Suitcase and World: The Food of Armenia.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Food of Armenia.

This could easily be my plate of Armenian food.  It all looks very familiar and tasty!
(Photo by Ketone16.  Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Like so many global cuisines, Armenian food reflects its history, traditional cultures and geography. Although the food of Armenia has its unique tastes, it is very closely related to eastern and Mediterranean cuisine - a big reason why so much of it looks familiar to me.

The main characteristics of Armenian cuisine are a reliance on the quality of the ingredients rather than heavily spicing food, the use of herbs, the use of wheat in a variety of forms, pearl barley, legumes, nuts, and fruit (as a main ingredient as well as to sour food), and the stuffing of a wide variety of leaves. The pomegranate, which features in many a dish has a symbolic association with fertility that represents that nation. The apricot is the national fruit.

Vegetables and herbs feature heavily in Armenian cuisine - eggplant,  pumpkin, peas, lentils, beans and other vegetables are normally eaten as salads, pickled or added to the meat dishes as ingredients.  As for the herbs - mint, tarragon and parsley are most commonly used.

Fragrant spices are very popular cooking ingredients - pepper, coriander, fenugreek, black pepper, mint, tarragon, basil, thyme and of course garlic and onion; and for sweet dishes - cinnamon, cardamom, clove, saffron and vanilla.
I was surprised to learn that the majority of Armenians are cooked with butter and not animal fat or any sort of vegetable oil.  Surprisingly, sesame oil is traditional.   

The Ararat Valley is rich in juicy fragrant fruit such as apricots, peaches, pomegranates, cornelian cherry, pears, plums, grapes, fig, and quince. Dried fruit, candied fruits, compotes, juices and jam are made of them and tart fruits are used as souring agents in savory dishes.  I'm not keen on dried fruits but I'm sure Armenian baklava will be right up my alley when it comes time for something sweet to end a meal with.

Thanks to my friend Areg, I've been introduced to green walnuts preserved in a spiced sugar syrup which I was so fascinated with that I actually went through the laborious process of making them.  I know, I'm crazy.  I couldn't find an Armenia recipe so I cobbled together a couple of Greek recipes to come up with my own.  I've done this for the past two years now and both times, it's been a success.  Today when I Googled *armenia green walnuts* hoping to find out the name of this food item in Armenia.  I got a good chuckle when I  looked at the images and saw my own photo near the top of the search results :-)

Recently, I also had a chance to help Areg make Armenian gata cookies.  I hope to try a few when I get to the country!

While I was watching Areg working away at making the cookies, she offered me some lavash and salmon caviar.  Turns out both are commonly eaten in Armenia.  I love salmon caviar; I will be happy to snack away on it.

Thanks to a recommendation from Areg, Pat and I also enjoyed a nice Armenian meal at Almayass in NYC.  The restaurant's located a short distance from Pat's apartment.  We decided to walk to it.  It was a cold, blustery, rainy night.  I don't know why we walked.  All I could think was this place better be worth the hike!

We entered into a very modern restaurant, housed inside what looked like a former townhouse. It was very warm and inviting inside.  With the help of the waitress, we ordered a couple of items to share.  The one dish we both really enjoyed was the grilled skewered beef and chicken, served atop a piece of lavash, served with a bit of arugula, cherry tomatoes and onion.  The meat was delicious!

We didn't cap off our meal with anything sweet but all in all, it was a nice meal.  We both left thinking we'll be eating fine in Armenia!

I have a few Armenian foods and dishes on my must try list.

Armenia boys munching on lavash.  Too cute!
Photo by yourjoyismylow on
Lavash is the daily bread of Armenia.  The thin bread is baked in tonyr which as best I can tell is similar to a tandoor oven.  I am expecting that the lavash in Armenia will taste infinitely better than the mass produced stuff that I get in the plastic wrapping Trader Joe's/

Traditionally Armenians eat their food folded in lavash and commonly, food is served atop lavash. I love when the food that is placed atop the lavash is something like a stew so all the sauce soaks into the thin bread.  So tasty.

Cheese is also a popular accompaniment to lavash.  I love all things cheese so a simple piece of lavash wrapped around a bit of cheese is enough to keep me happy....especially for breakfast.

At home, I don't eat lavash often but when I do, I typically eat it as a snack.  I cut the lavash into small squares, brush eat square with some olive oil and then sprinkle chili powder and spices on top each slice.  It all then goes into the oven to crisp up and voilà ....a good munchy emerges a few minutes later!  Of course, thanks to Areg, I'm now addicted to eating the stuff as a holder for salmon caviar!

(Photo by Violettarmenia. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Khorovats is the Armenian term for skewered meat cooked over a wood fire.  Grilled steaks and chops also fall into this catgory.   In Armenia, the word *kebab* refers to sausage shaped patties from ground meat grilled on a skewer.  Pat's not fond of ground meat so she's going to have to avoid saying the word *kebab*.  She's also going to have to avoid the deep fried minced meat patties, made with cracked wheat and beef, otherwise known as kibbeh - they're also a popular meat dish in Armenia.

Happily for both of us, the most popular meat for khorovats (including losh kebab) is pork thanks to influence from the Russians during Soviet times.

Kufta, at least the Armenian version that starts with pounded beef, is an unusual meat dish.  The beef is pounded to a purée.  The purée is then mixed with brandy or vodka, onion and spices and formed into patties.  The patties are then poached.  This I definitely have to try.
Tisvzhik which is slices of beef heart, liver, (and maybe lungs) sautéed with onion, tomato paste, salt, and pepper.  I couldn't find a photo of the dish but believe it or not, I found a video of a chef cooking up the dish.  I love offal so I think I would enjoy this dish!

Fish. I didn't find much mention of fish in either Azeri or Georgian cuisine but it does pop up for Armenia.  The numerous mountain lake and rivers are rich in fish as Sevan trout (a variety related to brown trout) and whitefish.  Of course, Lake Sevan also holds a bounty of crayfish!  Armenians cook fish in a variety of ways - deep fried in oil, on a spit, grilled on coals, etc.

Harissa.  (Photo from The World on Your Plate)

Harissa is NOT the North African hot chili pepper paste.  It is one of the most beloved dishes of Armenian cuisine.  It's a porridge made of cracked wheat and either chicken, beef or mutton.  Water is added and everything is cooked together until the cracked wheat turns into mushy porridge.  It very much reminds me of the chicken and rice porridge that so commonly graces the Chinese table.  Harissa is typically served at breakfast and for someone like me who prefers a savory way to start the day, this would be perfect for me.  Definitely on my list of must-try Armenia foods!

Khash topped with pieces of lavash.
(Photo by By P.Lechien.  Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Khash is something that doesn't sound appetizing but I'm thinking it probably tastes pretty good.  Although it could also be something of an acquired taste especially after you find out what the key ingredient is. Khash is a soup made of cow shanks that have been boiled for as long as 24 hours.  Khash is served with garlic, salt and radish and is eaten with lavash and various greens.  Khash is breakfast food - it can sometimes be eaten before breakfast.  You have to really be hungry to do this because it does not look like a light meal.

Khash is typically considered a winter soup.  Considering the timing of our trip, we may just get to try a bowl.  I can already see the look of excitement on Pat's face :-)

An important note.  Khash is also to be consumed with vodka (NOT brandy).  Vodka for breakfast?  I guess it's Happy Hour somewhere in the world even though it's morning in Armenia. 

Lastly, there is a right way to eat khash.  We don't want to insult our Armenian hosts so it's good to know what the proper way is.  Here's your lesson courtesy of a video I found on YouTube.

Tolma aka dolma will be my weakness, especially the ones made with grape leaves.  I will eat until I cannot stuff another grain of rice into my belly.

The meat filling is spiced and mixed with rice.  The mixture is then wrapped inside either grape leaves (typically eaten during the colder times of the year) or cabbage leaves (typically eaten during the warmer months).

Dolmas are served hot with matsun (also spelled matzoon is a fermented milk product that is similar to yogurt) with garlic.  When I was at Areg's house, she served me something that she called yogurt but it was extremely sour.  I wonder if it was matsun?

Armenia will be the last of the three Caucasian countries we visit and if the food is good, I will be tapping on Areg's shoulder to give me some cooking lessons so I can continue to enjoy the food at home!