Cow’s Hoof Soup
The title of this entry may sound like the name of a rock album, but seeing that I partook in a khash party Sunday morning I figured that it was more than appropriate.
The season has once again arrived for consumption of the coveted khash. When you think about it, you can’t help but ponder what a bizarre event it is to collect with six or more people and eat a soup laden with fat slowly simmered for at least eight hours made from cow’s hoof, with cartilage and some meat still left on the bone. Even Sergey, the host of the event, admitted the same thing to me yesterday, and he grew up on the stuff.
I asked him about the preparation process. He told me that he purchased on Thursday two “fresh” lower beef shanks from the butcher in the village, with the skin and actual hoofs removed obviously leaving the calves up to the knee, which were promptly inserted into a large container filled with water. The shanks have to soak for a minimum of two days to ensure that all the blood is released from the meat, and the water is changed at least six times during that time period until it is no longer cloudy. The night before the actual feast (khash is usually eaten at early morning, at the very latest by 11:00 am), the legs are inserted into a large enough pot so that everyone attending will have at least two bowlfuls if they so desired. Nothing is added to the water as the lower shanks simmer. It takes about 10 hours for the broth to be ready.
The story behind the khash and why people eat it was told to me once before. In a nutshell, the “poor” downtrodden class of Armenian society would buy (or perhaps extract from the garbage, I’m not exactly sure) the hoofs of the cow, peel then, and prepare soup. Somehow the “rich” folk caught on and started eating it themselves, thereby driving up the price of cow’s hoofs I imagine.
As I mentioned in a previous post written a while back the seasoning process is a sacred ritual. You can stir in only two additives, garlic and salt, and as much of it as you like. Then you have to crumble as much dry lavash bread as possible with the goal of totally absorbing the soup. Finally the garlic-infused soggy mess with manageably large enough segments of fresh lavash bread is scooped up and crammed it into your mouth. I like to leave some broth in the bowl occasionally sipping it with my spoon although no one seems to understand why. Naturally someone has to comment that I still have not learned the proper way of eating the stuff, but more power to their complaining—they wouldn’t be Armenians if they didn’t express dissatisfaction to some extent. They’re lucky I bothered to show up to eat it in the first place.
But basically without the salt and garlic the stuff is inedible, even Sergey admitted as much. Personally I make sure there’s plenty of garlic in the broth since I love it anyway and it always makes something taste fantastic no matter how revolting by appearance or concept it may be. You also need vodka on hand to help you forget what your eating undoubtedly and of course add some extra flavor. We were fortunate enough to drink some apricot vodka prepared by Sergey’s brother Mais who studied the art winemaking and distilling spirits. He apparently worked as a quality control supervisor in a Soviet-era winery. The vodka was simply exquisite, silky smooth, no aftertaste or harshness of any kind, and the fruity aroma was heavenly, with hints of chamomile and pure honey painstakingly prepared with the nectar of wildflowers.
There was some trouble along the way—because Gurgen, his brother who helps manage the operations, made the khash in the trailer located smack dab in the middle of his farm about six kilometers west from the highway, due to the heavy rains that fell over the last two days the dirt road leading there was basically a muddy fiasco riddled with puddle-filled potholes. At one point the mud was so soft that I was forced to engage in 4x4 mode, something I have had to do on only one other occasion in all my adventures, despite climbing mountains on roads where the asphalt was in total shambles replaced by rocks which settled as a result of erosion and so forth. The Niva was fishtailing so I was close to sliding off the road a few times, and probably would have had I not carried four passengers.
Armenian black coffee was served as the digestif and naturally a Belot tournament ensued, a card game that was always perplexing to me, the rules of which seem random. The only thing I know of the top of my head is that it is played with four people and the two sitting opposite one another are a team. Each dealt hand is preceded with the following example of conversation between the players:
“What do you have?”
“Eleven of hearts.”
“Ten of hearts.”
“Twelve of clubs.”
“Is the ace of clubs acceptable?” one guy asks the person sitting next to him.
“Sure,” which is always the response to such a question. The designated scribe then writes something on a notepad, then after the hand is played he apparently jots down a score before the process resumes. Arguments and criticism are unavoidable at the end of each played hand. I have found this to be true at any place where I have been unfortunate enough to observe the game, whether in the social club back home in Watertown or in the middle of a field at the foot of Mount Ararat.
I had to rush back to Yerevan since my landlord was coming over to investigate the cause of a mysterious leak coming from the ceiling of the WC. The rest of the guests had to take off as well. Otherwise there would have been an optional barbeque to end the day, which acts as a sort of desert I imagine. I also had the urgent need to take a post-khash nap, which is the only adverse side-effect.