Flavors of Armenia

This is the first of several articles on Armenian cultural activities prompted by an Oriental rug exhibition, ``Weavers, Merchants, and Kings: The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia.'' The exhibit is on its way to the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. (Oct. 17-Jan. 25), and to the Fresno Art Center, Fresno, Calif. (Feb. 15-April 18). It has already been shown in Worcester, Mass., and Fort Worth, Texas. A host of other activities accompanies the rug exhibit. These include workshops, films, dancing, a concert, and an Oriental rug clinic.

The landmark exhibition, organized by the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, and the Armenian Rugs Society, represents the first significant presentaion of inscribed rugs documenting the Armenian carpet-weaving tradition over many centuries.

The rug exhibit and related cultural activities at each city are sponsored by Near East Food Products Inc, of Leominster, Mass.

Tomorrow: Armenian rugs ARMENIAN food is really very simple fare. It's similar to the traditional food of all the other Middle Eastern countries,'' says Armenian-American Jack Kalajian.

Like many Armenian-Americans who grew up enjoying the home-cooked foods of their heritage, Mr. Kalajian thinks of it as good, plain fare. But to many of us, it is exotic cooking.

How else would you describe rice pilaf, fragrant with currants and cinnamon; fresh mint and coriander in ground meat; lamb with quince and apricots; stuffed grape leaves; creamy hummus; lavash, the crisp flat Armenian bread; and that most exquisite of desserts, baklava -- sweet with honey and nuts in layers of flaky pastry?

These subtly seasoned dishes with fragrant combinations of sweet spices carry a hint of the colorful Byzantine Empire. They show the influence of the many cultures -- Turkish, Greek, Persian, and Arabic -- which have given Armenians a rich cuisine and a very old one, going back thousands of years.

Mr. Kalajian, like many Americans with Armenian immigrant parents, has vivid childhood memories of the sights and aromas of his mother's kitchen.

His parents, George and Hannah Kalajian, emigrated from Armenia in 1940 to Worcester, Mass., and like many Armenians brought little with them but their love of the region's food, music, and history.

``My father set up a grocery store and soon my mother began serving sandwiches and home-cooked hot meals at a luncheonette counter. She also cooked all the old-fashioned Armenian dishes for the family,'' Kalajian recalls.

``In the summer she'd gather young grape leaves for stuffing and in the spring she'd find wild greens for salads. She made phyllo dough from scratch for sweets with layers of flaky pastry spread with honey and butter and chopped nuts.

``She was always stuffing tomatoes and eggplant,'' he continues, ``or rolling cabbage and grape leaves.'' But of all the dishes she made, the one that most epitomizes the true art and dedication of the Armenian cook is the simple dish of roast chicken and rice pilaf, he explains.

The preparation of pilaf is almost an art, and Hannah Kalajian made it so well that she was constantly asked for the recipe. Today her son, Jack, an engineer, is president of Near East Food Products in Leominster, Mass., a company selling pilaf mixes and other grain mixtures inspired originally by his mother's pilaf recipes.

Kalajian's wife, Lauri, also appreciates the versatility of pilaf.

``Ten or 15 years ago it was considered a foreign food,'' she says, ``but today it's popular with everyone and you can find rice pilaf or wheat and lentils in all the supermarkets. Taboule, falafel, and couscous are getting to be almost as popular as Spanish rice.''

Mrs. Kalajian's mother-in-law taught her much about Armenian cooking, she says, and about the importance of grains and rice dishes.

``Making pilaf means cooking rice, wheat, lentils, and barley in dozens of ways,'' she explains, adding that many recipes evolved out of necessity years ago when women were constantly trying to think up new ways to cook the same few ingredients. They would add different vegetables, start with different broths, and vary the seasonings.

Mrs. Kalajian cooks in a spacious kitchen with windows overlooking the hills of western Massachusetts. Their family garden is bursting with vegetables. Her herb garden overflows with several kinds of mint, thyme, basil, tarragon, and rosemary, which she takes inside during the New England winter.

``We really love the meatless dishes,'' she says. ``These vegetarian foods are very important to us. When the children come home from school for holidays, they look forward to the special dishes.''

These traditional dishes often take longer to prepare, so Mrs. Kalajian sometimes uses ready-made mixes for pilafs and taboule. On holidays, however, the old Armenian dishes are prepared with no shortcuts.

``Easter is probably our biggest holiday,'' says Seta Kalajian, Jack Kalajian's cousin. ``We always have a family gathering -- about 30 or more of all ages.''

The festive spread includes a main dish of leg of lamb; two kinds of pilaf -- the cracked wheat, or bulgur, and a rice pilaf; and spinach saut'eed or made any of a dozen different ways, such as spinach with yogurt or spinach with eggs. And there is always the typical Armenian salad of fresh mint and parsley with tomatoes, lettuce, garlic, and fresh lemon juice.

``While the meal is cooking, the older relatives sit around the kitchen table and nibble baba ghanoush and taboule,'' says Seta. ``These dishes often vary slightly in a way that can indicate the ethnic background of Armenian cooks,'' she explains. ``My cousin is from Cairo, and she makes her taboule with a lot of parsley or mint so that it looks very green. But when I make taboule, it will look more red and white because I add tomatoes.''

Seta eased into the cooking routine at an early age. ``I remember helping my mother make phyllo for baklava. I would stand and watch as she rolled out the pastry, and as she buttered each sheet she would pass it to me and I would count it. My only job then was to count, until we had 32 layers. It took that many for baklava.'' Baklava 1 pound walnuts, chopped 1 pound unsalted butter, melted 1 pound phyllo dough Syrup 2 cups water 1 1/2 cups water Few drops lemon juice

Boil water and sugar 10 minutes. Add lemon juice. Set aside to cool.

Have pastry brush, walnuts, and butter ready; you have to work fast after the dough is opened as it dries out quickly and becomes brittle. Keep a towel handy to cover unused portions of dough.

Lay a first sheet in a 12 by 18 by 1-inch pan and brush lightly with butter. Lay a second sheet in pan and butter lightly. Continue, buttering each sheet until half the dough is used.

Spread walnuts evenly over top layer. Cover with second half of dough as above, buttering each sheet. Cut tray of baklava into 2-inch squares (diamond-shaped) and brush top generously with butter. Bake in 350-degree F. oven 15 minutes. Pull out of oven (without removing from oven completely) and pour remaining hot butter over each diamond.

Bake again 25 to 30 minutes more or until golden brown. Let pan rest at slight angle after removing from oven so butter will accumulate at one end and can be carefully poured off. Spoon syrup over baklava. Serve when cool. Tourshi (Pickled Vegetables) 4 carrots 1 small cauliflower 4 celery stalks, cut in 4-inch pieces 1/2 pound green beans 2 cloves garlic, peeled 4 sprigs fresh dill 1 teaspoon coriander 1 quart water 1 cup cider vinegar 1/4 cup salt 1 tablespoon sugar

Wash and scrape carrots. Cut lengthwise into quarters, then into 4-inch pieces. Separate cauliflower into flowerets. Snap off bean ends. Sterilize 2 1-quart jars in boiling water. Pack jars with vegetables. Add 1 clove garlic, 2 sprigs dill and l/2 teaspoon coriander to each jar. Pack vegetables as tightly as possible.

Combine last 4 ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour the hot brine over vegetables to overflowing. Seal jars tightly. Pickles will be ready in 2 to 4 weeks, depending on how tart you like them. Armenian Dolma 6 tomatoes 6 green peppers 2 zucchini or summer squash Cabbage and grape leaves, parboiled 2 pounds ground lamb or beef 1 package rice pilaf mix or wheat pilaf mix 2 cups onions, chopped 2 cups tomato sauce Salt and pepper to taste

Cut stem ends from tomatoes and peppers and scoop out pulp. Cut squash into 4-inch sections and scoop out seeds. Add tomato pulp to meat mixture. Add remaining ingredients to meat and mix by hand in large bowl. Stuff leaves by placing small amount of meat mixture near stem end of leaf. One tablespoon mixture for cabbage, 1 teaspoon for grape leaves. Roll once, fold in sides, then continue to roll. Stuff vegetables.

Place all vegetables in large casserole -- leaves with folded side down, one on top of another to height of other vegetables. Add 2 cups water to pan. Bake covered 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees F.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor. Armenian foods

If you eat out at an Armenian restaurant, you might want to know what you're ordering. These terms should help.

Baba ghanoush. An eggplant appetizer with parsley and sesame paste.

Baklava. Layers of paper-thin pastry stuffed with nuts and syrup.

Bourma. A rolled, shirred pastry with layers of phyllo dough and a nut filling.

Choereg. A lightly sweetened breakfast bun made with a spice called mahleb.

Couscous. A fine type of semolina made of wheat.

Dolma. Any vegetable or leaf stuffed with seasoned rice.

Falafel. A mix of wheat and chick peas formed into little balls.

Lavash. A crisp, white flat bread.

Mahleb. An unusual and aromatic ground spice.

Phyllo. Paper thin sheets of pastry dough used in several layers at once.

Pilaf. Grain cooked in broth with herbs and bits of vegetables or fruits.

Simit. Roll with sesame seeds.

Taboule. A salad made with wheat, mint, lemon, and parsley.

Tourshi. A mixture of summer vegetables pickled with dill.

In Wednesday's food pages, the recipe for Baklava incorrectly gave 2 cups water as an ingredient. It should have read 2 cups sugar.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Flavors of Armenia
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today