The idea to do a post on Armenian food came from looking at a map of Jerusalem with the Armenian Quarter in the old city. Before my Wikipedia research in preparation for this post, my knowledge of Armenia consisted of a few random factoids; after my Wikipedia research, I added a few more random factoids. It is useful to know where Armenia is: it is in the South Caucasus, and bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. The history of Armenia begins in the dim mists of ancient time: Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark landed, is in Armenia. The world’s earliest leather shoe is from Armenia (although I do not know if this shoe is from before or after Noah)! The first Kingdom of Armenia dates from 600 BCE, although there was quite a lot going on before that date (shoes, arks, etc.). Armenia accepted Christianity in 301 CE, beating Constantine’s baptism by 36 years. Zooming through the millennia, in too few years of which Armenia was independent, brings us to 1915 through 1917 and the Armenian Genocide by the Turks, which the present Turkish government refuses to recognize as genocide, and which too many people of the world know nothing about. After World War I, the First Republic of Armenia, like a virtual particle, shimmered into and then out of existence. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the present Republic of Armenia came to be. For learning more about Armenia and Armenians, I suggest Wikipedia, but, more interesting, two works of fiction: William Saroyan’s My Name is Aram, a very funny but also beautiful collection of linked stories following an Armenian boy in Fresno, California from childhood to young manhood, and Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet, the first volume of which ends with the Great Fire of Smyrna. I have not yet read Franz Werfel‘s Forty Days of Musa Dagh, but it is now on my reading list.
So what is Armenian food all about? Based on the two cookbooks that I have, the food is very much like the food of the neighboring countries. Armenians seem to eat a lot of yogurt and a lot of lamb, and are also quite fond of butter. Both cookbooks have an abundance of vegetable recipes, perhaps related to Armenia’s early embrace of Christianity, and so a plentitude of Lenten recipes. Bulgur wheat often makes an appearance. Aleppo pepper is a frequently used ingredient in Victoria Wise’s cookbook. The desserts, unlike many Middle Eastern desserts, actually suited my taste by not being too cloyingly sweet. According to Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food Armenian cuisine may have influenced other cuisines more than others influenced Armenian cuisine. This might explain why I found myself making Armenian pizza, Armenian rugelach, Armenian eggplant Parmesan, Armenian Texas caviar, and Armenian bundt cake.
My copy of The Cuisine of Armenia by Sonia Uvezian is a paperback edition (1985) with the text of the original 1974 edition; the Amazon link is to the 3rd revised edition, 2004. As far as I can determine by using the Amazon “look inside” feature, the main change in the later edition is the inclusion of more recipes. From the multiple editions, and the fact that this book is still in print, we may assume that this is a successful book. My paperback has laudatory blurbs on the back from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Jean Anderson, Mimi Sheraton, and no less than the Cultural Committee of the Soviet Armenian Government. The Amazon customer reviews of the 3rd edition are almost all positive; the main point of the few negative customer reviews is that the book is old. And old and dated, at least by cookbook standards, this book is. There are no pictures of the food (just drawings on the chapter title pages), the font and format are not that attractive, and the recipe introductions are brief or nonexistent. The recipes themselves look just fine though; since there is no reliance on convenience products there is nothing to date these recipes. There are lots of recipes: approximately twice the number in the other book of this post. Although there are many meat recipes, I had no problem finding vegetarian recipes to try. Sonia’s five page introduction on Armenia and its food is short, but gives a good overview of the cuisine into which we are about to dive. (Note: all page numbers refer to the earlier edition.)
“Tomato Soup with Wheat” (page 29) was one of those delightful recipes that turn out better than anticipated. On first reading, this looked like a basic tomato soup with bulgur and spinach. But with butter, lemon, and mint this soup became more than ordinary, and I didn’t even have to rely on Better then Bullion for taste. It seemed that we were eating something very Armenian with this soup. [Go to the recipe.]
The modifier “fried” in “Fried Onion and Wheat Patties” applies only to the onion, not the patties. Had I read the recipe more carefully, this might not have been one of my picks. After the onions have been fried, they are combined with canned tomatoes and bulgur; the mixture rests while the bulgur softens. The recipe called for fine bulgur, which the groceries that I usually frequent do not carry, and so I used coarse bulgur, which did not soften as readily as the fine bulgur might have. Eventually, after adding more liquid, I decided that the bulgur was soft enough. The next step was to add the rest of the ingredients (such as finely chopped green pepper, scallions, and mint) and knead for seven minutes. I just whizzed everything in the food processor until it was mushy enough to form into patties. That is it, except for decorating the patties with more of the finely chopped green pepper, etc. This was a very pretty dish but more salady that I had wanted. The taste was like solid tabouli; I was not that wild about this dish, but our guests gobbled it up.
When I am sick or need to fill a certain comfort quota, forget the chicken soup (we have a dairy kitchen anyway); what I crave is buttered noodles, possibly with a little cheese. This desire for comfort and well-being drew me to the noodle dishes. Sonia offers “Noodles with Rice” (page 240) with a lot of butter: starch, starch, and grease! Next comes “Noodles and Cheese Bake” (page 241): starch, grease, and a little bit of protein! But I wasn’t in need of too much comfort, so I picked “Noodles and Spinach Bake” (page 241) to try. There is quite a lot of starch and grease in this dish too, but there is also a layer of a pound of spinach, so there are a few more redeeming qualities (other than taste and satiety) here. Armenians are certainly onto something with their fondness for butter. I thought this was great dish, and would have liked more leftovers.
For “Baked Eggplant with Cheese” (page 274), you top slices of eggplant with cheese, then tomato slices and butter and bake. I had several problems in making this recipe, and although I ended up with a very tasty dish, I am not sure that it had much resemblance to what Sonia had in mind. To begin with, the amount of quarter inch slices from a large eggplant would not fit in one layer on any baking dish I had. Therefore I made two layers of eggplant in a large baking dish. I hated to use slices of tasteless winter tomatoes, so I just used canned tomatoes, and used more than the equivalent of the two large tomatoes called for. The biggest problem, though, was that 40 minutes at 325º was not sufficient to cook the eggplant. Even after an hour and a half at this temperature the eggplant was not soft. So I left the eggplant in the oven while I turned up the temperature and cooked the lavosh. Finally the eggplant cooked, and was very flavorful. Comparing this to other eggplant and tomato sauce recipes, I do not mind at all cooking the eggplant for a long time in the oven if that means I do not have first to fool with salting, breading, and frying (in copious amounts of olive oil).
“Armenian Cheese Pies” (page 246) can best be described as Armenian pizza. The dough is a soft butter dough. The topping is a tomato sauce with cheese mixed into the sauce. I like this idea, since it avoids crusty over-baked cheese on top. Sonia recommends Monterey Jack cheese, which I assume is an approximation to the actual Armenian cheese used. I thought these were very good; my only complaint was that the crust was not a chewy pizza crust, but I should not have been expecting a chewy crust. Danny was less impressed than I was, but liked them more the second day.
“Walnut Pastry” (page 325) also has a more familiar (at least to me) counterpart: these are like Armenian rugelach. A buttery pastry is rolled into a circle, covered with a nut and raisin filling, cut into wedges, and the wedges are rolled up. The interesting thing about these cookies is that there is no sugar in the dough; all the sweetness is in the filling. The dough is buttery, but is probably less fatty than most rugelach doughs. These cookies are neither as complex in execution or in taste as the rugelach I usually make, but they are good cookies and even better on the second day.
Victoria Jenanyan Wise has been a prominent figure in the West Coast food world for some time: she cooked the first meal at Chez Panisse, owned and operated her own deli/charcuterie, Pig-by-the-Tail, and has written numerous cookbooks, often with coauthor Susan Hoffman (their most recent being Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors). In The Armenian Table, Victoria taps into her Armenian heritage. This is a much more nicely produced book than The Cuisine of Armenia: it has a sophisticated black cover, each recipe on a one or two page spread, and illustrations: black and white pictures of the author’s Armenian family throughout, and a few pages of color food photographs (by Victoria’s husband) stuck in the middle. The recipes all have brief introductions which are non-vacuous: they may expand on technique or ingredients, give background information on the recipe, or offer serving suggestions. The introductory prose to the book itself and to the various chapters offer personal stories from Victoria’s life; if one wants to learn about Armenia and its food, The Cuisine of Armenia is a better source. The recipes themselves are quite similar to the recipes of the other cookbook, the main difference being that there are only about half as many. (I love examining author photos on book jacket flaps. In the separate photos of Victoria and her husband Rick, they both strangely have their fingers hovering by their mouths. What could this mean?)
I decided to make “Yogurt Cheese Balls Marinated in Garlic Dill Oil with Aleppo Pepper” (page 50) after seeing the picture in the color spread. These are supposed to be eaten with lavosh, so the picture also motivated my attempt at the lavosh recipe. The idea here is to drain yogurt, mix it with a little salt, then drain some more. After that you form little cheese balls and roll them in the garlic dill oil pepper sauce. The problem was that, although I let the yogurt drain for almost two days, it never got solid enough to form into balls. I just ended up spreading the thick cheese in a bowl and putting the oil sauce on top. Victoria suggests serving this with lavosh, which I did, and it proved very popular.
For years I disliked black-eyed peas and thought that they tasted like mud, but then Sara B taught me to cook black-eyed peas with just a pinch of sugar. I am now quite fond of these legumes and particularly appreciate being able to cook them in a short time without presoaking. I like having black-eyed pea recipes in the repertoire since they are traditional for New Year’s: both January 1 and Rosh Hashanah. I do not know the role of black-eyed peas in Armenian tradition, but “Black-Eyed Pea Salad with Black Olives and Tomatoes” (page 92) looked like a good recipe, as indeed it was. The olives differentiate this salad from Texas caviar, but otherwise there are many similarities.
“Oven-Poached Eggs on a Bed of Spinach and Yogurt” (page 193), although not that exciting, is a dish that I may well incorporate into the permanent repertoire: it is easy, quick, and (at least according to my standards) healthy. Sauté onion in butter; I added garlic, which was not in the original recipe. Toss in some spinach, and let it wilt down (Victoria cooks the spinach separately). Stir in a little bit of yogurt and some chopped dill. Victoria then prepares a bed of spinach in individual ramekins, breaks an egg onto the beds, and sticks the eggs and spinach in the oven. I just left the spinach in the pan and broke eggs on top, added a little cheese, then covered and cooked. I found this a very satisfying way to eat eggs.
I have often looked longingly at recipes for Middle Eastern meatballs of meat (usually lamb) and bulgur: kibbe, or, as they say in Armenia, kufta. I have tried vegetarian versions, but never with particularly great results. When I saw the recipe for “Whitefish Kuftas” (page 119), I was pleased: perhaps fish could be my entrée into the kibbe-kufta world. These fish balls seemed to have certain similarities to gefilte fish: ground fish, with bulgur instead of matzoh meal as a starch binder, and with different flavorings: instead of onion and carrots, these kuftas had tarragon, lemon, and Aleppo pepper. The preparation was easy enough. After soaking and draining the bulgur, I tossed it in the food processor with the fish and flavorings and pulsed until the fish was broken up and all was combined. Then I formed round little patties; after letting them sit a while to firm up, I fried them in olive oil. The result was strangely tasteless. Danny suggested that they might be good with ketchup, but then realized that the tomato jam (from Everyday Greens) with which I was serving the fish balls was very ketchup-like. The recipe suggested using sea bass or halibut; I used cod, which might not have been the best choice, as Armenia is not that near the north Atlantic. Trout might have been a good choice of fish; the trout from Lake Sevan is prized in Armenia. Victoria includes a photo of her mother, perhaps remembering that Lake Sevan trout, trout-fishing with toddler Victoria looking on.
“Armenian Cracker Bread” (page 63), or lavosh, has become a familiar product, at least in well-stocked groceries. Victoria’s version is a simple bread dough with a high enough fat content to need no flour when being rolled out. The dough is rolled out very thinly, moistened and topped with seeds, then baked in a hot oven. I put my rounds on a parchment lined baking sheet and put the baking sheet directly on the pizza stone in my oven. The recipe makes six loaves. My only problem with the recipe is that I could only cook one at a time. Three I topped with sesame seeds, one with salt, one with pepper, and one with Aleppo pepper. Immediately after cooking, these were quite yummy plain and unadorned, but on the second day they were at an uncomfortable stage between crisp and chewy, but still quite suitable for spreading things on. [Go to the recipe.]
Danny likes poppy seeds and I have been meaning to try an olive oil cake for some time, so “Poppy Seed Cake with Olive and Walnut Oil” was a likely recipe to try. Furthermore, cakes with high fat content freeze well, and these days, with just two of us at home, we cannot eat a whole cake. This cake, though, had an awfully high fat content and I cut down the oil by a quarter cup. The cake was quite good for those who like poppy seeds. I thought it needed something extra. Victoria suggests serving the cake with sweetened yogurt cheese; this I did, and it was quite a satisfactory accompaniment.
Both of these cookbooks had good recipes, but the recipes I really liked (the soup, the eggplant, the noodles, and the Armenian rugelach) all came from The Cuisine of Armenia which also had more recipes and more general information about Armenian food. This more than made up for the book’s lack of physical beauty.
Armenian Tomato Soup
Adapted from Sonia Uvezian, The Cuisine of Armenia
3 tablespoons butter
1 15-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes
½ cup bulgur
4 cups water
5-8 ounces spinach
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Juice of 1 lemon
Leaves from several mint sprigs, minced
Melt the butter, add the tomatoes, and cook for a few minutes. Add the bulgur, water, spinach, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the lemon juice and mint and simmer for a few more minutes.
Adapted from Victoria Jenanyan Wise, The Armenian Table
3½ cups flour
1½ teaspoons sugar
2½ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast (e.g., SAF)
1 cup water
4 tablespoons butter, melted and slightly cooled
Sesame seeds or other toppings
Place the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in the bowl of your food processor. With the motor running, pour in the water. When combined, stop the food processor and pour the melted butter over the dough. Process for about another minute, adding water if needed to bring the dough ball together.
Place the ball of dough in a bowl, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 400º. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Divide the dough into six balls. Work with one ball at a time while leaving the others covered. Roll the ball into a 10 inch diameter circle. This will seem impossible, but it is not. Sprinkle some water on the dough disc and then sprinkle on some sesame seeds or whatever other topping you want. Put the dough disc on the parchment paper, and place the baking sheet in the oven, on top of a pizza stone if you have one, on the lowest shelf otherwise. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the bread browns in spots. It will still be quite light when done. Put the bread on a rack, and cook the next one.