Aveluk (sorrel) is widely used in Armenian cuisine / Photo: Gayane Tonoyan
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While visiting a country, one of the most powerful indicators of culture is the national cuisine and the way locals serve and eat it. In Japan, for instance, table manners reflect the respect the Japanese have for the host, for their traditions and rules. In India, on the other hand, it is a bad manner to eat with your left hand for it is considered unclean, or not finish your meal because they avoid wasting food.
In Armenia, when offered to join a table, it is always advisable (when at all possible) to take the host upon the offer not to offend their feelings. When you are invited to a family dinner, you should know that the cook, usually the lady in the home, takes great pride in the dishes she makes so giving her a compliment will get you extra points. Additionally, if one of the Armenians in the group offers to pay the bill for the entire table, it is useless to argue, just accept it as a gesture of friendship.
This is a mini introduction to the ‘table etiquette’ in Armenia. Now let’s see what delicious dishes you can savor in Armenia and where exactly they are served in capital Yerevan.
1. ZHENGYALOV HATS
Zhengyalov hats / Photo: Viktorya Mirzoyan
I’m starting the list with Zhengyalov Hats (Jingyalov Hac or Zhengyalav Hats in Artsakh accent), because it has a special place in my heart. My grandmother from my father’s side was an authentic Karabakhtsi (indigenous resident of Karabakh) and her specialty dish was of course Zhengyalav Hats. It was always a special day. Close relatives got a call early in the morning. “Big Mama Ashkhen is making Zhengyalav today, come over!”
Just to think how much love and effort went into that piece of pastry filled with herbs, shaped with her caring hands. She’d wake up early in the morning at sunrise and go to the gorge. Only she knew all the types of herbs that went into her masterpiece (some in our family say about 40!). She’d collect greens the names of which made us children burst in laughter breaking our tongues to pronounce them - chrchruk, kndzmndzuk, timtinok, trtnjuk, simsimok, pravu port, pttapashar… should we go on? None of us waited for it to cool, biting into that right off the stove, burning our tongues and letting the juices run over our faces, the taste of childhood.
I’m not going to give you a recipe, because it would be a lie. You can find dozens of recipes of this favorite Armenian dish online, all adapted to individual preferences of the cook living in all 4 corners of the world. You can even try to make it, although it takes practice and years of experience to get that most balanced combination of all flavors of the herbs that go into it, or you can check out one of the best places offering the dish in Yerevan. It won’t be my Big Mama Ashkhen’s Zhengyalav, but this is the best I can have now. Try it at specialized Zhengyalov Hats restaurant on 62 Teryan St. (Phone: (+374 10) 582-205.)
Ghavurma / Photo: Viktorya Mirzoyan
Armenians have been known for working hard during the year to prepare for our cold winters, especially before the rapid industrialization over the past few decades. There are still many households, particularly in rural areas, which go by this rule. Canning food to survive winter has been a widespread practice. Ghavurma is the dish that best represents this tradition.
Meat, usually lamb, is cleaned, salted, left to season in salt, then cooked (boiled/fried) and canned or kept in clay pots in its own grease to be later opened, warmed up and served with various sides like potatoes, rice or pilaf. Although the preparation process doesn’t seem so sophisticated, the dish is very delicious and is one of the locals’ favorites. Here’s where to try it at Salon Yerevan on 8 Abovyan St. (Phone: (+374 11) 443-333.)
Armenian khashlama / Photo: Faina Idea
This traditional Armenian dish is as mouthwatering as it is simple. Experienced khashlama makers know the exact amount of meat (usually lamb), traditional Armenian vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and herbs that go into it. There is also a specific order of stacking all these different ingredients in the pot to cook to ideal taste and flavor. Sprinkle freshly chopped greens and warm up with this hearty family food. Try it at Tufenkian Kharpert Restaurant on 48 Hanrapetutyan St. (Phone: (+374 60) 501-030.)
4. AVELUK SOUP
Aveluk soup / Photo: Viktorya Mirzoyan
Aveluk (sorrel) is one of the herbs that Armenians consider their own and an integral part of their traditional cuisine. The practice is to collect wildly growing aveluk, braid it and dry for further use. You can often see those braids being sold in markets. Aveluk is used for soups, second dishes topped with Armenian yogurt, in salads and such.
The soup is usually made with aveluk, some onions, walnuts and spices and has a very unique aroma. It is a favorite dish and not surprisingly. The benefits of this herb are countless and the soup can be made all year round. Try it at (a higher price range restaurant, but definitely a must-try) at 10 Pushkin St. (Phone: (+374 10) 561-354.)
Armenian pakhlava/ Photo: Viktorya Mirzoyan
And finally, try bakhlava, or, as Armenians pronounce it, pakhlava for dessert! It is probably the most famous of desserts that Armenians adore. It goes well with a cup of tea, American brewed coffee and milk. It is usually made with care from numerous layers of pastry dough filled with nuts and soaked honey and comes in a variety of shapes, but mostly diamond shaped.
One warning though: If you want to try it, don’t get full during your meal because this pastry is so fulfilling that is has all the potential to deprive you of hunger for at least a couple of hours. Satisfy your sweet tooth at Tospia Restaurant on 30/3 Tumanyan St. (Phone: (+374-10) 600-007.)
If you liked the selection, tried the dishes and want more recommendations, feel free to check out 5 Best Traditional Armenian Dishes and Where to Try Them: Part 2.