Azerbaijan is perhaps the last country that a Filipino non-gourmet like me will look to for delectable cuisine but a month of surfing online for my cursory research on vlogging culture brought me to that place. Described as a transcontinental country, the boundaries of which straddle Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan was an unknown place until I began following this vlog called “Relaxing Village.”
The vlog features two main characters, an elderly, genial lady and a man in his 30s or so. Naila is the grandmother and Ruslan, her son who is the chef. Naila is the more active cook, which means the label “chef” for Ruslan means one thing—he has formal training and cooking is his profession. Naila the grandmother, however, is the heritage person, presenting recipes that are more than a hundred years old, with memory as her guide.
I have already viewed more than five vlogs from them and each time, I am armed with a paper and a pen to write down the ingredients—from vegetables and fruits to condiments—they employ in their cuisine. Starting with life in the kitchen while the thickest of snow has piled up outside their charming cottage, I have seen this family in winter, and after the snow has melted in spring and in summer. In the process, I believe I now know how to open a pomegranate (do we have them in the country?).
Every now and then, the grandchildren join in. Are they the children of Ruslan? Do they make Naila the sweet granny? We can only assume because the vlogs are silent. Every now and then, you hear diegetic sounds coming from the animals, actions and climate around them. The voice of Naila is soothing when she talks to Ruslan or to her young assistants, but that is all that could be considered as sound. They are incidental and are not meant to annotate. With cooking as the main feature of this vlog, there is no annotation at all to explain. We are left guessing as to how many teaspoons of salt or pounds of sugar are needed. But I never feel I am left clueless. For one, the grandmother never uses a measuring device; only those chubby fingers can sense how much sweetness is needed in the flour she is kneading, and how many chunks of butter are necessary to bind the wheat into something that will materialize into huge loaves of bread.
We are there to watch. And learn. I am there as a captive audience to the most mesmerizing rural life in a land that is bounded by the Caspian sea and Russia, Georgia and Armenia.
The algorithm of geography has brought me from Azerbaijan to neighboring Iran. Interesting how I am more aware of Iran not because of its culture but because of its impact in the geopolitics of the world, which involves the Philippines via its relationship with the US.
From the pastoral setting of Grandma Naila’s home, the internet has brought me to another online space—the nomads of Iran. There is a particular vlog about a family of four, composed of the father, the mother and the two sons. The introductory vlog shows them leaving a town for their home somewhere in the mountains. We see them packing their luggage. The two boys carry small backpacks while the father carries his own bag. Trailing behind them is the mother who bears the biggest bag made of cloth—and I suppose the heaviest. They walk on rough roads that go up and around the old mountain. Scattered on the landscape are the biggest rocks and ground covered in shales.
As I follow this family on their return home, I constantly assure myself that they are not alone, that there is a crew of camera men documenting their journey. I need that reassurance because soon they find themselves in the most impossible paths. Treacherous and torturous, the road brings them to cliffs and crevasses. In one of these routes, the father goes first, climbing down the edge of a cliff, reaching a crevice with a huge tree branch providing them with a ledge and a grip. The two boys make it fast through that small opening, but there is still the mother who is saddled with a huge bag tied around his waist.
They would pass more difficult passages. Each time that happens, I tell myself: “Enough already.” But nothing is enough in this world. I feel the reward when they finally reach a clearing—not from a forest of trees but from the cluster of giant rocks. A home yields a human being. They talk and I pray they will stop there, pitch a tent, eat their dinner, rest and sleep. But, no, they walk some more, the ground tilting to a point of danger. “Enough already,” the weakling in me whispers some more. A little hut made of stones and a semblance of wooden slats serving as door and window appear in the distance. That is their home.
There are more vlogs. One is about the Iranian women of a nomadic community going out to gather wild pistachios. They follow a trail seemingly reserved for mountain goats. They gather the nuts and walk briskly back to their homes. All in silence because just like in the village of the industrious grandmother who puts turmeric in her breads, mixes spinach in the rice, and makes what appears to be yummiest candies colored with the juice of beetroots, this vlog is a silent vlog.
Ethnocentrism—that manner of looking at another culture through the lens of one’s own culture—is the only danger to these silent vlogs; otherwise, they are precious glimpses into heritage compared to the hysterical vlogs of Pinoys jumping into dumpsters to gather discarded fruits and chocolate.