Autumn 2000 (8.3)
Nutrition for Longevity
Above: Making kabab, the foundation
of Azerbaijani cuisine. Favorite kababs include: lamb, fish,
chicken as well as vegetables.
Longevity is the cherished dream of every human being. What,
one may ask, is the actual age limitation for human beings? Are
there limits? Is it possible to secure an active, creative life
for 100 years? Of course. But what about 150 years? Again, the
answer is "yes".
Azerbaijan has one of the highest rates of longevity in the world.
In the 1981 census, Azerbaijan recorded 14,486 people aged 100
or older. In other words, 48.3 people per 100,000 inhabitants.
Even though longevity is mostly determined by heredity, diet
definitely plays a role in achieving this goal. What do centenarians
eat in Azerbaijan? Does their diet correlate with what modern
science knows about health and longevity?
Contemporary dietitians would cry out: "They eat too much
animal fat!" Indeed, many Azerbaijanis are fond of lamb,
mutton and sheep fat, but in rural areas where most of these
long-lived people reside, meat is eaten no more often than once
or twice a week. The main source of animal fat in rural diets
is not derived from meat but rather from dairy products.
The typical diet of Azerbaijani villagers consists primarily
of eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt, milk, curds (shor), sour cream,
bread, various vegetables, fruits and herbs. They are used to
eating soup made of yogurt and greens (dovgha) along with various
soups made with beans, peas and grains. In the olden days, people
who enjoyed longevity did not eat very much bread or products
made of flour.
Animal Fat Consumption
Historically, Azerbaijanis eat fairly large amounts of animal
fat, which is considered by modern scientists to be the "No.
1 Killer." Why then has this slayer not visited upon the
centenarians from villages of the Lerik district in Azerbaijan,
where quite a number of residents live beyond 120 years old?
Animal fat is fairly harmless to Azerbaijanis because they follow
nutritional guidelines set forth by the physicians of medieval
Azerbaijan who insisted that there is no such thing as completely
healthy or unhealthy foodstuffs. Rather, these properties are
determined a great deal by the quantity that is consumed and
the way food is combined.
For example, according to the "Book of Medicine" (Tibbnama,
1712) you can consume animal fat, but you shouldn't overdo it,
and you must counter the effects of fat by eating fresh vegetables
and greens like spinach, celery, dill, onions, spring onions,
coriander, mint, basil, tarragon and parsley. Modern scientists
confirm that the food fibers contained in green vegetables and
herbs decrease the assimilation
of fats in the stomach.
According to modern
scientific medicine, animal fat, in fact, must be consumed (though
in moderation), as it is necessary for creating hormones and
promoting the normal functioning of the liver, heart and brain.
If we examine the teeth of a human being, we notice that they
contain features typical to both carnivorous and herbivorous
Left: Traditional Tandir
bread is wide and flat and made by hand. At Taza Bazaar in downtown
Baku. Photo: Blair
This fact proves that our early ancestors ate meat, and that
the human organism is historically adapted to the consumption
of animal fat. However, along with meat, early humans ate large
amounts of vegetables and fruits. Medieval Azerbaijani physicians
proposed the same approach: Don't eat just meat. Don't eat just
vegetables. Eat both and combine them correctly! As opposed to
one-sided theories of the modern day, such as vegetarianism,
the medieval approach is based on their observation of the biological
nature of the human being.
A high level of animal fat consumption is not just limited to
longevity in Azerbaijan. Fifteen years ago, correspondents from
the Russian magazine "Vokrug Sveta" (Around the World)
interviewed elderly people in Abkhazia and questioned them about
their diet. It turned out that most of the centenarians enjoyed
fatty meat, preferably lamb. As distinct from Azerbaijanis, Georgians
drank wine even at the age of 100. However, most people who enjoy
longevity in the Caucasus don't eat very much meat in the first
place, and they habitually consume large amounts of yogurt as
well as vegetables and fruits to neutralize the negative effects
of animal fat.
In addition to yogurt and garlic, it is also possible to counter
the negative effect of fats with liberal amounts of raw onion,
lemon juice, pomegranate juice and with the traditional burgundy-
colored, sour spice known as sumag. These all work to promote
digestion and break up the fat.
Honey or Sugar?
Even though Azerbaijani cuisine is rich in sweets, traditionally,
Azerbaijanis didn't overuse them. When preparing national sweets
like pakhlava, shakarbura and halva, they preferred honey over
sugar. For example, the Azerbaijani scientist Yusif Khoyi in
his "Baghdad's Collection" (1311) recommends preparing
jams and sweets with honey. Modern science has established that
honey contains vitamins, ferments and is considerably healthier
than sugar. According to Professor M. Sultanov, the regular use
of honey and the avoidance of sugar contribute to health and
Professor John Yudkin of London University points out: "Not
fat, but sugar leads to coronary heart disease-the sugar that
you pour in coffee or tea, or eat with cakes, sweets or chocolate."
Sugar, if used excessively, turns to fat and cholesterol in the
organism. Previously, poor people in the rural areas of Azerbaijan
considered sugar as a delicacy and used it only on rare occasions.
The standard fare for peasants included dairy products and herbs,
not sweets. As for rich people, they preferred honey. According
to recipes from the "Tibbnama", all kinds of Azerbaijani
halva should be prepared on the basis of honey. Therefore, the
harmful influence of "the white killer" that we struggle
against in modern society was avoided.
Modern man might think: "Why buy expensive honey, when it's
possible to substitute sugar that is much cheaper?" Unfortunately,
most of the national desserts in modern Azerbaijan are based
on sugar now. But in the long run, such economics are injurious
to human health. Muhammad Husein-khan (18th century) also points
out that the regular consumption of honey diluted with water
prolongs human life. Nevertheless, even though honey is better
than sugar, it should not be overused.
Yogurt and Longevity
Since antiquity it was believed that regular consumption of yogurt
is the secret to longevity, as it promotes digestion and rejuvenates
the organism. The "Tibbnama" recommends adding yogurt
to cooked dishes. To promote digestion of meat, it was suggested
to serve it with yogurt sprinkled with mint. If you eat yogurt
on its own, add chopped garlic.
In Azerbaijan, a popular drink (ayran) is made by diluting salted
yogurt with water. This drink is known to lower blood pressure
and treat diarrhea. The word "yogurt" itself is of
Turkic (Azerbaijani and Turkish) origin and derived from the
verb "yogurmak" - "to knead." The medical
effect of yogurt is explained by the fact that it contains useful
micro-organisms such as lactobacteria.
Above: At the bazaar, a woman
sells greens such as green onion, dill, cilantro and a purple
variety of basil. Vegetables and fresh herbs play an important
role in Azerbaijani cuisine.
Since the accumulation of waste substances in the in inflammation
of the bowels is harmful to all organs of an organism, normal
digestion of food contributes to a healthy and long life. Modern
scientists in Japan have also established that regular consumption
of yogurt protects the organism from the injurious influence
of radioactive rays and prevents the development of cancer.
Garlic - Elixir
The healing properties of garlic are often mentioned in books
by numerous ancient authors throughout the region-in Azerbaijan,
Arabia, Persia, Tibet and China. According to the "Tibbnama",
regular consumption of garlic prevents gray hair, strengthens
memory and eyesight and is good for the heart. In Tibet, an herbal
potion of garlic and spirits was known as an "elixir of
youth." In Azerbaijan, physicians used infusions of garlic
and saffron in their spirits.
Modern scientists confirm that the regular consumption of garlic
lowers the level of cholesterol in the organism and improves
the circulation of blood. As a result, all organs are well supplied
with blood. For example, a proper supply of blood to the head
prevents hair from graying, refreshes the face and improves memory.
When blood is able to circulate well in the heart vessels, it
prevents myocardial infarction.
Azerbaijanis have combined these two foods - garlic and yogurt
- which are typical to diets of people who enjoy the benefits
of long life. They chop garlic and add it to yogurt in a dish
called "sarimsagli gatig" (yogurt with garlic). The
"Tibbnama" also suggests mixing garlic with yogurt.
This combination is used as a condiment with dishes made of flour
or meat, such as dolma of grape leaves (stuffed grape leaves),
khash, khingal and others.
The excessive use of bread so typical to modern Azerbaijan cuisine
can be traced to the influence of Russian cuisine. In the past
Azerbaijanis did not overuse bread and flour products. They never
had what might be called a cult of bread. Pilaf was never eaten
along with bread because rice was considered to be a substitute
for wheat. But these days, many people eat pilaf with bread,
and also with national dishes made with dough, such as khingal,
gurza, arishta, dushbara, umaj and others.
Physicians of medieval Azerbaijan didn't recommend eating much
bread, especially on hot summer days. Modern investigations prove
that overuse of bread, desserts and carbohydrates promotes the
creation of cholesterol in the organism and leads to coronary
disease and obesity. They concluded that overuse of bread is
more dangerous than the regular consumption of animal fat.
Note that the national Azerbaijani bread (chorak) does not resemble
Russian bread: it is a thin, flat bread, not a round loaf. Another
national substitution for bread is lavash, a paper-thin bread
- neither of these two types is very heavy to digest when eaten
Use of Herbs
Since antiquity, Azerbaijanis have been convinced that saffron
and licorice prolong life, refresh the skin and face, and promote
health for the liver, heart and kidneys. In addition, persons
of longevity traditionally consume large amounts of vegetables
and fruits, including apples.
The Azerbaijani physician Yusif Ibn Ismayil Khoyi (1311) wrote:
"If eaten regularly, apples rejuvenate the organism, strengthening
the heart, stomach, liver, intestine and stimulating the appetite.
Regular use of apples prevents heavy breathing and excessive
heartbeat in elderly persons. Apples refresh the brain and strengthen
Fruits, vegetables, various wild medicinal plants and products
prepared from them - jams, juices, sharbats, wines, dried fruits
and spices - all play an important role in Azerbaijan's national
cuisine. In particular, hot dishes are combined with various
vegetables, fruits, greens and spices.
Modern investigations show that vegetables and fruits contain
many micro-elements, vitamins and fibers that neutralize cholesterol.
Of course, scientists in the Middle Ages had no knowledge about
these substances, but based on close observation, they drew similar
conclusions that are being confirmed by modern scientific research.
Tea, Not Coffee
Regular consumption of tea is another main characteristic of
people who enjoy long life in Azerbaijan. According to Muhammad
Husein-khan (18th century), tea is a healthier beverage than
coffee. He points out that: "Tea is a diuretic. It alleviates
headaches caused by spasms and cold. In addition, tea cleanses
the blood, stomach and brain and refreshes the face. If used
moderately, it can treat rapid heartbeat, facilitate regular
breathing and is good for the heart. This drink eases melancholy,
sorrow and bad spirits."
Modern investigations prove that tea promotes longevity. It contains
caffeine, which stimulates the nervous system, and theophylline,
which enlarges blood vessels, eliminates spasms and improves
the function of the heart. It also contains tannins, which strengthen
blood vessels and prevent bleeding. As distinct from coffee,
tea not only does not increase the risk of the myocardial infarction
but even lowers it, because theophylline enlarges the blood vessels
of the heart.
However, one should avoid drinking tea on an empty stomach and
should not drink it very hot. Milk neutralizes the negative effects
of caffeine. Even though tea mixed with milk is considered to
be healthier, it is not popular in Azerbaijan. Tea is historically
cultivated in the Lankaran district of Azerbaijan, which curiously
enough, is a region known for its longevity.
Although the famous Azerbaijani Oil Baron Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev
(1823-1924) enjoyed a very long life span, most elderly people
in Azerbaijan are not so well off. When analyzing their diet,
we see that they eat relatively cheap foods: eggs, yogurt, vegetables,
fruits and beans. In addition, most of them don't overeat. Nor
are they overweight because they are involved with hard physical
In the past, those who enjoyed long life in our country rarely
consumed the expensive dishes of our national cuisine, except
on special occasions. Baked goods, kababs, pilaf seasoned with
meat and dried fruits were usually reserved for the New Year
celebration (Novruz), Muslim religious festivals (such as Gurban
Bayram) and wedding celebrations. During the 19th century, even
wealthy landowners didn't eat sweets and meat every day because
it was considered to be harmful.
Most people in Azerbaijan who enjoy the benefits of longevity
actually know nothing about cholesterol, carbohydrates or vegetarianism.
They simply maintain the nutritional practices of their fathers
and grandfathers, who lived to be more than 100 years old. This
reality would seem to prove that Azerbaijan's traditional diet,
which has been tried and tested over centuries and millennia,
is at least equal to modern theories of healthy nutrition, and
may even be superior.
Dr. Farid Alakbarov specializes in poring over handwritten manuscripts
in Arabic script that were written during the last several centuries.
His expertise is in medical manuscripts of the region. He has
written numerous books relating to health observations of medieval
times. Contact him: email@example.com.
(8.3) Autumn 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.