An afternoon in Artashat
On Sunday around noontime I picked up my Niva with my advocate Hamlet from the guy who had just completed repairing the body damage that was inflicted in a collision which occurred almost two weeks ago. The car looks better than it ever had with the repairs, which as I explained in my previous post were relatively minor. However, we noticed that the front lights on the driver’s side where the car was hit were not functioning at all. Plus there were other longstanding issues with the tailgate lights that were not resolved despite a visit to an automobile electrician a few weeks back. We immediately drove to the AutoLada car parts store on Gomidas Avenue and purchased a completely new set of light bulbs even though most of the existing ones did not seem to be burnt out. But the rear turning signal lights were still acting up as well as the brake and reverse indicator lamps. So one block away on Kochari Street we found a garage that advertised wheel alignments, which I also needed, and we hoped that we could kill two birds with one stone. Unfortunately the guy who performs alignments was taking the day off, but there was a young electrician on hand who asked us to give him about an hour to do the job. He properly diagnosed the problem so that now every light, from the high beams to the fender turning signal lamps to the reverse directional indicators are all working properly, lit brighter than ever.
The next mission was to visit Hamlet’s extended family with his visiting uncle Ruben accompanying us in Artashat, which is located about 15 miles or 30 kilometers south of Yerevan. We took the old road which cuts through several small towns and villages including Nor Kharpert, which was founded by refugee settlers from the real Kharpert in Western Armenia just after the Armenian Genocide. Incidentally, the main public school of the small town contains a fascinating museum that I visited with my parents about the Armenian community of Kharpert, which has been renamed Elazig by the Turks.
In any case we arrived in Artashat in about a half-hour after embarking on our journey. The town is probably one of the dustiest in the entire country, probably due to a general lack of trees presumably because most of them were cut during the past 15 years. Artashat was one of several capital cities of Armenia, during its over 3000 year existence, at the turn of the first century AD. It was founded in 190 BC by King Artaxias at the urging of Hannibal the Carthaginian as a strategic outpost. Naturally the city became a battleground for waging forces as were many key areas throughout historic Armenia, having been leveled by Roman general Marcus Statius Priscus in 163 AD. The city lost its status as a political and cultural center for Armenian life in 428 AD. Now it is home to the renowned Artashat canning factory, which markets its varieties of pickles and pastes under the Artfood brand, so the city survives at least as a business center of sorts.
We showed up at the home of the Hovhanissyans, who are related to Hamlet on his mother’s side, just after 3:30 pm. Like Hamlet’s parents they migrated to Armenia from Iran over 50 years ago. Some parts of the family settled in Abovyan, where Hamlet is originally from. As soon as we walked in there was a huge spread laid out in the courtyard, and nearly all of them--Mariam, the elder of the Hovhanissyan clan, children, and grandchildren--were present. Mariam is Hamlet’s great aunt, and her son Krikor was the master of ceremonies as well as the main chef of the fabulous meal we were about to eat, which consisted mainly of meat, not surprisingly. In fact there were two courses of meat.
When we arrived gorgeous chunks of red pork dressed with oil, paprika, and slivered onions were being skewered, awaiting submersion into the coveted tonir oven. Krikor’s in-ground tonir, wider than most I have seen, is made from highly heat resistant rock bricks which seem to work just as nicely as clay for the oven, but the rough surface was not capable of supporting leaves of lavash for baking. As soon as the skewers were suspended by iron rods in the red-hot tonir and covered by various sheet metal scraps and cloths, Krikor started shouting for the lamb “khashlama” to be placed on the table as the unexpected first course. Khashlama, which is made from either lamb or beef, is simmered for several hours with potatoes and other vegetables, if desired. If done properly, the meat is tender and generally flavorful, but if the meat is tough the dining experience is unpleasant since the cuts chosen are those especially suited for braising or simmering, like the leg shanks. Krikor uses a special stock prepared from beer and whole peppercorns. Hamlet told me once before that his cousin used that bizarre combination, then my wife admitted to me last night that her father also prepared the dish the same way. You never know what you’re going to get with khashlama as I have been disappointed more times than satisfied. But I was shocked as to what I tasted. The meat was literally falling off the bone and was extremely tender. Even the sinew and cartilege were sweetly gelatinous and completely edible. The salt was just right, not overpowering as is evident in many Armenian dishes. Some of the bones seemed malleable, perfect munching for the family dog. The fat that had melted into the stock during the cooking process left a thin grease layer around my lips as I enjoyed the meat with roasted hot peppers wrapped in lavash. The lamb was superb, very fresh, and had no hints of gaminess whatsoever. I had two or three pieces during a half hour stretch along with about six toasts of chilled vodka (every one of which I could not possibly have drunk), which was produced by the nearby Avshar liquor company and was surprisingly fairly smooth. Incidentally, some of the toasts were crisscrossing between toastmasters with arguments breaking out during the ritual, shot glasses in hand. Etiquette requires that you patiently wait until the toastmaster and others interrupting him finish what they have to say before swigging the vodka—the wait time could last several minutes. Glasses clink at least two or three times before the gulp is downed. Krikor shouted at me from across the table to save room for the second course.
Shortly thereafter came the barbeque (khorovadz). Krikor explained his cooking tricks to me, but did not give out too many details. The least secretive one was his technique of inserting a small piece of thick bread at the end of each skewer, which supposedly protected the meat from falling into the slow flame at the bottom of the tonir (and from charring). He pulled the meat from the skewers with pieces of lavash doubling as heat-resistant mitts while someone else held the rod supporting the skewers above the wide but shallow lavash-lined metal pot. Each chunk of meat was separated by a potato slice that absorbed the dripping fat during the cooking process. I was surprised, yet again, by the roasted meat. Again, freshness is everything, and if you come across meat that is crusted over and on the verge of rotting, don’t touch it, as it will make for bad barbeque. The local pork was some of the best I have ever tasted. In fact, I do not remember eating tonir-roasted barbeque as good as Krikor’s. The color inside and out was beautiful, the likes of which you would see in photos of properly prepared meat dishes in cookbooks. It was indescribably perfect. High quality pork is not white or light pink as what is sold in the US—it has a dark red hue that is similar to that of lamb, and the texture of the flame-roasted meat is like beef. He calls his barbeque “Lah-lah,” and kept repeating “This is my Lah-lah,” which sounds like a woman’s nickname, as if he was talking about his beloved mistress. I tried to learn the definition of the term but I could not get a straight answer until he had another shot or two of vodka. While still at the table he cut open a perfectly roasted piece of pork filet, soft as butter, and said, “You see how beautiful this meat is, the way it’s been slowly cooked, and the color? That’s Lah-lah.” I finally understood then and there.
The meal was followed by revelry in song. Hamlet and Krikor took turns in singing traditional folk songs, and in between Hamlet’s uncle sang something in Farsi. Krikor simultaneously beat on his “dhol,” a double-skinned drum made from walnut measuring about a foot in height and 16 inches or so in diameter. As a young man he once performed at a wedding and earned 3,000 rubles, playing the dhol so long and fervently that his fingers began to bleed, the marks of which permanently stained the drum skin. He vowed never to change it.
Krikor is a life-loving man in is early 40s who is been blessed with humor and hospitality. He made me feel like I was a cousin visiting for the first time. But he is plagued by what is likely a mild form of altitude sickness resulting in high cerebral pressure. The medication he is taking at about $1.50 per tablet does nothing to ease his pain. Doctors have finally told him that he needs to leave for a country with a lower altitude, as the hopes are that the pressure will subside after an extended period of time so that he can resume his life in Armenia. He makes a living as a dental technician but lacks the proper equipment, namely a special kiln which is used for baking porcelain partials and is where the money is; thus he is forced to work with cheap gold alloys to cap teeth. I didn’t understand why he does not pursue opportunities in Yerevan—I am assuming because of his health. But Hamlet and I are hoping that somehow his luck will turn around for the better fairly soon.
Life in Armenia is strengthened by the contacts you make and the people you meet. The genuine Armenian experience is found outside Yerevan, as the soul of Armenia is in its villages. When you are brought into a family setting by a sponsor as I was, you are always welcomed with open arms and are treated as one of them. The times I have shared with families have always been memorable, even romantic. Every time there is an opportunity to visit those living in rural areas, no matter whether I am acquainted with them, I always take it because there is no other way to understand the people, customs, and heritage of this ancient nation. It is impossible to live in Armenia and ignore country life. The real Armenia does not exist in its cities, it thrives and bleeds in the heartland.