Takeaway

Armenia on a platter

Raul Dias | Updated on April 27, 2021

Sweet staples: With a delicate and almost milky taste, gata is a multi-layered cake, each layer of which is saturated with melted butter and sugar   -  ISTOCK.COM

An exotic pastiche of sorts, Armenia’s food is a subtly-influenced cuisine that retains a flavour of its own

*The pomegranate is not just seen in Armenian dishes in all its avatars — dried seeds, molasses etc — but one that is a de facto social, cultural and political symbol

* The barbecue-like dish that’s grilled on huge metallic skewers over a charcoal fire called a manghal is similar to what we know as kebabs or as shashlik in Russia.

* Another preparation that not many know of as an Armenian invention is the crisp and yummy flatbread called lavash

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“I am a disco dancer,” the stall owner with the sparkliest of eyes I have ever seen starts singing to me when she learns that I am from India. A self-confessed Mithun Chakraborty fan, she begins to quiz me about the aged star the way an acquaintance, say, would ask about your favourite uncle. Not very Bollywood-savvy, I fob her questions off with a sheepish shrug and a weak smile...

Garland of Glory

It’s a rather torrid afternoon as I find myself enraptured with all things exotic and unusual at the GUM Food Market. This landmark is a gargantuan covered market, a little out of the main city centre of Armenia’s compact capital Yerevan. It’s my very first day in what is perhaps the most iconic of all the countries in the Caucasus and I’m ravenous, both in the literal sense and metaphorically, as I try to cram in every single morsel of information about this fascinating country. But more pertinently today, it’s food.

Speaking of which, the aforementioned stall owner insists on plying me with one sample after the other of an assortment of delicacies. “This one here is Armenian Snickers,” she laughs as she hands me a generous nugget of a dry fruit-filled sujuk to try. Made up of a string of dried walnut halves, dipped in a thick pomegranate jam-like syrup and left to harden, these divine tasting treats, priced around ₹100 for 250g, make for a great snack. Which is why I make sure to pack up several yards of the stuff to take back home with me.

A few feet away, at another stall, a portly man of indeterminate age indulges me with a few slices of another iteration of sujuk. Only this one isn’t remotely sweet or Snickers-like. Made with a mixture of pork and beef mince, this savoury garland of sujuk — which I soon learn is the generic Armenian term for sausages of all kinds — is a salty, umami-rich, meaty burst of flavour.

Along the same lines, basturma is what I am lovingly offered next. Here, a piece of dried, salted beef is preserved under a fat, protective layer of salt and spices such as cumin and paprika. These help in curing the meat till it achieves a jerky-like rubbery texture that my molars aren’t a big fan of!

I am quickly handed a small glass (free, again!) of the sweet and super-potent pomegranate wine to wash it all down with. Fitting, as the pomegranate is not just seen in a plethora of Armenian dishes in all its avatars — dried seeds, molasses etc — but one that is a de facto social, cultural and political symbol. One that is found on crests, emblems and other official signage across the country. And, yes, on the odd tacky souvenir too!

Borrowed Bites

As I travel across Armenia over the next few days, I am constantly reminded of how similar and recognisable some of the dishes in its culinary repertoire are. Take for instance the delicious and smoky khorovats that I eat at a tiny restaurant on the banks of the placid Lake Sevan. Made with either lamb or pork, this barbecue-like dish that’s grilled on huge metallic skewers over a charcoal fire called a manghal is similar to what we know as kebabs or as shashlik in Russia. As part of the former USSR, Armenia has adapted this dish using minimal seasoning — so as to let the meatiness shine through — to suit the local taste.

The same can be said of neighbouring Georgian dishes that have been adapted, like the khachapuri and the khinkali. While the former is an eye-shaped flatbread stuffed with cheese with an egg at its core, the latter is a steamed, meat-stuffed dumpling. These came to become popular in Armenia after its displaced diaspora brought back some Georgian dishes with them post independence in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

And speaking of steamed, the Armenian manti dumplings stuffed with minced lamb or beef and smothered with either garlic-yogurt or tomato sauce is known multifariously as mandi, mandu or mante right from far western Pakistan to Iran. It can even be found in central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The dolma or tolma as it is known in Armenian is another well-travelled dish that’s also found all over the Levant and Greece. Here, minced meat is mixed with rice and herbs and then wrapped in fresh grape leaves. Then it is steamed and served as an appetiser.

Traditional Tastes

However, it would be incorrect to say that all Armenian food is borrowed or at the very least inspired! At Tavern Yerevan, one of the city’s most popular restaurants serving traditional Armenian fare, I am introduced to the unusual flavours of one of the most iconic Armenian dishes — khash. This hearty, funky tasting soup is made from beef hooves and tripe. Traditionally Armenians eat khash in the early morning, before breakfast, adding chopped garlic and plenty of spicy greens.

Another preparation that not many know of as an Armenian invention is the crisp and yummy flatbread called lavash. At a cookery class I sign up for in the shadow of the Greco-Roman Garni Temple in the village of the same name, I learn that lavash is very simple to prepare. Just three ingredients — wheat flour, salt and water — are mixed and baked in an oven called a tonir that is a dead ringer for the South Asian tandoor. This bread forms the base of the ubiquitous and divine tasting lahmajun or ‘Armenian pizza’ — cheeseless and topped with minced meat, garlic and sweet onions, priced around ₹80.

I end my tryst with Armenia’s baked goodies with a bag of two dozen flaky gata that I purchase at a local bakery once back in Yerevan to catch my flight back home. Imbued with a delicate and almost milky taste, gata is a multi-layered cake, each layer of which is saturated with melted butter and sugar. Though generally made into huge round discs, embellished with the luxurious, swirly alphabet of the Armenian script, one can also get smaller, individually wrapped bars of gata (around ₹10) like I did to bring back home to Mumbai.

Once back, I realise my folly and regret rears its ugly head. “Why just two dozen?” is a question that will haunt me forever.

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Published on April 27, 2021

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