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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

You Can't Beat the Taste: This Tomato's for Real

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- There's nothing quite like a tomato from the Caucasus. True, they're usually gnarled and misshapen, and more often than not caked in mud when you buy them in the market. And they come in every size -- some as small as cherries, others getting on for footballs.

But it's the taste. On the rare occasions we get visitors to Azerbaijan, the first thing they notice is how much more tasty the fruit and vegetables are. The tomatoes are juicy and sweet, the cucumbers are succulent and crunchy and the apples bear no resemblance to the polished and individually packaged ones you get in supermarkets back in Britain.

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Azeri cuisine is cooking in its simplest form. If you ask for a salad, the waiter will bring you a plate with two tomatoes, two cucumbers and a fistful of fresh herbs torn straight from the garden. Sometimes they're still clinging to clods of earth with perhaps a worm or two struggling to get away. Because they taste so good, there's no need to char-grill them or roast them or smother them in fancy dressings. Azeris just sprinkle on a little salt and a dried herb called sumakh, which looks like fine red tobacco.

Azerbaijan's oil boom means foreign restaurants have sprung up all over Baku in the past few years. You can now eat Chinese on Monday, Indian on Tuesday, Vietnamese on Wednesday, Lebanese on Thursday and French haute cuisine on Friday. And at the weekend you can have fish and chips or a full English breakfast.

The pizza restaurant up the road even has an Italian chef, though they couldn't stretch to Italian waiters.

"But you must be Italian," I said to a bronzed Adonis last time I went, after he'd talked me through the difference between papardelle a l'arrabiata and fettucine a la puttanesca.

"Actually, I'm from Dagestan," he said. "That was as Italian as they could find around here."

Outside the capital, though, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything except barbecued mutton. In far-flung villages you usually have to wait a good hour for lunch because they first have to slaughter the sheep round the back. If you're squeamish, you should probably just stick to the bread and sheep's cheese.

On special occasions, Azeris forego the ubiquitous mutton kebabs in favor of a dish known as khash. I've yet to try the delicacy, which is made by boiling up a sheep's leg for a couple of days, then sprinkling handfuls of raw garlic into the resulting gelatinous broth.

Tradition has it that the khash must be eaten before sunrise -- and accompanied by jugfuls of vodka. It makes me feel queasy just imagining it. Could someone please pass me the tomato salad.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.