Home » FOOD AND DINING » Food Culture: Armenia

Food Culture: Armenia

An introduction to Armenian food, plate by plate

Armenian food

Growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s, I had some explaining to do whenever I opened my lunchbox. Everyone else had ham sandwiches or tuna salad, while I had lamb and rice wrapped in grape leaves, or little onion-filled pies that looked like flying saucers made out of meat—all traditional Armenian foods. My friends thought this was weird until they took a bite. Suddenly, they all wanted to come to my house for dinner.

As we’re exposed to foods from different cultures, we discover new delights, and they become part of our common palate. Yet despite America’s growing culinary curiosity, my wife and I still hear the same question when we tell people we write about Armenian food: “What is it?” The upside of the relative obscurity of Armenian cuisine is that it’s still special. But it’s also sad because it reflects the reality of a small but proud nation that nearly disappeared a century ago.

Survivors of Armenia’s 1915-1917 genocide, our grandparents brought very little to the United States except their memories and traditions. Among the most treasured were the recipes they learned from their mothers. None of them were written down, so it was all guesswork: a handful of this, not too much of that. That may not sound sophisticated, but the end result is food fit for an Armenian king: creamy yogurt (madzoon), heaping pots of buttery pilaf, cubes of braised lamb with onion and tomatoes (tass kebab), and meaty stews with eggplant and peppers (gouvech). Armenians like to bake bread almost as much as we love to eat it: flatbread (lavash), knotted bread (choreg), and sweet bread (katah) are all typical.

Pastries are also a specialty, both sweet and savory. We love flaky pockets filled with cheese (boreg) and sweet diamond-shaped layers of chopped walnuts and paper-thin dough (paklava).

Among the most treasured were the recipes they learned from their mothers. None of them were written down, so it was all guesswork: a handful of this, not too much of that. That may not sound sophisticated, but the end result is food fit for an Armenian king.

It’s no secret that many cooking techniques are shared throughout the region—these dishes may sound familiar to anyone who’s eaten in a Greek, Persian, or Middle Eastern restaurant. What distinguishes Armenian food is the variety of seasonings and ingredients that found their way into Armenian pantries as a result of the country’s location at the crossroads of the world’s trade routes. Unfortunately, that location attracted both invaders and traders. Dispersed by many upheavals over the centuries, Armenians have contributed to the menus and cultures of many nations.

What sets Armenian food apart is practice—and a few thousand years of honing our cooking skills. Historically, Armenia’s ancestors were among the first to cultivate grains and domesticate animals for food. They were also early vintners; just a few years ago, archaeologists exploring a cave in Armenia discovered casks and vats from what may have been the world’s first wine-making operation at over 6,000 years old.

The most significant evidence of Armenian culinary inventiveness is the tonir, an ancient innovation that turned the humble fire pit into a combination bakery and barbecue. Some hungry genius dug a deep, round hole and lined it with clay. Then he built a fire at the bottom. Who’d have guessed that a thin sheet of dough pressed against the super-heated walls would bake in a flash? It worked so well that Armenians are still baking lavash the same way.

Don’t be fooled into thinking lavash is just another flatbread. In fact, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) called lavash “an integral part of Armenian cuisine” when it was recognized as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014. Ever versatile, lavash can be served hot or cold, hard or soft. It can be eaten by itself, held in the palm in place of a plate, or used to scoop up meats or cheese.

Of course, the favorite Armenian wrap filling is shish kebab—except we call it khorovatz. Armenians favor lamb over beef or pork, and we use skewers just like everyone else—except that traditionally they’re hung vertically from atop the tonir. Marinating is key, usually in wine but sometimes in the tart-sweet juice of Armenia’s national fruit, the pomegranate.

Ready for a taste?

Here are a few places in North Jersey where you can get started on a lifelong Armenian food habit.

  • Sayat Nova Restaurant {91 Main Street, Hackensack; 201.880.9434}
  • Lavash City Grill and Bakery {331 Main Street, Hackensack; 201.464.5445}
  • Arenie Armenian Gourmet Foods & Bakery {575 Anderson Avenue, Cliffside Park; 201.945.4300}
  • Krichian’s Grill {399 Crooks Avenue, Paterson; 973.569.1033} Avo’s Grill {720 Anderson Avenue, Cliffside Park; 201.945.9038}

You can also create classic Armenian dishes at home. You’ll find most special ingredients, such as bulgur wheat, at Middle Eastern grocery stores. A sure bet for Armenian specialties is Olympia Food of All Nations {906 Kinderkamack Road, River Edge; 201.261.3703}. You can also get freshly made lahmajoun, a thin flat dough topped with seasoned meat and tomatoes, at George Assadourian Middle East Lahmajoun {355 Anderson Avenue, Fairview; 201.941.5662}. Arenie Armenian Gourmet Foods & Bakery {575 Anderson Avenue, Cliffside Park; 201.945.4300} also has their own recipe for freshly made lahmajoun with grass-fed beef, as well as other Armenian delicacies.

NJ Armenian Food Festivals

  • On September 17-18, head to St. Ann Melkite Catholic Church {802 Rifle Camp Road, Woodland Park; 973.785.4144} for a fun-filled weekend of Middle Eastern food such as hummus, tabbouleh, shawerman, pastries, and more. Vendors will be onsite as well as entertainment for the kids, church tours, and raffles. A cash bar and hookah bar will be available.
  • This autumn, watch for the annual Armenian food festival from October 14-16 at St. Leon Armenian Church {12-61 Saddle River Road, Fair Lawn; 201.791.6536}. You’ll get to taste home-style Armenian cooking with a heaping side order of Armenian music and dance. Go hungry but arrive early; the festival fills up quickly.

By Douglas Kalajian, Contributor