Armenian cuisine’s complexity

| September 27, 2015 | 0 Comments
Chicken with Dried Fruit and Spice (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

Chicken with Dried Fruit and Spice (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

Bordered by the Caucasus and other mountain ranges, Armenia, more or less a high plateau, enjoys fertile soil, a basically temperate climate — though punctuated by extremes — and stunning scenery with many lakes and rivers. Indeed, the country, land of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, can trace its existence from ancient times, as it lies in a valley at the foot of Mount Ararat, which the Bible regards as the landing site of Noah’s Ark after the deluge. Little wonder that some Armenian culinary traditions began more than 2,000 years ago. Indeed, excavations have revealed a well-established agricultural system practised during the Urartu Kingdom (900-700 BC). This supports the notion that the abundance of meat in the Armenian diet finds its roots in the development of ancient cattle-breeding and the early introduction of sheep and fowl. Of course, livestock provided dairy products, mainly sour-milk products and brine-ripened cheese, considered essential for traditional Armenian drinks and dishes. Fish, wild animals and game birds were also consumed.
In its fertile valleys, early agricultural advancements introduced myriad cereals (wheat, barley, rice, spelt and millet). Besides various sorts of breads, beer was produced from the grains. Other crops included lentils, beans and mountain peas, plus a wide range of vegetables and greens. Ancient cooking involved many herbs and spices. In addition to grapes for eating and wine-making, the cultivation of many other fruits began and included apricots, peaches and cherries, which reportedly originated in Armenia.
Maria Yeganian, wife of Armenian Ambassador Armen Yeganian, points out that the Latin name for apricot is prunus armeniaca. “For Armenia, the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion
(AD 301), rice pilaf studded with dried apricots and raisins is a must for the Easter menu,” she says.
Situated strategically on trade routes between the Black and Caspian seas, Armenia for centuries proved to be the battleground of armies from the east and the west. Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Turks and Russians all invaded. With these invasions and the dispersion of Armenians, primarily in the desperately troubled years at the beginning of the 20th Century, it’s no wonder Armenia’s richly varied cuisine embraces culinary traditions begun millenniums ago, as well as the assimilation of dishes from the imprint left by several other cultures (particularly Turkish, Persian, Georgian and Middle Eastern). On the other hand, with the dispersion of Armenians throughout the Middle East, Armenian recipes have become part of those cuisines and vice versa.

Exotic cuisine built on basic elements
With old recipes handed down through centuries, food has always been a cornerstone of Armenian culture. In the true Armenian kitchen, the natural tendency is to prepare dishes according to the season (as has been done forever), taking advantage of the freshest meats, vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices. The extensive use of fresh herbs — dried in the winter — in dishes, or as accompaniments, and the inclusion of spices — although more sparingly than Middle Eastern cuisine — elevates the flavour of Armenian cuisine to the height of “exotic.” While parsley, mint, cilantro and dill are the most common, other herbs include bay leaves, oregano, basil, savoury, marjoram and thyme. Everyday spices range from black peppercorns, paprika, cayenne and Aleppo pepper to cumin, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, caraway, coriander, nutmeg, saffron and turmeric. More unique spices include fenugreek (pleasantly bitter and slightly sweet seeds of the aromatic plant are ground and used to flavour spice blends, curry powder and teas); mahlab (ground dried pits of black cherries used in breads and cakes); sumac (red berries of a non-toxic variety of sumac shrubs give a lemony edge to fish, poultry, marinades and sauces) and nigella (black onion seeds season strong cheese and top savoury rolls and bread). Fragrant extracts offer another very distinct flavour dimension to certain recipes. Orange flower water is a feature ingredient in syrups for soaking cakes, and rose water is used in sweets, beef stews and meat kuftas (meatballs or meatloaf). In addition, sour elements play their role. Lemon juice and cider vinegar lend a sharp acidic taste to food, but pomegranate syrup, the juice of sour pomegranates boiled down to a molasses consistency, and verjuice, made from pressing sour unripened grapes, offer a soft, fruity acidic note essential in marinades and sauces.
As in ancient Urartu, dairy products are held in high esteem. Matzoon, thick sour milk/yogurt, also functions as a base for making spas, which are sour milk soups with wheat cereal and herbs, usually cilantro. When diluted with water in the summer, matzoon becomes tahn, a thirst-quenching drink. Zhazhik, a cottage cheese, is made from matzoon whey. Cheese, still a staple of the Armenian diet, accompanies virtually every meal, while labneh (a strained dense yogurt), is served as an appetizer with olive oil and spices. Among the many varieties of cheese produced from cow, sheep and water buffalo milk, are brindze, a white sheep’s milk cheese similar to feta, and the best known, twisted chechil, a briny string cheese.
Lamb, eggplant and bread represent other important basics. Maria Yeganian proudly notes that lavash, the very thin Armenian bread, has UNESCO cultural heritage status.
Although beef, veal and pork are also consumed, lamb is the meat of choice. Besides onions, garlic and leeks, the list of vegetables runs long and includes eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, okra, zucchini, squash, pumpkin, beans, peas, spinach and Swiss chard. Eggplant dominates, however. Note: This one simple vegetable can offer a gamut of rich Armenian culinary experiences, including moussaka, a baked dish of spiced ground meat, generally lamb, between layers of sliced eggplant. And despite the fact that potatoes, meat and vegetables in combination hold a prominent place in the nation’s cuisine, bulgur and rice lead as the most widely used cereals. The consumption of legumes, particularly chickpeas, lentils, white beans and kidney beans, as well as nuts, including walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, hazelnuts and pistachios, has always been significant, notably during Lent. Armenians enjoy figs, plums, apricots, peaches, pears, grapes, cherries and pomegranates fresh, as a dessert or snack, dried, or in tempting recipes including savoury varieties, such as vospadour, a lentil soup with dried fruits and ground walnuts, and t’ghit, an old traditional and special soup of boiled sour plum leather, based on dry thin sheets of a reduction of plums and sugar, and fried onions served hot and topped with fresh lavash for scooping up the mixture.

Cooking techniques
The preferred method of cooking, be it for meat, fowl, fish or game, is on a spit over a wood fire, as has been done for thousands of years, including cooking in a tonir, a clay underground type of oven resembling a shallow well. This open-well type of oven allows home cooks to bake bread on the inside wall, roast and cook meat, poultry, fish and vegetables on grill racks arranged across the top, on skewers hung from those racks, or by placing food in cookware directly over the hot embers and even prepare stews, soups and other dishes. Of course, more recently, and likely to the delight of home cooks around the country, stoves have found their way into Armenian kitchens.
Complexity of Armenian cuisine
Classified as rather complex, many Armenian cooking techniques demand a significant amount of time and effort in the preparation of meat, fish and vegetable dishes. They often involve chopping, stuffing, puréeing and whipping. Armenians enjoy dishes made of chopped meat and all manner of stuffed dishes.
Virtually any cut of meat, vegetables, fruit or leaf can be stuffed. This includes chicken legs, rack of lamb, beef lungs, lamb intestines, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, zucchini, onions, potatoes, pumpkins, apricots, apples, quince, dates and basically any type of edible leaf, including grape, cabbage, beet, chard and strawberry.
Stuffed dishes tend to highlight festive occasions. Typically, stuffings consist of bulgur wheat or rice combined with ground meat or a variety of legumes and pulses, herbs, spices, dried fruits and nuts. Boraki, a dish made of meat, cheese or vegetables stuffed in pastry, dates back 1,500 years and remains a favourite appetizer.
In addition, the actual cooking processes themselves can be time-consuming and labour-intensive, often with the same dish being roasted, boiled and stewed in a tonir, which delivers that exquisite melt-in-the-mouth experience.

Armenian specialties
At the dinner table, Armenians commence with meza — their term for appetizers — which consists of various sharing plates of different hot and cold items served in small quantities, traditionally meant to be enjoyed leisurely and to absorb the strong fruit-based vodka-type local liquor.
The array may truly be grand: roasted salted nuts, olives, hummus, chechil, chopped and mashed eggplant with tahini and spices; sliced yershig, which is a sausage; sujuk, a pastrami-like item similar to beef jerky; a large plate of greens including fresh herbs; salads made of tomato, cucumber, carrot and cabbage, some combined with a grain, legume or pita bread; a couple of tomato- or yogurt-based sauces, and more. The works will be served with lavash.
The second course — soup — is said to be cooked with such talent that it becomes memorable. Besides spas, vospapour and t’ghit, the variety of soups — with a base of red meat, chicken, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, lentils, beans, mushrooms, cereals, rice or milk — seems endless.
Meat and fish soups not only include vegetables, but fruits such as apples, cherries, plums, lemons, quinces, pomegranate seeds, raisins and dried apricots.
Two dishes that go somewhat beyond the category of soups — khash and harissa — deserve special mention. Rich, fragrant, thick and nutritious, khash, an Armenian institution, was initially a worker’s meal enjoyed in the winter. It requires cooking pork hocks, beef or lamb feet all night in a clear broth with herbs before eating it for breakfast, poured over crumbled dried lavash and heaps of fresh garlic.
Harissa, on the other hand, resembles a porridge of coarsely ground wheat and meat — frequently deboned shredded chicken — cooked together for a long time, originally in a tonir, but now on a stovetop.
Main courses include meat, chicken or fish, with grilling and barbecuing being very popular.
Khorvats, which means grilled or barbecued in Armenian, is most representative of the nation’s cuisine. Khorvats and kchuch, a casserole of mixed vegetables topped with pieces of meat or fish, baked and served in a clay pot, are simple dishes dating back more than one-and-a-half millenniums. These casseroles continue to be cooked in the same manner today. A typical khorvats would be chunks of meat grilled on skewers; however, steaks and chops — lamb and pork with bone-in — are grilled on grates. The term khorvats also applies to kebabs — uncased sausage-shaped patties of ground meat formed around skewers — slivered grilled meat rolled up in lavash, as well as grilled fish and vegetables.
Ishkhan or imperial fish, which is Lake Sevan trout renowned for its delicate flavour; sig, considered the tastiest; and pollan count as the most widely consumed fish.
Other national dishes include stews such as fasulye with lamb, green beans and tomato broth, and ghapama, a stuffed-pumpkin dish; delectable chicken dishes such as satsivi, pieces of roasted chicken in walnut sauce; organ meats, such as tisvzhik, fried beef heart, kidney, liver; lentil and rice dishes; dolma (a variety of leaves, vegetables and fruit stuffed with a spiced meat and rice filling); and kufta, tender meat balls.
While ice cream is definitely popular, dessert normally consists of fruits and cheese with pastries such as baklava, kurabia or kadayif reserved for special occasions.
Now, I invite you to try my Armenian chicken with dried fruit.
Bon Appétit! Bari Akhorjhak!
Chicken with Dried Fruit and Spice
Makes 6 servings

6 four-ounce (115 g) boneless chicken thighs
To taste, salt and crushed black peppercorns
2 tsp (10 mL) vegetable oil
2/3 tsp (3.5 mL) ground cinnamon
1/3 tsp (2 mL) ground nutmeg
1/3 cup (80 mL) hot water
18  small prunes, pitted
18  small dried apricots, pitted
½ cup (125 mL) seedless golden raisins
1 tbsp (15 mL) butter
6 sprigs of fresh mint

1. Dry chicken thighs with paper towel and sprinkle with salt and crushed black peppercorns.
2. Heat oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat, add chicken thighs, skin side down, and brown both sides.
3. Transfer thighs to a clean skillet and sprinkle both sides evenly with cinnamon and nutmeg. With skin side up, drizzle the sautéed thighs with the liquid remaining in the first skillet, leaving the crispy bottom bits behind.
4. Add hot water to skillet, return to low heat, cover and allow thighs to simmer for about six minutes.
5. Meanwhile, melt butter in a small skillet over low heat. Add prunes, apricots and raisins and sauté for a couple of minutes (stirring constantly) before adding to skillet with thighs. Continue simmering for a few minutes until thighs are tender.
6. Serve thighs and fruit over a rice pilaf. (If desired, toss the pilaf with pomegranate seeds and toasted slivered almonds.  Garnish with sprigs of fresh mint.)

Margaret Dickenson is a cookbook author, TV host, menu/recipe developer, protocol, business and etiquette instructor. (

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Category: Delights

About the Author ()

Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *