Scientists believe the Armenian kitchen is one of the oldest cuisines in Asia, and the most ancient in Transcaucasia. Many ways of cooking dishes and different utensils were passed onto neighbouring peoples, such as the Georgians and Azerbaijanis. Recipes are passed from generation to generation, often remaining unchanged over the centuries.
The dishes found in Armenian cuisine are of a spicy, sharp flavour, each with their own distinctive taste. The cooking process is often complex and time-consuming. Armenian cooks use hundreds of herbs, flowers and spices. Widely used vegetables include potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, eggplant, peppers, carrots, spinach, asparagus, zucchini, pumpkin and beans. Many vegetables are used as a garnish for meat and fish dishes. In the springtime, it is customary to prepare meals from fresh grape leaves, and in summer and autumn, apples, quince, eggplants, peppers and tomatoes are added to minced meat, rice and spicy greens. In the national cuisine, beef and mutton are popular, though pork is rarely used. Among the specialities are ghapama (pumpkin stew), satsivi (fried chicken in a special sauce), and farshirovannye (stuffed peppers).
Cooking often involves several processes: chopping, grating, deseeding, whipping and mashing all require the investment of time and labour. Some Armenian dishes have as many methods of cooking as there are peoples on the world map, and each family strives to bring something different to add zest to the dish. The culture itself plays an important role in the cuisine; in Armenia, people believe that if you eat and drink whilst in a good mood, it will be beneficial to your health, so major feasts are an essential part of Armenian life.
The Soup “Sauce”
Ingredients: potatoes (1 kg) chicken fillet (500 g), salt (to taste), black pepper (to taste), tomato paste (1 tbsp), sunflower oil (30 ml), fresh herbs (to taste), spices and seasonings (to taste), water (4 litres), 1 carrot, 1 onion.
First, rinse five hundred grams of chicken meat. Pour four litres of cold water over the chicken and place on a high heat. Remove starchy foam from the boiling water, reduce the heat and simmer with the lid on for twenty minutes. Place the potatoes into a separate pot and boil until ready.
Rinse a carrot and grate or cut into fine strips. Cut one onion into small pieces. Place these into a pan to simmer in thirty millilitres of sunflower oil. Fry on a high heat until soft.
When the vegetables are browned, add one tablespoon of tomato paste, a little broth from the chicken pan and put on a low heat for five minutes. When the potato is cooked, add it and the sautéed vegetables to the tomato soup. Bring the soup to a boil on a high heat and add the chicken. Finished!
Grape leaf dolma
Ingredients: beef (1 kg), 1 onion, (rice 550g), vegetable oil (30ml) butter (30g) carrots (30g) mint, bay leaves and basil (to taste) cumin and black pepper (2 tsp), grape leaves, salt (to taste), water (1 litre).
To prepare the stuffing: rinse the rice and cover with cold water. Rinse the meat and cut off all the excess (these scraps will be used to prepare the broth). Next, trim the meat, place it into a saucepan and cover with water (1litre). Add bay leaves and black pepper. Place a peeled carrot into the stock pan. Using a hatchet or a sharp knife finely chop the meat – or use a minced meat grinder. (To ensure the meat doesn’t stick, moisten the tools with hot water.) Cut onions as finely as possible and place in a frying pan with 30ml of vegetable oil, add a piece of butter and fry on a moderate heat until translucent. Add basil, cumin and mint, mix well and sauté for two minutes, then add the meat, mix thoroughly and turn off the stove. Add salt to taste along with the rice and stir vigorously. Add two ladles of cooked meat stock and cover the pan with a lid.
Spread grape leaves, pre-washed in hot water with the glossy side face down, and ladle onto each a little of the filling (the amount depends on the size of the sheet). Fold dolma, starting from the bottom and moving to the top of the sheet. Place the dolmas into a deep skillet packed tightly against each other, and pour the cooked meat broth so that it just covers the dolmas. Cook on a moderate heat for 30-40 minutes.
Before serving the dolma, sprinkle with chopped herbs, sour cream or garlic to suit your taste.
Text by Maria Batz
Photo by Margarita Batygina