What is Armenian Food?
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
It never occurred to me growing up that eating rice on Christmas day was unusual. Only when social media took off and boastful photos of Christmas dinner plates loaded with turkey, veg and lashings of gravy became common place, did I realise that our stuffing was a bit different. Pilaf is a rice dish, usually cooked in stock or broth, with added spices, vegetables, dried fruit and meat. The rice is fried in fat until translucent, then it’s slowly simmered on a low heat (or in the oven) until it fully absorbs the delicious stock. My father’s pilaf recipe, which was handed down to him by a cousin, is an irresistible mix of fried rice, vermicelli, dried fruit, whole chestnuts, pine nuts, all spice and cinnamon. When he can get hold of them he throws in the chopped-up turkey giblets too. Stuffed inside the roasting bird, the pilaf swells with flavour. It’s divine. Plus, it makes a cracking Boxing Day left-over alongside a bit of cold ham.
Like much of Armenian cooking, pilaf shares its identity with similar dishes from across the Middle East; from the territories of the former Ottoman Empire, from its neighbouring countries and from across the world. You can see the same roots of pilaf in the Spanish paella or the South Asian biryani. In fact, many of Armenia’s culinary traditions and iconic dishes are hotly contested; the debate around their origins is tied into historical and geopolitical conflict. So, what is Armenian food? Maybe the better question is, what do Armenians cook? What makes their versions of these popular dishes Armenian? But first, probably most importantly, who are the Armenians?
"When two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia" - William Saroyan
Armenia is a small, landlocked country in the South Caucasus. It’s bordered by Georgia to the North, Iran to the South, Azerbaijan to the East and Turkey to the West. Only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia while over 10 million live in other countries around the world. Since the earliest recorded times, Armenians have established thriving communities away from their homeland. Novelist William Saroyan put it best in his short story about the Armenians: “When two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia”. The modern Armenian diaspora was largely formed as a result of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when the Armenians living in their ancestral homeland in eastern Turkey, were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman government. The deep, painful scars of this conflict drive a lot of the discourse around the ownership of Armenia’s culinary traditions.
My Armenian family arrived in England at the end of the 19th century. My Great Grandfather, Margarios Stambollouian, came to Manchester to establish the English branch of The Stambollouian Brothers, a shipping company trading Lancashire cotton to the Ottoman Empire. He wasn’t alone. Many Armenian textile merchants came to Manchester through the late 1800's. Today, there are around 20,000 ethnic Armenians in the United Kingdom, the majority based in London, but Manchester still holds a small community. In fact, the city is home to one of the UK’s very few Armenian restaurants. The Armenian Taverna in Albert Square, which opened in 1968, is said to be the oldest restaurant business in the city centre. Apparently Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Manchester United midfielder, was a regular during his time in the city. Mkhitaryan, of course, is an Armenian: you can spot us from the YAN or IAN endings to our names. You’ve probably heard of the KardashIANs…
Growing up, I didn’t think a great deal about being Armenian. It was always in the background. My dad is a great storyteller and would often regale us with characterful anecdotes of distant relatives. Some of my extended family looked a little different; darker complexion, almond eyes, big noses. But I never considered them as foreign, or other. By dint of growing up white, middle class and privileged, my ethnicity never came into sharp focus. Of course, I had an unusual name that nobody could pronounce. But even that didn’t make me feel Armenian. I didn’t truly feel Armenian until I visited the country.
Aged 18, I spent three weeks volunteering in a summer camp just outside Spitak, in the countryside, North of the capital of Yerevan. Spitak was rebuilt after Armenia’s tragic earthquake of 1988, and most of the locals live in small corrugated iron huts, thrown together quickly by aid workers. Even the church was built from corrugated sheeting; a hauntingly beautiful monument to the power of faith in times of crisis.
Armenia invited me in with warmth and overflowing hospitality wherever I went. I couldn’t cross the street without being dragged into a home for a shot of pungent thick, tar-like black coffee and some honey-sweet, fresh watermelon. The people I met had very little, but wanted to give me everything. And, when I told them my name, the reaction was always the same. Shock, disbelief, eyes lit up, beaming smiles, big hugs and then dragged off to be shown to anyone nearby “He’s an Armenian! Stambollouian! An Armenian!!”. My name had become a password; unlocking a door to a history, a culture and a people.
My food memories from Armenia are not particularly vivid. It was a long time ago and before I discovered a real passion for cooking. The meals I do remember are connected to people and place, more than flavour: eggy bread in the mornings made by the summer school’s cook, served simply with tomatoes and white cheese; sweet fresh apricots - Armenia’s national fruit - from the local market; homemade blackberry vodka bought from a roadside vendor (alcohol percentage unknown); and khorovats, or Armenian BBQ. The Armenians take their BBQing very seriously. Succulent kebabs of the best meat I’ve ever tasted, thrown onto the hot coals of a campfire. Accompanied with the smokey flesh of aubergines, blackened on the flames and peeled by the seemingly Teflon coated fingers of our Armenian hosts. Eaten, sat round the fire, next to our bright yellow gas-powered school bus, off a mountain road, gazing up at a hillside monastery.
I also remember cooking for the Armenians. A bad idea. Each of the volunteers on the programme was responsible for one meal during the trip. When it came to my turn I decided to show off my Armenian roots by rustling up a tabbouleh (a firm family BBQ favourite back home). Two minutes in and I’d amassed a crowd of local women, there to spectate the English boy making tabbouleh and to raise their collective eyebrows every time I reached for another unconventional ingredient. Apparently, what I made was not only not tabbouleh, but also an indication that I probably wasn’t really a legit Armenian.
I was reminded of this a few years ago when I chose to make börek for the 90th birthday of an elderly Armenian relative. Börek is a filled pastry. Thin, flakey filo sheets wrap up meat, or cheese, or vegetables. In some traditions it’s assembled in a large pan and then cut into portions (like the Greek spanakopita, with feta and spinach). In Armenia, you’re more likely to find them tucked into triangle parcels (almost like a samosa), or rolled into cigar-like tubes.
My memory of börek growing up was watching my great aunt Flora, a formidable woman who drove a Jaguar well into her 80s, preparing it in the kitchen before a family barbecue. Layers of thin pastry, cheese and spinach were topped off with a luxurious egg and double cream wash before crisping up in the oven. For my börek, I rolled the filling in large sheets to make one long sausage, tucked it into a large snail-like spiral and baked it in a pan. A distant relative, seeing the photos of my börek on Facebook, applauded my efforts but in the same breath told me “that’s not Armenian”.
So what is Armenian food? I recently set up an Instagram cooking account (@londoncooking) and beyond posting photos of my tumultuous sourdough adventures, I’ve used the platform to explore this question. I started my search by looking for cookbooks. Ask any Armenian home chef about cookbooks and they’ll probably mention Treasured Armenian Recipes. First published in 1949 by the Detroit Women’s Armenian General Benevolent Union, it's a collection of Armenian staples. But, like asking an Armenian grandmother for the secret to her baklava, the recipes are a little vague, often just three or four ingredients. It feels more like a jumping off point for people to add their own spin: a kofta is minced meat and onion, if you want to add parsley, or mint, or cumin, or dried fruit, then that’s your family recipe! I couldn’t believe that the latest publication about Armenian home cooking was 70 years old. That’s when I stumbled upon Lavash.
Like asking an Armenian grandmother for the secret to her baklava, the recipes are a little vague...
Lavash is part cookbook, part tribute to Armenia. It's a rich, vibrant tapestry of photographs, stories, history, culture and recipes. Put together in 2019 by two chefs - Ara Zada, an Armenian-Egyptian and Kate Leahy, a chef and cookbook writer with a special interest in Armenian-American identity – and a journalist and food photographer, John Lee. It reads like the greatest hits of the Armenian kitchen. As a starting point for a passionate home cook, it’s been a revelation.
The book takes its title from one of Armenia’s most iconic foods. Lavash is a paper-thin flatbread eaten in Armenia and across the Middle East. The word roughly translates as “good food”. Like many dishes in the region, its origins are contested. But in 2014 it was added to UNESCO’s list of protected intangible cultural heritage traditions as an expression of Armenian culture. It is so much part of the fabric of Armenian life, that when a young couple marry, freshly baked lavash is placed over their heads to ward off evil spirits.
The bread is baked in a traditional underground clay oven called a tonir in a not dissimilar way from naan breads, slapped onto the side of a tandoor. It comes in large sheets which are used to wrap meat, vegetables, fish, herbs and cheese, make sandwiches and mop up sauces. You expect to see it on every dinner table. Fresh out of the oven it’s the perfect combination of soft and pliable, with a crispy crackly edge.
Kate Leah’s recipe for lavash uses “old dough” where a small part of yesterday’s dough is kept and added to the fresh batch. In this way it works almost like a sourdough starter. Kate uses an upturned wok on a gas flame to recreate the walls of the tonir. I baked mine on the upturned base of a preheated cast-iron pot. The cast-iron really holds the heat and the thin dough bubbles and crisps up in a matter of seconds.
From lavash it seemed like a natural hop, skip and a jump to lahmahun. Here the lavash base is paired with a spiced, tomatoey lamb mince for a thin, crispy Armenian pizza. I feel like you really need a pizza oven, or at least a bit of fire, to make the perfect lahmahun. It’s all about those charcoal dark blisters you can only get from the heat of flame. This one was baked on my brother's high-tech Big Green Egg BBQ. It's beautiful topped with salad, yoghurt, lemon juice and pickles.
Another dish with its roots in the Ottoman Empire is basturma; a heavily spiced, air-dried, cured beef. Scholars differ on the etymology of the name, but in Turkish, the word “bastirma” translates as pressing. I like the story that medieval soldiers kept salted meat under their horses saddle, slowly curing under their weight (and presumably body heat!), and giving them a protein packed edge over their cereal eating competitors. Basturma is infamous for its trademark smell, thanks to the powerful punch of spices it’s coated in. Historically the smell of basturma has been used as a xenophobic barb against the Armenians. My dad tells the story of his great grandfather travelling to Switzerland with a hamper of Armenian food. On arrival, the basturma smelled so bad that he ordered his man servant to get rid of it. The man servant, presumably looking for a quick fix, proceeded to boot it into Lake Geneva. He was spotted by a policeman and immediately arrested for polluting the lake and public nuisance.
The recipe in Lavash uses a topside of beef that you salt cure and hang to dry for two weeks. It’s then coated in a spice paste (crushed garlic, fenugreek powder, paprika, all spice and cayenne pepper) and left to dry for a few more days. The result is a pungent, flavour packed cured meat, with a tough texture like beef jerky. It’s delicious eaten as is, or layered up in a pitta sandwich with salad, herbs and yoghurt. I also followed the recommendations of many online and cooked it with some creamy scrambled eggs. I can only imagine the smell in my flat, which I’ve become numb to. But it’s lockdown, and I live alone, so who cares!
Next, I tackled sweet sujuk. Sujuk is the name for a dry, spicy sausage, popular across the Middle East. Sweet sujuk are strings of walnuts enrobed in a layer of dried grape syrup. They’re nicknamed Armenian Snickers and I can see why. The fatty, luxurious, nutty walnut centre, wrapped up in the sweet, chewy dried fruit leather, is the perfect snack. First, you make a grape juice syrup, thickened with corn-starch and gently spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon. Then, with a needle and thread, you string together long strands of walnuts and dip them into the hot syrup. As each layer dries you add another until the walnuts are completely encased in the sticky, sweet sauce. Then, like basturma, you air dry them (a process which took about a week). Apparently, they last for months. Mine lasted a matter of days...
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the recipes in Lavash. I’m desperate to try my hand at jingalov hats (a flatbread stuffed with herbs), spas (a yoghurt soup with pearl barley), ghapama (a pilaf stuffed pumpkin), khash (a cow hoof soup that’s only for the brave, and the very hungover), harissa (a sort of chicken porridge) and of course baklava. But cooking Armenian recipes, and posting them on Instagram, has led to some interesting connections and conversations. I’ve met fellow Armenian chefs, both here in London and across the world. I’ve connected with Armenians who don’t cook, but are interested to see these dishes recreated. I even discovered an Armenian living in my block of flats, who I promptly took a slice of lahmahun and who said my kofte were as good as his mother’s (high praise from an Armenian; I hope, for his sake, that she doesn’t read this!). Then a few weeks ago, I joined with around 100 members of London’s Armenian Institute for their Manti Mania Zoom cookery class.
Manti are small pasta parcels of spiced meat (usually lamb or beef) which are baked, boiled or steamed. Like many of the foods listed above it’s complicated to pinpoint the genesis of manti. There are versions of this dish across the Middle East, and across the world (Chinese potstickers, Korean mandu, even, to some extent, the Italian tortellini). The Armenian manti are unique for their shape: small canoe-like dumplings, open at the top, arranged in beautiful concentric patterns in circular trays. They’re baked in the oven for a slight crunch and then softened with hot stock, tomato passata and garlic yoghurt. The preparation of the manti is laborious and fiddly. But it’s a labour of love. It’s said that the smaller you make each manti dumpling, the more you love the person you’re cooking for. An old saying suggests a perfect wife can make manti so small that 40 will fit on a spoon.
The class was led by Nouritza Matossian who taught us her grandmother’s manti recipe; the techniques for rolling the dough, filling the manti and arranging them in the right pattern. As we rolled up our sleeves and cooked along on Zoom, I felt an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and community. Here was a group of Armenians, brought together by food, even in these difficult times; sharing recipes, sharing stories, sharing their culture. The finished dumplings are pure comfort food. As we sat contentedly and ate our manti, many miles away from each other, we talked about other recipes. “I used to do a pilaf with an egg on top” someone offered, “Oh yes, my mother did that”, “Do you always put yoghurt on it?”, “Sometimes we use cream”. I talked about my adventures with Armenian cooking: “You made basturma! Very impressive!”. I felt like part of the conversation. Perhaps all I’ve ever really wanted is the acceptance of that group of Armenian ladies who raised their eyebrows at my tabbouleh!
As is true of many cultures, Armenian food is intrinsically linked to the processes of preparing it. Lavash is celebrated by UNESCO specifically because of how it is prepared; “the preparation requires great effort, coordination and special skills…it strengthens family, community and social ties”. Just as, sitting on Zoom with 100 other Armenians from around the world all preparing manti, I felt part of a community. Just as, learning from my great aunt how to layer sheet upon sheet of thin filo pastry to build a börek, I felt like I was keeping a tradition alive. Just as, reading the beautiful recipes in Lavash, and cooking along at home, I feel connected to Armenia. It is the processes involved in Armenian cooking which are so precious. And there is no process more involved than that of making dolma.
Dolma comes from a Turkish word meaning “to fill” and the term covers a whole range of dishes. Most predominantly they’re stuffed vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, onions, courgettes, aubergines, even pumpkins. Often stuffed with spiced rice, sometimes with meat, either served cold as a delicate mezze, or in a hot tomato sauce as a hearty meal. You’ve probably encountered vine leaf dolma: little parcels of flavoured rice, wrapped up in blanched vine leaves, thrown onto a mezze plate as a bit of an afterthought.
On the penultimate night of my Armenian trip, all those years ago, I was invited into a local home to try dolma. These were cabbage leaf dolma, served hot, stuffed with minced meat and rice. A hearty, winter dish. When we’d finished eating, the host, a local entrepreneur and man-about-town, Edik, scooped up a glass of the oily, tomatoey juice from the bottom of the dolma dish and encouraged me to drink it. He said, with a suggestive nod, that “dolma juice makes men strong”.
Ever since that night I’ve been obsessed with dolma. Not for their men’s health properties I should add. But because they are, for me, the dish I associate most strongly with Armenia. I remember one occasion, as a teenager, my dad drove us out to a local Kent vineyard, and we picked leaves from the vines, watched over by a bemused farmer. The key is to find the young leaves as they’re more tender when cooked, and if you can pick them straight from the vine, all the better. Back home we boiled them in a pot with salty water, before wrapping them around some delicious spiced rice.
We don't have a family recipe for dolma. So, over the last few years I’ve developed my own. The rice mix I use is not far from my father’s pilaf recipe. It’s a tomatoey fried rice, with nuts (pine nuts), dried fruit (currants), herbs and spices. Each dolma is wrapped by hand like a mini burrito and arranged carefully in a pot. Then they’re steamed with water, oil and lemon juice. It’s a recipe I’ve tweaked and finessed over the years and am now proud to title "The Stambo Dolma". It is, in a very small way, my contribution to Armenian culture. A family recipe that keeps a tradition alive. Because that seems to be what Armenian cooking is truly about. Keeping a culture alive. Surviving. Not disappearing, or being forgotten.
And they’re tasty. Really tasty. But if you want the recipe, you’ll have to marry into the family…