Dinner in Yerevan
Fassoulia Plaki (White Bean & Vegetable Soup)
Armenian cuisine has a plethora of vegetarian dishes, as Armenian Orthodox Christianity does not allow the consumption of animal products during prescribed times and days of the year (totaling about 150 days of the year for the observant!). Most meatless main dishes have a good quantity of beans and bulgur for protein, and this is one such dish. Fassoulia simply means beans, and plaki refers to any dish of vegetables cooked in oil, and there are lots in Armenian cuisine! This soup of creamy white beans, carrots, peppers, celery, tomatoes, and garlic is a savory and hearty start to this meal. It can be enjoyed hot or cold, and preference is usually dictated by the current season, so we leave it up to you to decide how to enjoy it as we transition from summer to fall here in Michigan! (Vegan, no gluten.)
Jingalov Hats (Griddled Lavash Stuffed with Greens and Herbs)
Lavash is the flatbread that makes an appearance on every Armenian table, for virtually every meal. It is traditionally cooked on the hot walls of a tonir (cylindrical clay oven). It is a simple recipe - requiring only flour, water, and salt - and it is the most common bread at tables in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey. Lavash is thought to have originated in Armenia, and it was added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as “an expression of Armenian culture,” but this led to protests in other countries, all of whom claimed that it was a regional food, not unique to Armenia. In any case, it is considered sacred in Armenia, and is a symbol of abundance and prosperity. Jingalov hats (this is a singular name for the dish - hats meaning “bread”, and jingalov being a word unique to this dish that is sometimes translated as “herbs”, and sometimes as “forest,” as the herbs are often whatever can be foraged) makes delicious use of lavash to envelop a mound of fresh, chopped greens and herbs before gently grilling the entire package. This is another popular Lenten dish, and is typical of the Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh region. If you really want to get into the spirit of this dish, here is a fantastic video of it being made, along with an entire song about jingalov hats! (Contains gluten; vegan.)
Urfa Kebab (Roasted Meatball and Eggplant Skewers)
Anthony Bourdain describes Armenia and the surrounding region as “meat-on-a-stick territory,” and he’s not wrong! The origin of kebab is generally attributed to 17th century Ottoman Turks, after which kebab spread around the world in tandem with Islam. It has been an important food in the Middle East and the Caucasus for centuries; in medieval Europe, with the prevalence of agriculture and aggressive deforestation, people would butcher and roast large joints of meat or even entire animals, while in the Near and Middle East, people were more inclined to buy smaller cuts of meat that could be cooked quickly with less fuel. Urfa kebab is made with a mix of spiced beef and lamb, shaped into meatballs and threaded onto skewers in alternation with eggplant, and roasted until tender. Eggplants are thought to have originated in India, and were brought to Armenia (and Turkey, and the Middle East) along the spice routes by Arab traders. (Contains dairy; no gluten.)
Biberr Tolma (Stuffed Bell Peppers)
Tolma (or dolma) generally refers to stuffed grape leaves, but the word actually means “stuffed,” and can apply to a number of different vegetable “containers” - zucchini, eggplant, onion, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkin, or even melon (yes - cantaloupe or honeydew!). The stuffing is usually spiced rice, sometimes with the addition of meat or dried fruit. In this dish, bell peppers are filled with a delectable mixture of beef, pork, rice, onions, fresh herbs, and spices. Though it originated in Turkey, this is a popular dish in Armenia, Iran, and Georgia as well. (No gluten, no dairy.)
Salat Vinaigrette (Soviet Beet and Potato Salad)
This salad highlights the Soviet influence in Armenian food culture; it is a fixture in most former Soviet countries. Potatoes, beets, carrots, beans, and dill pickles all mingle in this greens-free salad - truly a delicious testament to the cold weather cookery of Russia! The name notwithstanding, there is no vinaigrette on this salad either! Dill pickles (and sometimes sauerkraut, though not in our version) are the source of the vinegar-y flavor, and we add fresh dill and cilantro for even more brightness. (Vegan, no gluten.)
Eech (Bulgur and Tomato Salad)
Wheat - in many different forms - is the staple grain of Armenia (in contrast with rice in Turkey, and maize in Georgia). Bulgur is parboiled, dried, and crushed wheat, and it lends texture and nutty flavor to many dishes. Bulgur is as old as wheat (whose cultivation can be traced back to 8500 BCE in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East), and it is highly portable, shelf-stable, nutritious, filling and quick to prepare. Eech is the meat-free version of the popular chikufta, which is a raw beef (or lamb) dish prepared for special occasions; eech simply has more bulgur and no meat. Tomatoes, onions, and red pepper paste make this dish deeply savory; it is finished with bright notes of lemon, parsley and green onion. Eech is made much more frequently than chikufta, though it is especially popular during Lent. (Contains gluten; vegan.)
Gata (Armenian Coffee Cake)
In Armenia, drinking coffee is an everyday ritual, and Yerevan has a solidly established café culture. Armenian coffee is called soorj, and it is made with very finely ground coffee (so finely ground that the coffee dissolves into the water - no filter required). It is rich and very strong, and is often served black. As we all know, black coffee is best accompanied by something a little sweet, and that is where gata comes in! Gata is a non-specific name for a buttery, lightly sweetened cake - often served with coffee or tea, or as dessert. Gata is essentially a giant dumpling - a buttery dough wrapped around a filling of varying composition: nuts, sugar, fruits, and butter all weigh in heavily. The Treasured Armenian Recipes cookbook (published by the Detroit Women’s Chapter of the Armenian General Benevolent Union) lists recipes for Gata No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5, speaking to both the universal appeal and the flexibility of the gata recipe. The gata we’re bringing you tonight is filled with butter, sugar, and walnuts - a classic Armenian treat! (Contains gluten, dairy, walnuts, egg; vegetarian.)
Yacoubian-Hobbs Areni 2015
It’s believed that Vitis vinifera, the species of grape from which almost all wine is made, originated in the Caucus. And while neighboring Georgia has a reputation as the birthplace of wine, Armenia has an equally strong claim to that title, with one of the world's oldest wineries uncovered just a few hours outside Yerevan, dating back more than 6,000 years. Alas, during occupation by the Russian czars, and later during Soviet annexation, Armenian grapes were used to make brandy; the Russians already had wine from Georgia, so why did they also need wine from Armenia? Brandy production prized volume of grape yield over quality and Armenian winemaking tradition fell by the wayside. Fortunately for the world of wine, Armenians have begun reclaiming their ancient wine culture in earnest. While the wine industry is still in the early years of a renaissance, the country is already producing some fantastic wines, such as this 2015 Areni, the signature grape of Armenia. Fruit forward and medium bodied, this red from Yacoubian-Hobbs is a fantastic first foray into Armenian wines and pairs beautifully with this menu.
There are no two ways about it: Armenia is a country with a long, complicated, and tumultuous history. Located in the southern reaches of the Caucasus Mountains, it is a tiny landlocked Christian nation in a largely Muslim region of the world. Its culture and traditions are ancient - several tribal kingdoms flourished in the area between 3000 and 1200 BCE, and the Kingdom of Armenia was founded in 321 BCE in the highlands of Mount Ararat. Yerevan, the present-day capital of Armenia, was established in 782 BCE as the Erebuni fortress in the early kingdom of Urartu (Urartu is Assyrian for Ararat). As the late, great food writer Alan Davidson puts it in his epic The Oxford Companion to Food, “In the 2nd century BCE, Armenia lost its independence to Rome, and thereafter was taken over by the standard roll-call of successive conquerors: Persia, Byzantium, Islam, Mongols, Turks, Persians (again), and Russia.” Armenia’s rich cultural heritage is a tangled web indeed, and events of the 1900s and 2000s have had an immense impact on its culture and its people as well. Today, its highly contentious relationships with neighboring Turkey (to the west) and Azerbaijan (to the east) are defining features of its national identity. It would be impossible to untangle these threads of early Armenian history here, so we’re putting a few links in the resources below. Armenia is a country of dramatic mountains, lush river valleys, wild forests, and important cultural and historic monuments; as the first nation to formally adopt Christianity as a state religion, it is home to some of the oldest Christian monasteries and churches.
There are several relatively recent events that have dramatically changed the trajectory of Armenia: in 1988, a devastating earthquake killed over 60,000 people and crippled the country; the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union led to an independent Republic of Armenia; and two bloody wars with Azerbaijan - in 1992, and just one year ago in 2020 - exacted an enormous human and political toll. Perhaps most crucial to the Armenian identity and influence around the world, though, is the 1915 genocide. Over 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were executed outright or died in death marches at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The genocide precipitated the mass emigration of millions of Armenians, creating the modern diaspora, in which approximately 8 million Armenians reside outside of Armenia, and only 3 million reside in Armenia itself. Each of these critical events has contributed to a cultural solidarity and strong identity among Armenians around the world. Many Armenians in the diaspora feel a drive to protect their culture and history, and express a sense of longing for their homeland, despite the fact that the vast majority of them were not born there. As is true for many diasporic communities, the preparation and consumption of food is a way to simultaneously assuage this longing, keep culture intact, and share important cultural information with others.
Due to the long succession of invading forces we mentioned above, Armenian food shares a great number of ingredients and techniques with cultures of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Russia, and countries formerly part of the USSR. Lamb, eggplant, yogurt, walnuts, and bread feature heavily in Armenian cuisine - much as they do in Georgian and Turkish cuisine. Unlike the other Caucasian countries, however, Armenian cooking uses bulgur (cracked wheat) as a staple grain. The Lenten traditions associated with Christianity mean that there is a strong complement of vegetarian dishes and salads. Fresh herbs and dried fruits are frequent additions to otherwise heavy soups, stews, and meat dishes. Our menu includes a wide array of dishes exhibiting a range of influences and traditions - some showcasing traditional foods from before the genocide, some foods that evolved in the diaspora, and some more Soviet-influenced dishes from modern Armenia.
We mentioned it briefly above, but it bears repeating that exactly one year ago this past Monday (9/27), Azerbaijan launched attacks to attempt to gain control of the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh (called Artsakh by Armenians). Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and both sides insist that the land is rightfully theirs. After 44 days of fighting, a precarious ceasefire was negotiated, but violence still erupts along the border, and within and around Nagorno Karabakh. Almost 100,000 people fled the conflict, and many remain as refugees within Armenia. Despite the turmoil and oppression that this tiny nation has endured, its people welcomed these refugees into their homes and churches in a show of hospitality and solidarity. We hope that the future continues to get brighter and sweeter for the Armenian people, and we hope that you enjoy this meal as a window into their vibrant culture. The saying that they share before meals is one that is full of hope and promise: “Anoush ella!” (“Let it be sweet!”)
Featured Recipe: Eech
Armenian Bulgur Salad
Recipe adapted from Lavash by Kate Leahy, Ara Zada, & John Lee
Makes 6 servings
6 fresh roma tomatoes, peeled & diced or 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
1 tbsp sunflower oil or olive oil plus more for garnish
225 g yellow onion, diced (1 medium onion)
120 ml / ½ cup water
60 g of tomato paste
170 g red bell pepper, cored seeded & diced (about ½ of a large red bell pepper)
2 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
½ tsp ground cumin
240g medium-grain bulgur
50 g green onions, thinly sliced
40 g flat leaf parsley finely chopped
60 ml / 4 tbsp lemon juice
Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and red pepper and cook stirring occasionally until soft & the onions are translucent
Add the water and the tomatoes with their juices and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer gently until the flavors have melded about 5-10 mins
Uncover the pan and stir in the tomato paste, salt and cumin.
Pour the contents of the pan into a large mixing bowl and mix in the bulgur. Let the mixture sit for at least 30 minutes until the bulgur has plumped up and absorbed the water and tomato juices.
Mix the green onion & parsley into the bulgur along with half of the lemon juice. Knead and press the mixture together in the bowl until the bulgur absorbs more of the seasoning about 3 minutes.
Let sit in the fridge for another hour or so as the bulgur will continue to absorb liquid and soften. Taste, adding more lemon juice or salt if desired
Recipes Inspired By:
Lavash: The Bread That Launched 1,000 Meals, Plus Salads, Stews, and Other Recipes from Armenia - by Kate Leahy, John Lee and Ara Zada
The Armenian Cookbook by Rachel Hogrogian
This article has some excellent information on ancient Armenian history, along with photos of ancient monasteries and more contemporary sites in Yerevan
Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown: Armenia (S 11, E 4) is very well done and highlights many of the cultural and historical struggles of the Armenian people.
An excellent NY Times feature showing Nagorno Karabakh, and explaining some of the history that led to the recent war.