Khash for a Baby Girl

My friend and Godfather Karen Minasian, who incidentally is a press photographer for Armenpress, is a proud father a baby girl born Sunday night. Both baby and mother are doing fine, but unfortunately no one has access to them. Apparently there is a hospital rule left over from the Soviet era stipulating that visitors are not allowed to visit newborns or their mothers. Husbands cannot visit their wives, new grandparents cannot visit their own daughter and so forth. Usually in more modern hospitals newborn babies are kept in special wards that are surrounded by windows so that visitors can at least see the newborn while a nurse holds it up for everyone to admire. But in Armenia, you have to wait until mother and child leave the hospital. No exceptions (unless you make a “donation” of course).

Apparently it is a tradition among some people who live or were raised in a village to eat a celebrative khash meal when a child comes into the family. Naturally, I was invited to take part in this tradition Monday morning. For some reason only men were present, save for Karen’s mother and wife’s sister, who were doing the serving.

To eat the much coveted khash you must follow strict rituals before consuming it. Khash is essentially a broth which is acquired from slowly simmering the lower leg shanks and ankles of steers. All the fat and cartilage that is attached to the bone is left on, which gives a fatty, subtle gelatin-like flavor to the soup. It is simmered for several hours, usually throughout the night so that it can be eaten early to mid-morning. No seasonings are added, as the eater is allowed to add specific ones according to his or her taste.

The consumption of khash can be ranked as one of the most complex forms of meal preparation that can be found in the civilized world. Khash is served in a medium-sized to large soup bowl. Next to each table setting can be found a pile each of dry and soft lavash--paper-thin bread--preferably baked in a tonir, which is an in-ground round clay oven about four feet deep and a foot or so wide. In the soup bowl with the broth there is usually a piece of beef shank, full of cartilage, fat, sinew, and very little meat, which is promptly removed and placed on a small adjacent salad plate, to be eaten later. The khash eater can request that the bone not be included, although this is sometimes frowned upon.

Once the khash has been served, the process of seasoning it begins, which can take up to several minutes to a half-hour, depending on the diner’s taste. The allowed seasonings for khash include finely ground salt as well as lemon juice laden with fresh pressed garlic. Nothing more can be added for taste. The additives are added gradually and stirred into the broth with a table spoon, with which the eater periodically tastes to check whether the suited flavor has been acquired. Once the diner is satisfied with the seasonings, the dry lavash is crumbled into inch-sized bits and dropped into the broth. The objective is to completely drench the bread with the broth to the point where only a spongy, sloppy mass is left in the bowl. For city dwellers it is not uncommon for less bread to be added so that the broth can actually be enjoyed with a spoon along with the soaked lavash; however this is also usually frowned upon by professional khash eaters. Several times I have been accused of refusing to eat khash the proper way when refraining from crumbling three or more sheets of dry lavash into my 8-oz bowl of broth. I have even been criticized for adding the bread too slowly to the broth.

To properly eat khash, you must pick up segments of the broth/bread mixture using fresh lavash in a scooping motion, then promptly devour them. Naturally, eating soup with your hands can be a rather messy dining experience, so there is plenty of fresh lavash and sometimes napkins provided with which to wipe your mouth. And to help digest the khash, or to add additional, complementary flavor, albeit relished in between gulps of khash, there are several condiments offered. Such include but are not limited to mixed greens, scallions, sliced radish, pickled hot peppers, black olives, and sliced lemon. These offerings are usually standard fare with khash and are eaten most probably to help disguise the smell of liquor that is to be consumed during the course of the meal.

Aside from carbonated beverages, preferably Jermuk to help wash down all the bread being devoured, the preferred beverage that is drunk with the meal is, not surprisingly, vodka. One half-liter bottle is usually served for no more than four people. During the meal, in between seasoning the broth and lapping up the khash, an unlimited amount of toasts are made with various, sometimes haphazard reasons for making them. All khash participants clink glasses and down a shot of vodka, then resume their meal. However, the vodka aside from serving as an instrument of merriment also acts as an antibacterial agent, instantly annihilating any mischievous microbes that may have formed during the extensive khash-making process.

Because so many people were being expected throughout the day to enjoy khash, a near 50-liter aluminum pot was used to boil the bones and fat to produce the broth. The pot was too unwieldy to place on a kitchen stove, so instead it was mounted on a portable hot plate, basically something resembling a short stool with a grooved ceramic surface intertwined with a thin, coiled electrified wire to produce the heat. It is highly unsafe but very effective. There was no room for the women to prepare other vittles while the khash simmered in the middle of the kitchen, so instead the pot rested on its hotplate in the bathroom, out of the way from traffic.

I am not someone that actually seeks out khash when on an empty stomach, mainly because it’s a messy meal and not that satisfying. What makes it special is the company that shares in the whole khash process, as well as listening to the few conversations that take place while diners are busy with adding just the right amount of salt and garlic. The toasts are almost always suitable, depending of course on who makes the toast and for what reason. But in general, the experience can be pleasant, especially if it is marking a special occasion, like the birth of a baby girl.


Ara said…
Quite a Khash story. 50 liters? Wow!!!
Anonymous said…
And, when the Khash is allowed to turn into gelatin, then sprinkled with vinegar, chopped onions, and more garlic, it becomes a tasty cold dish! As the old-timer Hayasdantsees would say, years ago, here in Chicago as they'd eat the Khash either hot or cold--"Pah! Pah! Pah!"
Enjoyed either way, it is an interesting dish with many colorful stories to go along with the ceremonial eating of it.
Anonymous said…
Modern hospitals in Armenia do allow for the father to visit. While I had to make a "donation" to be present in the delivery room to see the birth of my baby, visiting my newborn in the ward was no problem whatsoever.

Of course, I got the more expensive ward which is not shared by other people. Soviet-style maternity wards are shared among several people. In such a circumstance, it is understandable that visiting fathers would make the other mothers feel uncomfortable.

I did have to break a lot of cultural barriers though in order to visit my wife and child. This is true especially for the delivery room, where the nurses look at you weird. My wife's relatives were trying to convince me until the last second to not do it. But I'm glad I was there for the birth of my baby and I wouldn't never miss it.
Anonymous said…
I recently experienced khash. I live in Washington State and some business neighbors were gathering early one morning on a day they arent normally open for business. I asked them what they were doing there so early and they told me they were gathering to eat breakfast and they invited me over. These are all men and I am a female. I asked them what they were making and they told me "khash" an old traditional armenian soup. I said I would try it. If I had known what it really was, I would have politely declined their offer. I was seated at their outside table and the process was explained to me on how to season and prepare my soup. I asked them what the meat was and they told me beef. I took several bites and then asked them what the bone was in my soup. When they told me it was cow hooves, I nearly vomited. Then they proceded telling me the tradition of the soup. I felt the need for the vodka was to make it possible to swallow the soup :). We made many toasts "pari looys" and had a great morning socializing. When I came home from work, my husband was making soup with a whole chicken and all I could think about was the cartilage and cow hooves in my soup. I wasnt quite ready for another bowl of soup. I was amazed at how full I stayed all day from khash and vodka. They also taught me to play backgammon. It was a great experience.
Great read! Thanks for commenting on my own Kash experience on my blog. It's definitely a very unique cultural experience.

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