In Armenia there is a particular meal that is relished by anyone who is able to chew, assuming they still have teeth. It can be found in virtually any village you can find, prepared in different ways and cooked in varying conditions, but the etiquette involved in eating is usually the same everywhere you go. The dish is known as “khorovadz,” the Armenian word for barbeque, and although the dish can also be found in the national cuisines of Armenia’s neighbors, such as Iran, Turkey, and as distant as Greece, it nevertheless remains unique, at least according to Armenians.
The most popular terminology known internationally for skewered barbeque is shish kebab, used by Greeks and Western Armenians especially. Other cultures have their own versions of the dish. The Thai roast thinly-sliced lightly marinated meat on small, thin bamboo skewers and call it “satay.” Tandoori chicken, which is roasted whole and prepared in a special round and deep oven, is specific to the cuisine in some parts of India. Brazilian barbeque is cooked on long round skewers, the meat aligned in large hunks. But Americans simply throw slabs of meat on metal racks resting just above charcoal or gas fires, caring less about preparation.
Armenians find any excuse possible to eat barbeque. Any sort of achievement accomplished, holiday commemorated, or special, sometimes invented occasion merits a barbeque celebration. This is only limited of course by budget as some, men especially, eat barbeque several times a week. To build a proper fire, usually dry branches and logs, or if available grape vines, are burned, then charcoal is added if some is available. Skewers are always flat, less than a 1/2-inch wide and 2-2/12-feet long. Armenians will fire up the grill (or “tonir”, a round, clay in-ground oven about four feet deep, which is mainly used for baking bread) to roast nearly any edible domesticated or roaming creature that can be found. These meats include but are not limited to pork, beef, whole lamb, young chicken, wild boar, quail, and fish (most always “Ishkhan” trout or “sig”). The preferred meat is pork, especially riblets and chops, although cubed tenderloin and ham is also broiled by those who do not wish to struggle with all the bones. Between four to six pieces of meat are aligned per skewer, spaced out slightly. The marinade usually consists of onions, a little oil, plenty of salt, and pepper. Dried basil also adds a nice touch.
Other barbeque varieties include the popular “kebab,” also found in Persian cuisine, which is finely ground beef or chicken, sometimes lamb, mixed with pureed onions (which give the meat the necessary stickiness, preventing it from falling of the skewer), salt, pepper, and other seasonings. The long, inch-wide savory roasted kebab is topped with sliced onions, parsley, a few slices of butter, and sometimes sumac. Lamb or beef kidneys, hearts, liver, and other organs are also skewered then grilled to perfection.
One of the problems with ordering meat in Armenia is that very few butchers actually understand how to properly cut various segments of a carcass. Usually a side of pork is placed on a butcher block and is hacked away into chunks with a dull axe, which makes for awkward skewering. I have only been to about two or three places where meats are cut according to European or American standards, but even in one small food market that I go to on Nalbandyan Street which has very fresh meat, depending on the person who serves you more often than not expect boney, indistinguishable blocks rather than uniform, even delicate cuts.
As with other meals, such as the uniquely Armenian “khash,”
several bottles of vodka, usually homemade if some can be acquired, are consumed during the meal, accompanied with long, mostly boring toasts. Plenty of lavash, paper-thin bread usually baked on the walls of a tonir, is made available as well as other sandwich-capable breads. The meat is usually eaten with the hands or wrapped in lavash, as eating barbeque with a fork and knife is frowned down upon. As side dishes, expect to find mostly grilled potatoes in the winter and skewered tomatoes, green peppers, onions, and eggplant when in season. The vegetables shortly after being removed from the grill are peeled to remove the charred skins.
Armenian barbeque is the ultimate comfort food and never disappoints, unless it is thoroughly charred dry. Naturally not everyone is pleased all of the time, as Armenians are genetically complainers. They are rarely wholly satisfied and nearly always find a fault in anything, particularly when it comes to food preparation. But in my experience I have only come across one person in a large group who voiced that he did not enjoy the barbeque served, I believe to spite me since I made a suggestion of going to a specific restaurant that he had not previously frequented, irked that we did not go to his usual place. In all honesty, it’s hard to screw up barbeque. As long as you have fresh, young and tender meat you’re good to go and are bound for barbeque bliss. Even if there is no vodka to be had—which is nearly impossible—there seems to be something released in the roasting process that intoxicates the eater. This can be attributed perhaps to a thick layer of fat that is untrimmed on each meat chunk, the juices seeping in while it roasts. The attached fat is usually consumed along with the meat, and thus the sudden overwhelming fat intake on an empty stomach probably produces a sort of temporary euphoric effect.
I know one guy who was lured after 10 years of being a strict vegetarian into going back to eating meat shortly after moving here from England, just by being in several situations where barbeque was the only thing to be consumed. The heckling by his hosts and downing several shots of vodka one evening encouraged him as well.
The meal is also a peacemaker of sorts. No matter how much Armenians argue with one another to the point where they want to gouge each other’s eyes out, once the barbeque is served a cease fire is called, and the two parties sometimes forget what they were carrying on about. This is an amazing thing, really. There is no other way that I know or have seen to suppress animosity in this country outside of politics, even if momentary. Yet I can’t help wonder if the serving of barbeque would be the catalyst for resolving the Karabagh conflict once and for all the next time Presidents Kocharian and Aliyev meet to find a peace solution.
Just to reiterate, it is very difficult to find bad barbeque, no matter where you are in this country. Proshyan Street in Yerevan is famous for its barbeque restaurants, and if you choose to check one of them out stick with the mom-and-pop operations, as the service will be better than the giant, ostentatious restaurants there. The further you go from Yerevan the better in my experience when dining out. One of the best ways to spend a summer afternoon is to buy some meat and skewers (you can find them in most domestic goods stores) as well as watermelon, drive out to a shady spot alongside a river, like somewhere in the Ashtarak gorge, and make a barbeque. Getting a fire going will take about an hour, maybe less, depending on whether you’re fumbling for a long time with matches, paper, and so forth to light the wood or charcoal. Depending on the place, you can find either a waist-high grill or two long rails that you lay a foot apart, between which you can build a fire, then when ready you simply rest the skewer across the rails. This sort of event is a favorite pastime among Armenians.
Eating barbeque is the common bond between Armenians who struggle with differences of opinion, clash of egos, and even with language barriers. It may perhaps be the best medium for giving outsiders a glimpse of what Armenian hospitality and culture are all about.
Labels: Food and Drink, Personal Experiences, Social and Cultural, Thoughts and Musings