have dreamt of being in Australia since I was seven years old.
I’ve always loved cooking, it’s very much a creative outlet for me. I started cooking when I was nine or ten, when the Soviet Union collapsed. There was a lot of hardship in our city - it was very hard to get food. All the shops shut, you couldn’t buy anything and the line for bread would be hundreds of metres long. I remember times when I would stay in the line for two hours, just to get bread. In those months where there were major food shortages, we lived on flour and whatever else we could put together.
Journey to the Kitchen
It was after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Azerbaijan found itself struggling with the collapsed economy, when I became responsible for cooking for my household. I was twelve years old at the time, but I undertook the housekeeping duties while my parents toiled relentlessly on developing a family business. I loved my newfound role in the house, it gave me such a sense of fulfilment and purpose. When Azerbaijan headed towards the oil boom times, my Dad started to make money and that meant I could go to University. I wanted to study fashion but my Dad said, ‘no way, you’ll do what your sister did,’ which was economics. I have very traditional parents, and they thought the fashion course wasn’t a good option so I studied economics instead, which I hated of course.
Whilst I was in the middle of studying I started taking vocal classes, and enjoyed a successful but fleeting stint as a singer, releasing a hit pop song ‘Ne Seni Ne Meni’. I’m so glad it was before YouTube and iPhones were around so it’s not on the internet! It was a very toxic industry to be in though, and I ended up making the decision to move on from that life.
Long Line of Cooking
I believe I have had the inordinate fortune to have grown up in a family of incredible cooks. Both of my grandmothers and my parents were remarkable in their culinary skills, and they have all deeply influenced the way I cook today. My maternal Grandmother (who we affectionately called ‘Babulya’) and I had a very special relationship, I was by her side all the time. I learnt how to make bread just from watching her. She was born in Dagestan (a Republic of Russia) at the time of the Tsarists collapse around 1917, and her parents were murdered when her and her brother were quite young. All her papers were lost when her parents died, so she never knew exactly how old she was. When she came to Baku as a teenager to find work, she had to prove she was old enough to do so. Without identification the only way they could determine her age was to check if she had armpit hair, as that was a sign of maturity. So they checked her armpits and said, ‘well you’ve got hair, you must be sixteen,’ so she was allowed to work.
The Love of Bread
My Nan was the breadwinner of the family, as her husband had an old injury and couldn’t work too much. She had eight kids to look after, as well as running the household and working full time. She worked at the local flour mill and often received as a part of her pay cheque a few sacks of flour, so there was no shortage of it in the household. We would sit in the kitchen for hours making traditional meals such as Gyurza (dumplings), meat and vegetable Tskan pies, bread and other countless pasta endeavours. I believe it was during those days helping and watching Babulya cook, that my interest in food and creating really started developing. She sang songs in her native tongue, and I often saw silent tears streaming down her cheeks. She was a very strong and kind woman, but she had a lot of sadness in her heart.
In 2018 I was a contestant on Masterchef. I was away filming for five months, and I only flew home once a month to see my children. It was so hard to be away from the people I love, I had to be very strong emotionally. I went on the show to get my cooking out into the world, as it does give you a launching platform and presence. It didn’t matter to me whether I won or not, I didn’t do it for that. I just wanted to give a name to Azerbaijani cuisine and pursue what I wanted to do. The whole experience was very intense and left me emotionally shattered, but I made some life-long friendships and now looking back, I really cherish the experience.
Over the years my cooking has progressed into more than just cooking for my family, as I started to share recipes on my personal food blog. I also began to host culinary experiences and workshops. The experiences range from bread making, to Azerbaijani, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking styles, to fermentation. Sharing the joy of cooking together with groups of people who love food brings such a spark into my life, and I believe into theirs as well. My passion for food has also spilled over into food photography. I take great enjoyment at sharing not only recipes, but also images of the food that is created in my kitchen.
Butter, Flour, Onions
I make sourdough every second or third day usually, and it’s different every time. From one recipe, you can make a lot of different things. My favourite flavour combinations to make are jalapeno and kaffir lime, and also confit garlic, goats feta and thyme leaves. The three ingredients I couldn’t live without are butter, flour and onions. If you fry butter with onions and you’ve got flour on hand, you can pretty much do anything.
Two years ago, my husband Troy and I became proud owners of a farm in Pemberton. It’s surrounded by beautiful forests, and it is a get away to paradise for my often-overwhelmed senses. Our first year at the farm was spent renovating the neglected house and clearing a decades worth of trash and mangled old fencing. Now we have five hundred young Truffle trees slowly putting their roots in, and we’re planning on planting the same amount again come spring. It’s a tough gig managing work, kids and regular travel between Margaret River and Pemberton, but we count our blessings at having the best of two worlds.
Love Your Mother
I find making sourdough very educational in a sense, because it makes you slow down, stick to schedule, be present and trust your intuition. You don’t watch the clock, you watch the dough. You go by feeling, and you must be disciplined in looking after it. These are core elements that our lives our built on – discipline, trust, intuition and feel. The most important thing in all of this is to treat your Mother with kindness and love. You’ve got to look after her for her to look after you.