Plunging into a new culture without tasting local dishes is like going to the Louvre and not seeing “The Mona Lisa”. Local cuisine in any country makes inseparable part of the culture and history of the nation and land. It tells a lot about the people’s peculiar features, customs and traditions, and almost 2000-year-old Armenian cuisine is no exception. It abounds in dishes for any preference- from meat-lover foodies up to keen vegetarians.
If you’re on a short-term visit in Armenia, you might not manage to savor all the viands on a traditional Armenian table. So, here are the top food options you shouldn’t miss out while traveling in Armenia.
Armenians do love meat and “manipulations” with it in the kitchen (and outside of it). They have long been known as masters of making dishes from chopped meat and all possible variants of stuffed dishes. Perhaps, this is why delicious “tolma” (often referred to as “dolma) is the queen of the Armenian cuisine. Tolma comes in two versions- spiced meat and rice rolled up in grape leaves (served with yogurt mixed with garlic), and “summer” tolma, the same stuffing wrapped with cabbage leaves, or filled into tomatoes, eggplants, apples. Sounds yummy, doesn’t it? If you’re already tempted by delicious tolma, we have good news for you: there is a Tolma Festival in Armenia every May – which is a great time to visit Armenia.
The juicy pork barbecue with an inviting aroma, or khorovats, which can be tempting even for a fasting person, is the “king” of the Armenian cuisine. A classic khorovats is made of chunks of meat grilled on a skewer. In the best traditions of Armenian cuisine, khorovats is often made with the bone still in the meat. Armenian barbecue is mostly served with crispy potatoes, onion rings and Armenian flatbread lavash. Enticing? Indeed. But it’s even more inviting when you’re at Proshian Street, often called “Barbecue Street” in Yerevan, as it’s lavishly lined with specialized khorovats restaurants!
An Armenian saying runs: “Lentil soups are for fasting days and yogurt soups are for feasting days”. To go on with your food fiesta in Armenia and “lighten up” your dinners rife with nutritious meat courses, you should try spas. This classic Armenian soup is made from matzoon (“Armenian yoghurt- fermented milk), greens and herbs. Sometimes it’s seasoned with mint or cilantro. It’s pure pleasure to taste this creamy soup served hot in the cold winters and chilled in the summer heat. Spas is served both warm and cold: whether on a chill mid-October morning or stuffy July day, spas will be an unrivalled light lunch, dinner or supper option.
If you’re planning a trip to Armenia in cooler months (March or November), then you should by all indulge yourself with harissa. It’s a porridge-like soup made from roasted cracked wheat and chicken or lamb meat. While savoring your portion at a local restaurant, you’ll be told that is a heroic story behind this Armenian national dish. During the 53-day Musa Dagh Resistance in 1915, it was this nutritious dish that helped Armenians survive. Nowadays, hundreds of descendants of brave Musa Dagh people get together in the Musaler village in mid September and perform the ritual of harissa-making to commemorate the exploit of their ancestors.
A foodie- paradise is not complete without a yummy dessert melting in the mouth. Already craving for a delicious Armenian pastry after the main course? Then try gata. It’s traditional Armenian dessert generally filled with khoriz – a stuffing made of flour, butter and sugar. Gata comes in other fillings, too, such as walnuts. There are different varieties of this pastry: rounded and decorated (commonly made in Garni and Geghard), and triangular without khoriz, denser and sweeter (originally from the area around Lake Sevan). If you’re also curious how this dessert of Armenian cuisine is made, visit Gata Festival in October.
A bonus: Armenians consider bread sacred and… inseparable from any meal! In fact, bread and cheese are the basic elements of any Armenian table- no matter what is served. Lavash is traditional flatbread, very thin and made in toneer (clay oven under the ground). It’s famous for its unique properties: it can be kept for years without any sign of spoiling! Lavash is also an original “food” souvenir (included in the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list, by the way) to take home and share with the dear ones.
Armenian cuisine is as ancient as the country itself. Being a part of Caucasus cuisine, however, it’s very different from Georgian one, for instance. Spice up your trip to Armenia with a gourmet tour or just hop in to a local restaurant to indulge in the feast of enticing tastes and aromas of an authentic cuisine. Wherever you go, you’ll be welcomed with famous Armenian hospitality and treated as a king. As the Armenian wisdom says: “A guest is a gift from God”.
Text: Sirvard Amatuni