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The Art of Dining

Culinary Delights in Armenia

The Art of Dining in Armenia is a feast for the senses. On the Spice Trail that brought the flavors of the East to Europe, Armenia developed a robust culinary tradition that draws upon its rich and varied terrain: Mountain herbs and mushrooms; freshly caught fish; naturally grown beef, pork; vegetables dripping with flavor; fruits both succulent and sweet; walnuts that give a unique taste to desserts, meats, even soups.

And a meal is lingered over as one lingers over a beautiful thought or a warm feeling: When succulent morsels are eaten in a beautiful setting--surrounded by extraordinary works of art, in a lush river canyon, in the vaulted throne room of a 13th c. monastery; on the terrace of a villa overlooking the valley leading to the majesty of Ararat; after a relaxing day of hot thermal baths and a soothing massage; on the shores of a placid aquamarine lake under a start studded sky; in a village home; near a caravan tent with thick carpets and embroidered cushions. The Art of Dining in Armenia adds the camaraderie of friends around a table, and the Art of the Tamada, or toastmaster, who adds stories, legend and myths to praise heaped upon guests. And then--the soft murmur of approval, a satiated appetite, and--the most eloquent praise of all--silence.

But where to find these culinary delights? One of the standard complaints by visitors is that while they hear about Armenia’s gastronomic wonders, all they seem to find is one lukewarm cutlet after another grilled meat stand. The gastronomic restaurants in Yerevan should be serving extraordinary dishes for the prices they charge--but they all seem to make up in atmosphere for what they lack in really good food. Lucky visitors wax poetic over a feast just enjoyed--at someone’s home. Home cooking it seems, is still the best cooking. Or is it?

For those who don’t have the inside family connection, and want to savor centuries old recipes prepared with loving care in exotic and beautiful settings-- here is a glimpse into cuisine Armenia. These are just a few of the many out-of-the-way places that serve memorable food-- where time is as long as it takes to make the beef tender and juicy, the sauce rich and thick; where eating is an event, not something to choke down between bus tours.

Note: Prices are quoted in Armenian Drams (AMD) or US dollars according to Restaurant policy. The exchange rate at time of writing was 475 AMD per dollar.

Vaik: Odjakh Restaurant

One of the best kept secrets in Armenia is Odjakh (tel 8-279-216-10). That is, the secret is kept by Europeans and Americans who make a point of stopping at the restaurant whenever they are in the area. Located on the edge of Vaik town (on the right on the road from Yeghegnadzor), the restaurant is in a two story stone house surrounded by a garden on one side and the Arpa river canyon on the other side. In warmer weather the outdoor terrace is open and has spectacular views of the canyon 65 feet below. Owner and master chef “Papik” studied at the culinary institute in Prague, and combines traditional Armenian and European recipes into unique and tasty dishes. Menus are prepared according to the season and fresh ingredients at hand. When we visited, the specialty was Karshm, a walnut based soup with red and green beans, chick peas and spices. “The secret is to cook the walnuts until they make an oil, and then to cook the oil out,” Papik says. “You have to cook it for one day, slowly, slowly.” The soup is thick and savory and is garnished with red pepper and fresh garlic, but is a wonderful taste with the walnut base. Papik’s wife prepares three types of lavash in their tonir. At 400 AMD to 1200 AMD for a full meal, definitely one of Armenia’s best restaurants.

Greek Food in an Armenian Landscape

The Village of Hankavan has been inhabited by Greeks since 1827, and serves traditional Greek food. The focus of the food in this rural community is on natural ingredients culled from the surrounding farmland. Virtually all ingredients are fresh--they even grind their own flour. There are no restaurants in Hankavan, dining is under the spreading branches of large walnut trees in courtyards and gardens, or under the gaze of Orthodox icons and kitsch collected from 150 years of continuous living in one home. Nicholai is the village elder, and his wife is the protector of the Greek cooking tradition. When asked to name typical Greek food, she counted off at least 20 dishes in a matter of seconds which she still makes following recipes handed down from her great great grandmother. They swear their ancestors were descendants of Alexander’s army, as are some of the recipes.

“Our food,” she recited like a proud student at Parents Day recital, stepping forward and gazing off to a kitchen in her mind heaping with steaming pots of vegetables, sauces, seasoned meats and dough. She called them out as she remembered them, “Siron (a Greek version of Georgian Khinkali and Siberian Pelmeni--We know it by its Italian ravioli version)! Triman! Sitlin! Macarina (home made noodles dolloped with a yogurt and garlic sauce)! Dolma (Greek style--there is quite a debate between Armenia and Greece over who made it first. When a friend from Armenia went to a Greek restaurant in Athens he asked for typical Greek National food. The waiter proudly brought out a plateful of Dolma. “What is this?” he demanded. “That’s our national dish,” the waiter replied, and the rest of the conversation I do not care to repeat)! And on an on they came, making us salivate with anticipation and envious of her culinary arts. This after we had just feasted for three hours. The village wine is a deep semi-sweet red, or a honey colored dry. For dessert they served Greek pastries.

Note: This was a home visit and the food was provided by hosts not expecting anything in return. Unless it is a clear business transaction from the word go, the host will refuse money. If you just want a meal--MAKE IT A BUSINESS TRANSACTION. Otherwise, You can get around that by bringing gifts you “suddenly remember” having in the car or backpack. Quality (emphasis on QUALITY) cognac and spirits, chocolates, new cosmetics, photographs and souvenirs from home, cigarettes are good starters--but you need to play it by ear. Backpackers may want to offer compasses, good flashlights, etc. By all means do NOT leave without offering anything. A good host refuses compensation, while a good guest stubbornly insists on offering something in return.

Yerevan: Continental Armenian Cuisine

There are numerous restaurants in Yerevan now, each catering to its own tastes. Happy coincidence when customers agree! All tastes are catered to, Chinese, Indian, Latin American, French, Continental, even pub grub compliment the excellent Russian and Armenian fare. Prices are steep, gone are the days when good food could be had in ample portions for $3. Look to pay at least $10 for a several course meal at one of the trendier places ($20 at the hotels), but you can still good and filling food for $5 or less at a Bistro, Café or food stand. One of the better is Salt Sak’s new Bistro, in the same building as the Souvenir/Wine shop on Abovian and Pushkin. The proprietor J’rair Avanian also owns the more expensive Dolmama and least expensive Mr. Pig. Continental Armenian Food is J’rair’s forte, having previously owned the first Green Grocer and the funky Chicken Coop.

Catering to local foreign clientele, the restaurants serve Italian, French, American dishes as well as traditional Armenian food that is being developed for Western tastes. This does not mean it reduces the taste--J’rair is rediscovering Armenian cuisine lost by years of “Soviet cooking”. Current features are a savory Nettle Soup with mushrooms, Seasonal salads (current is Seabakh) and in the summer they feature fresh Shitake and wild mushrooms in their recipes. A delectable Ishkhan (trout) w/Tarragon that melts in your mouth. J’rair is the man to go to for wine: he regularly uncovers 30-50 year old bottles of Cheri, Port, Madeira and Malaga for incredibly reasonable $5-20 a bottle. This is the stuff you’d pay $100 or more for in the West.. Moderately prices meals begin at $5 at Salt Sak, $10-20 at Dolmama. Cheaper fare begins at 500 AMD at Mr. Pig.

Other great places for this interesting mix of cuisines are the new (and funkier) THE CLUB (AKUMP) at 40 Tumanian St. & N’RAN GUIN (THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATE) at 15 Tumanian St.

Dilijan: Medieval Cooking

Just outside of Dilijan, on the old road to Ijevan, is Getik. The restaurant is in an old wooden framed house, with wrought iron and carved wood trim, and a large porch that wraps around two sides of the building. It has beautiful views of the Dilijan valley, and is nestled against the edge of the forest. The design of the restaurant is best described as “Armenian kitsch”, for its overlapping layers of wallpaper, print artwork, mismatching chairs, table and serving ware. But the customers that fill the restaurant every evening--even in the dead of winter--do not go for crystal chandeliers and petite fours. They are there for Kima’s cooking, who uses the recipes her grandmother inherited from generations of mountain cuisine. Kima bastes her meat for several days before serving it--it almost melts in your mouth. Taking mountain herbs, fresh mushrooms and spices with an old Medieval staple: a combination of garlic, clove and cinnamon--she prepares rich and hearty meals. While we visited, she had just finished a unique form of kebob: formed into drumsticks on sticks and stewed in a tomato, onion and garlic sauce. Her vegetable cutlets are delicious: patties of eggs, seasonal greens, onions and flour fried in sunflower oil. Menu: 1000 AMD to 2000 AMD for full course meal, and Kima’s inimitable wit as she prepares the food to order.

Sevan: Feast on a sailboat

It is inevitable that you will be invited to eat at the White House while visiting Lake Sevan. The restaurant deserves it reputation as having one of the best views of Sevan from its hilltop location, and is an elegant middle-range restaurant (full course meal with wine, about $10 per person; open from noon to 10 p.m. 7 days a week). But the seaworthy tourist should take advantage of a treat only available at Sevan: fresh caught Sig while sailing across the Pearl of Armenia. Using one of several yachts or catamarans that regularly ply Sevan’s waters, a feast of Sig, roasted meats, salads and trimmings is served on a 2-3 hour tour of the lake. Of course the availability of the sailing restaurant depends on the moodiness of Sevan: At times placidly calm and aquamarine, the water can just as easily turn to a moody ocean storm. Best time to try the sailing feast is in the late June to mid August, when the weather is most calm, and you feel you are on a Mediterranean cruise as the sun sets on the Western shores. For individual reservations and information, contact Arax in Yerevan at 52-94-18.

The Spice Trail

By the side of the Spice Caravan trail, food prepared under open fire in a river gorge, and served under the canopy of a bending tree, the table set with embroidered lace, the serving ware ceramic, crystal or china--and all around a symphony of nature playing like music. Afterwards, traditionally designed tents have been prepared for an afternoon nap, complete with thick Armenian carpets and soft pillows. The sounds of nature intermingle with soft music to soothe the satiated soul…

Is this a dream? No, it is a dream come true. A new cuisine tour in Armenia features a caravan style picnic for a lazy afternoon: complete catered service, music, and traditionally made caravan tents for personal use are provided as part of this tour, which also features a dinner at a Villa on Aragats; a Medieval feast at Haghartsin monastery in the 13th c. throne room (under candle light with traditional entertainment), a sacred meal at Geghard Monastery with a candlelit concert of Gregorian and Armenian sacred music; a day at the mineral water spa in Jermuk with a taverna style Keff afterwards; and a sailing dinner on Sevan. Along the way, culinary guests receive hands on lessons in preparing regional dishes, and taste ethnic Greek, Molokon and Yesdi food best known to locals, but a secret long needing to be let out.

A dinner at the Parajanov restaurant in Yerevan, featuring desserts loved by the eclectic artist, and a Nouveau Armenian cuisine dinner at Sydney Restaurant in Yerevan complete the Unique Caravan tour. A portion of the package price goes to support the Parajanov museum and Haghartsin and Geghard Monasteries. For information reservations for this complete 11 day cuisine tour (includes rd. trip airfare, guides, translators, master chef classes, lodging, all meals, snacks and an open bar on Mercedes motorcoach excursions, wake-up tray of flavored coffee, tea and pastry, and a bedtime snack), contact Caravan Tours,

Wines:

The best wine in Armenia is dessert wine, which is also making a comeback in the west. According to Jerair Avanian, owner of Dolmama and Salt Sak, which feature the best selection of quality Armenian wine in Yerevan, “The dessert wines are incredible. Armenia has some of the best Madeira’s, Malaga’s and Ports in the world. You couldn’t begin to touch this wine on a budget in the west, but here it is for $10-15 a bottle.” Avanian has served as consultant to small vineyards and wineries in Armenia, and always has a selection of aged port in his store. An excellent bottle of Cheri, dated 1947, which sold for $10 at Bravo, would cost up to $500 in New York. “This is Armenia’s best kept secret.” Currently Bravo is offering 25-35 year old port for $15-20 a bottle. It goes fast. Avanian can arrange vineyard tours and tours of the Yerevan Winery, with catered meals and wine-tasting in the vaulted wine cellar.

What to Look for: Bottled wine to look for is the semi-dry red Areni, a good table wine, or semi-dry honey colored Voskevaz. Both sell for about $6. Biurakan is a semi-dry red that has an after taste glow ($5-10). Armenian Champagne is surprisingly good and has made a resurgence in the local market.

Cognac: Armenian cognac has been awards for 100 years, and continues to for its rich amber flavor and warm afterglow. The cognac is made to be sipped, but locals like to knock it back Reasonably priced Nairi, Ararat go for $7-20 a bottle (souvenir decanters cost more). Another fine cognac is Hobelianakan ($20-50). The best is Vaspurakan, which is not easy to find, and goes for up to $100 a bottle. A new champagne shop on lower Mashtots Ave. also sells other wines and cognac. The old standby shop on Mashtots Ave. close to the Matenadaran can still produce years old stock if you talk to the manager.


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