Armenia’s climate and geography have had a significant impact on its cuisine, as the country’s mountainous terrain and continental climate have influenced the types of foods that are grown and consumed. The cuisine has also been affected by culinary imports from neighboring cultures.
Armenia’s Local Ingredients
Due to its high altitude and dry climate, Armenia has a relatively short growing season, and the country’s cuisine is heavily dependent on hardy crops like grains and legumes. Wheat, barley, and bulgur are staple grains in Armenian cuisine, and they are used in a variety of dishes, including bread, soups, and stews. Meat, particularly lamb and beef, which have long been raised on the country’s mountainous slopes also features prominently in the cuisine, although a surprising number of traditional vegetarian dishes can also be found in Armenia.
The sudden changes of elevation in the Caucasus create a series of microclimates, meaning that a large range of fruits, vegetables, as well as native herbs and spices grow well and have been absorbed into the local dishes. Armenia is known regionally for its apricots, cherries, peaches, grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and eggplants. These ingredients are often used to create fresh and flavorful salads, as well as in stews and meat dishes.
Local flavors that dominate Armenian cuisine include sour flavors from ingredients such as pomegranate, tamarind, and sumac. Pomegranates are a particularly important fruit in Armenian cuisine, and they are used in a variety of dishes, from salads to stews, and even to make a traditional pomegranate molasses called narsharab that, in turn, is used in a variety of dishes.
Armenia’s mountainous regions also produce thyme, oregano, mint, tarragon, and basil. These herbs are often used to add flavor to dishes and are also used to make teas and infusions. Coriander and caraway can also be found and paprika is produced from locally grown peppers. These ingredients are used to create aromatic spice blends such as that found in basturma, a dried and cured beef that is seasoned with a mixture of spices, including cumin, garlic, and paprika.
Cumin may have been at first a foreign import, possibly first arriving via the Silk Road, branches of which once passed through Armenia. Cumin is now heavily featured in Armenian cooking.
International Influences on Armenian Cuisine
Armenian cuisine also shares much in common with Turkish and Persian cuisines, as Armenia has a long history of interaction with these cultures through war and trade. For instance, all three cuisines share some version of pilaf, shish kabob, dolma, and baklava among their beloved national dishes. Nearly all of these are also featured in Azerbaijani and Georgian cooking, which have considerable shared history and long cultural interaction with Armenia.
Russian cuisine is also readily available in Armenia. However, Russian influence has been much more modern and rarely are Russian dishes like borscht or Olivier Salad considered to be Armenian dishes, although Armenians might often eat them and enjoy them. These dishes can be particularly easily found in Yerevan where much of Armenia’s significant Russian population lives and where most Russian tourists visit.
Below are brief descriptions of the traditional dishes that Armenians hold most dear.
Wine in Armenia
Armenia perhaps takes most pride in its wine. Armenia has a long history of winemaking, dating back more than 6,000 years, making Armenia one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world. Today, Armenian wine culture is experiencing a renaissance, with a growing number of wineries and wine enthusiasts promoting and celebrating the country’s winemaking traditions.
Armenia’s high-quality wines often come from indigenous grape varieties. Areni, for instance, is a red grape used to produce full-bodied, complex wines with flavors of black cherry, blackberry, and spice. Voskehat and Kangun are also grown in Armenia and are white grape varieties that produce crisp, refreshing wines with floral and citrus notes.
Although more modern methods are also used today, the most traditional winemaking in Armenia involves fermenting the grapes in clay vessels called karases, which are buried in the ground. This method, which is similar to the Georgian winemaking tradition of qvevri, is believed to give the wine a unique flavor and character. The use of natural yeasts and minimal intervention in the winemaking process also contribute to the distinctive qualities of Armenian wines.
In addition, Armenia is highly renowned for brandy and congnac, two drinks made from the further fermentation of wine.
Armenia has several wine festivals throughout the year to celebrate its wine culture, including a festival in Areni village each October near the cave where the oldest wine making technology in the world has been found. There is also Yerevan Wine Days, held in the summer each year, that celebrates the country’s wine heritage in the urban capital.
Khorovats is Armenian barbecue, and is a staple of Armenian cuisine and a mainstay at social gatherings and celebrations.
Khorovats can be made with different types of meat, such as lamb, beef, pork, or chicken, with lamb being the most traditional. A sour marinade, often with vinegar and onion and then infused with bold flavors such as paprika, cumin, coriander, and garlic and sometimes mixing in rosemary, thyme, and oregano. The meat is then skewered and grilled over hot coals or wood fire, giving it a smoky flavor and charred exterior. It is very similar to Georgian shashlyk.
Vegetarian khorovats can also be found. It can be made of roasted onions, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, or other vegetables that are skewered, brushed with oil and dusted with spices, and cooked in manner similar to the meat dish.
Khorovats is often served with a variety of accompaniments such as lavash (thin, flatbread), sliced onions, fresh green herbs, and pickles. Enjoying it with a glass of wine or beer is recommended as is enjoying it outside while socializing.
Tolma (Dolma, Sarma)
Tolma is a vegetable or leaf (cabbage or grape), stuffed with ground beef or lamb, rice, onion, garlic, and tomato paste. They can be flavored with a variety of spices and herbs, including cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, parsley, mint, and cumin. Some variations of the dish may also include pine nuts or currants, adding a sweet and nutty flavor to the dish.
As a base, many different types of vegetables can be used, in particular peppers, but grape leaves stand out as perhaps the best known. This version of the dish is heavily associated with spring and summer, when grape leaves are in season. Vegetarian versions can be found where the meat is replaced with bulgar wheat.
One stuffed, dolma is packed tightly into a pot and boiled until the rice is fully cooked and the flavors have melded together. The dish is usually served as a main course or as an appetizer. It is often served cold or at room temperature, making it an excellent choice for outdoor gatherings and picnics.
Although this dish has been a significant part of Armenian cuisine for centuries and both a staple dish and often served during weddings, baptisms, and other celebrations, there is some controversy over the name. In Yerevan, the dish is often called by locals as “tolma.” However, Western Armenians and Armenians outside of Armenia are more likely to call it “dolma,” which is closer to the Greek and Turkish name for the same dish. Meanwhile, although these first two names are often used for anything that uses the tolma/dolma filling, nearly everyone agrees that version that use leaves are technically called “sarma.”
Armenian Khash is a traditional soup made with cow or sheep feet and sometimes the head. The dish requires a slow and lengthy cooking process, typically taking around 10-12 hours to prepare. The result is a thick, filling, fatty soup that is associated with winter morning breakfasts and hospitality.
Khash is a simple dish in terms of flavor, typically using just garlic, vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste and served with lavash bread. It is a distinctive dish, and not beloved by all foreigners who try it, but trying it will likely endear you to your Armenian hosts.
It is also known for its restorative and healing properties, particularly for its ability to cure hangovers.
Armenian lavash is a thin, unleavened flatbread that has actually been registered as an element of Armenia’s cultural heritage by UNESCO. It is an important part of Armenian hospitality and often referred to as “the soul of Armenian cuisine.”
To make traditional Armenian lavash, a simple dough is made from flour, water, and salt. The dough is then rolled out thinly and stretched over a pillow-like device which is used to stick it to the wall of a tonir, a traditional Armenian woodfired clay oven. In the high temperature of the tonir, the lavash is done within a few moments.
Fresh lavash is delicate and slightly chewy with crispy char spots on its crust and a fluffy, woody-tasting interior.
Lavash is eaten with almost every meal in Armenia. It is often used to wrap meat, vegetables, and cheese, or served alongside stews, soups, or salads. It is also used as a utensil to scoop up dips and spreads.
Ghapama has a history dating back to pagan times when it was made during harvest festivals as a symbol of fertility and abundance.
Ghapama is a combination of sweet and savory flavors. To make it, a large pumpkin is hollowed out and filled with a mixture of boiled rice, dried fruits, nuts, honey, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg and sometimes raisins or other dried fruits such as apricots. The pumpkin is then baked in the oven until it is soft and the filling is cooked. The dish has a delicate sweetness, complemented by the slightly nutty flavor of the pumpkin.
Ghapama is then served whole, with the pumpkin acting as a natural serving dish or can be sliced into wedges.
Ghapama is an important part of Armenian culture and is often served during special occasions, such as weddings and New Year’s Eve. It is a symbol of abundance and prosperity, and it is believed to bring good luck and happiness to those who eat it.
Harissa is an Armenian comfort food. It is associated with communal meals and typically served during religious festivals as well as at family celebrations such as weddings and baptisms. It is easy to make in large batches and use to feed a group. It is a symbol of Armenian community and hospitality.
Harissa is made by soaking wheat berries overnight. They are then boiled with meat, usually chicken or lamb, for several hours until the wheat and meat are tender and have turned into a thick porridge. The mixture is then pounded with a wooden pestle called an “orovats” to create a smooth and creamy texture.
Harissa is traditionally seasoned with salt and black pepper, and sometimes with butter or other spices such as cinnamon or cumin, depending on personal preference. It is typically served hot, often topped with pieces of roasted meat, and accompanied by fresh herbs and vegetables, such as parsley, cilantro, and tomatoes.
Basturma is a traditional Armenian meat (usually beef or lamb) that has been cured in a distinctive mix of spices and herbs including paprika, cumin, garlic, fenugreek, and black pepper that are packed on so thick they form a flakey, sauce-like crust to the final product.
The preparation of basturma is a lengthy and time-consuming process involving several steps of washing, drying, salting, seasoning, and aging the meat. This process allows the meat to develop a firm texture and intense flavor. The finished product is typically deep red in color and is salty and spicy.
Basturma is a versatile ingredient that can be used in many different dishes, such as salads, soups, and stews. It is also commonly used in lahmajoun, a local dish sometimes referred to as “Armenian pizza.” Mixed with eggs and vegetables, it is a favorite local breakfast. Basturma can also be eaten as a snack or appetizer in Armenia, served thinly sliced and accompanied by cheese, olives, and bread. It is also a popular ingredient in sandwiches and wraps.
Manti originated in Central Asia. They were brought to Armenia by Silk Road traders where the Armenians adopted the dish and name, but turned the food into something new and uniquely Armenian.
The preparation of Armenian manti involves a lengthy process that will often bring together multiple family members to help. First, the dough is made with flour, water, and eggs, and is rolled out thin before being cut into small squares. Then, a filling is made. Usually this consists of minced lamb or beef mixed with onions, herbs, and spices, such as parsley, mint, and black pepper. Vegetarian versions of manti can also be made with fillings such as pumpkin, potato, or spinach.
The filled dough is shaped into small pockets with the filling exposed and arranged on a skillet. They are then baked in an oven until done. Once cooked, the manti is typically served with a garlic yogurt sauce. Also common are tomato-based sauces, butter, and perhaps a sprinkling of sumac or red pepper flakes for added flavor.
Armenian manti are a flavorful and aesthetically pleasing dish often made for special occasions such as weddings and holidays.
Armenian gata is a traditional sweet pastry. The name “gata” is believed to come from the Armenian word “gad” meaning “dough.” That dough is typically made of yeasted wheat flour and allowed to rest for several hours before being rolled out and topped with a mound of filling that usually consists of butter, sugar, ground nuts, and sometimes spices like vanilla or cinnamon. Honey is sometimes used in place of the sugar.
The gata can then be rolled over onto itself, formed into a ball with the filling inside, and rolled again. This results in a seamless pastry filled with an even amount of filling throughout. The process is essentially the same for the well-known dish of khachapuri, which uses cheese and butter as a filling. If this technique is used, the gata will typically be decorated before baking – sometimes with simple cross pattern etched into it and sometimes with beautiful sculpted patterns worked into the top dough (not unlike Russian pryanik)
The gata dough can also be spread with filling, rolled into a tube, and sliced into individually-sized portions. Sometimes the dough is sliced first and then each tube rolled into something that looks like a croissant.
In any case, after baking, the crust is thick, rich, and bready and the inside is moist and sweet.
Gata is often sold at tourist locations, usually as decorative round discs of varying sizes. You will see both locals and tourist buying them and eating them straight away. Gata is also commonly enjoyed on special occasions such as weddings, christenings, and religious festivals.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can go to a gata factory in Geghard, which produces the pastry using traditional methods, or the Gata Museum in the town of Ashtarak, about a half hour outside of Yerevan, which showcases the history and culture of this beloved dessert.
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