Week 8: Armenia
Armenia has a very long and tough history. The country as it currently stands is a small patch of just a few million people in the south Caucasus, with a diaspora of many million more around the world. As with many diaspora populations, the culinary tradition is a core part of identity, so I was glad to have our friend the nomad, Ed, helping me through it properly.
The meal was quite delicious and a heck of a lot of work, starting with marinating and butter-clarifying the night before. I think the chopped-onion count came to about twelve, and at one point we had four people actively cooking and preparing with oven, wood fire, and gas grill — and miraculously, it came together all pretty much at the same time. Besides Ed as our guest of honor, everyone was a first-timer: Emily and her boyfriend Noel, Ed’s friend Colin, and our friends Lisa and Tammy. Despite the arrival of fall weather at precisely 3 PM this Thursday, the weather was clear and still and definitely amenable to eating outside.
Armenian string cheese
This puts the string cheese you had as a child to shame! Saltier, fresher, and just all around tastier. A wonderful little nibble while waiting for the food to hit the table.
Ed’s greatest hesitation as we were discussing the menu was whether he could find Armenian brandy. But, lo and behold, he found it at the first liquor store he checked. Ararat brandy (named, wistfully, after Mt. Ararat, an important landmark for Armenians now in Turkish territory, where legend has it Noah’s Ark landed) was delicious and shockingly smooth and perfect for toasting.
As you can see, Armenian barbecue is done with large chunks of meat on skewers, suspended over coals rather than placed on a grill. There seem to be as many recipes for khorovats marinade as there are Armenian families, but they all share a base of onions and something sour. The recipe I chose called for pomegranate juice; since I had pomegranate molasses I cut it with water and vinegar, and marinated over 24 hours. I got so much lamb (from the halal butcher on Atlantic) and pork (from the Italian grocery around the corner) that I doubled the recipe for the marinade. Noel took on the role of grillmaster, and got them just charred, which imparted a nice smoky flavor and sealed in the juices.
According to the khorovats guide I found, you throw veggies right in the fire, so that’s what we did with eggplants and peppers, just scraping back the char and scooping out the inside. And check out that super-long and skinny eggplant! Deliciously smoky. We also had, incongruously but deliciously, some portobello mushrooms which we grilled in foil.
Yalanci | Vegetarian stuffed grape leaves | Recipe (I made “Alice Aveydan’s Yalanchi”)
Ed says that the word yalanci means “fake” in Armenian, in reference to the fact that there’s no meat in the filling. But when you’ve got onions, pine nuts, raisins, dill, and allspice, all wrapped in a briny grape leaf, who needs flesh to be happy? We did consider using grape leaves from our vines in the back yard but realized they needed to be brined first, so we scrapped that. Ed made thorough work of the jar of leaves, and they were just so tasty: the tang of the brine and the lemon, and the sweetness of the raisins, balanced out by the onions and rice. Just scrumptious.
Ich | Tomato and lemon bulgur salad | Recipe
According to Ed, this is a quintessentially Armenian-aunt dish. It’s simple enough, but quite delicious and a substantial side. It takes 6 lemons’ worth of juice, so it’s got an abundantly fresh feel.
Lavash | Flatbread | Recipe
When you go to restaurants whose cultures eat ready-baked flat breads, it seems simple enough that hot, steamy bread just shows up when you want it. But when the people cooking the meal are also the ones enjoying it, it’s quite a logistical challenge, especially when oven space is limited and already occupied by other dishes. Fortunately we were able to press the gas grill into surface, so we created a rhythm where Emily rolled out the breads and par-baked them in the oven, then I finished them off during the dinner on a griddle on the gas grill as we ate. Some of them got quite on the crispy and nearly burnt side, but Ed convinced us that lavash is sometimes cooked that crisp.
Lahmajoon | Armenian “pizza” with lamb topping | Recipe
This is one of those dishes you see in many countries, but Ed had me convinced that Armenians treat it as core to their cuisine. So I made it! I’m not sure if the dough is all that different from lavash, but I did follow the recipe carefully and hence had two different doughs rising. Emily rolled out these doughs too, and they hogged the oven space from the lavash. They were really quite tasty and great with jajik.
Jajik | Cucumber-garlic yogurt
No recipe here: throw some cucumber and chopped garlic into yogurt, let sit, and serve. Happy to say the cucumber came from our yard! This creamy sauce was a steadfast accompaniment to everything else on the plate. The yogurt I got was shockingly high in fat, which only helped the flavor I’m sure.
Pakhlava | Baklava | recipe
The Armenian version of this filo-based pastry isn’t terribly different from the Turkish or Greek versions, except that it doesn’t have honey, but did have some grated orange peel for a nice citrus-y tinge. I’ve always enjoyed this crispy, gooey, utterly indulgent sweet, but never made it until now. Turns out it’s really just a pound and a half of butter and close to three cups of sugar, with some flaky pastry and ground nuts to give it a blush of respectability. As with every other time I’ve eaten it, the meal preceding was so filling that I couldn’t eat nearly as much as I’d have liked.
With all these dishes, there sure were a lot of leftovers, and I foisted pakhlava, lahmajoon, and other leftovers onto folks heading home — not before a very small map-scratching for this little country.