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Announcing the Spring: The Lenten food of Armenia
This weekend marked a date in the Chinese calendar called Qingming, one of the many festivals around the world that occur at roughly this time based on proximity to the Spring Equinox. For tea nerds like me, it announces the end of the first phase of tea season (the quality and price of many teas is measured by whether it is ‘mingqian’ - before Qingming) but for others it is a day to gather with family and sweep the tombs of ancestors, offering them gifts of food. This weekend was also Palm Sunday in the Western Christian tradition, marking the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, celebrated by the distribution and waving of palms (or whichever tree is nearest and available). Next Sunday is the Orthodox Palm Sunday and Catholic Easter; this Wednesday is the beginning of Pesach; later this month will mark the start of Ramadan.
All these festivals, which are celebrated by the gathering of people and marked by specific foods or modes of eating, will not take place in the same way this year. Over the next few weeks I intend to publish newsletters focused on these festivals, how they’re celebrated through food, and for some, how the pandemic will alter things and learn about the ways people are adapting.
The first is a fascinating piece by Jack Fargher on Lenten food in the Armenian Orthodox tradition, how it fits in with today’s shift towards veganism and perhaps what we could learn from it. For many Armenians, veganism at this time is not a trend but a way of living, based around one of the most mystical episodes in the New Testament when Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the desert and was tempted by Satan to fully reveal his power. In this tradition, the temptation to eat meat is a stand in for the devil, but also - as Jack points out - the clever use of pulses, nuts and vegetables makes sense at a time when fresh produce would be scarce. As the world awaits the full fecundity of spring and Lent draws to a close, there is perhaps no better time to learn to make - or at the very least - learn about these dishes which squeeze out pleasure from the most unassuming of ingredients.
And who knows, maybe 2021 will be the year of the Greggs vegan kibbeh?
Announcing the Spring: The Lenten food of Armenia
A single flower or a single swallow does not announce the spring
- Armenian proverb
Every year I go vegan. So what, right? Veganuary was embraced by thousands of Brits in January and the Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll was the dish of 2019. Veganism is no longer feared or shunned as it once was, and delicious, thoughtful meat-free dishes are being offered in more and more restaurants. For many communities in London, however, veganism is not a ‘new’ diet to help strip away the post-Christmas chub or an opportunity to wax lyrical about their sustainability credentials; it’s a necessity for physical and spiritual survival and connection to the past.
For Armenians, those connections are more complex than most. As the first nation to officially adopt Christianity in 304 CE, Armenians have practised Lenten Veganism for almost 1700 years and continue to do so every Easter. My partner is Armenian so that’s where my connection to this compelling food community comes from. Though she grew up in Cyprus, her parents are from Lebanon and Palestine and so her ‘Armenian food’ is studded with halloumi 10 different ways, za’atar flatbreads and tomato-led tabbouleh. For her family, Easter revolves around dishes to celebrate the end of the fasting period like Choreg, an Armenian-style challah laced heavily with mahlab (cherry stone powder) and dying hard-boiled eggs browny-red, allegedly a symbol of the hen’s sadness and sympathy at Christ’s passing. Even after surviving genocide, forced migrations and often multiple refugee displacements (to this day, unfortunately), this OG Veganuary is still practiced not only to endure the hunger pangs that Jesus’ had during his 40 days fast in the desert, but also to help ration food and eke out as much as possible from each ingredient during the ‘hungry gap’ (Jan to April), when resources are naturally scarce. Sounding familiar?’
Many London Armenians have routes to Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria and Iran as well as today’s Armenia, and so there are few restaurants in London that explicitly serve ‘Armenian food’. There’s one Armenian restaurant in Barbican which I’ve been meaning to go to for aeons, which I vow to the gods of quarantine, once this isolation period ends, I’m frog marching a band of friends down to if it’s still standing strong. Generally, however, if you want to experience Armenian food, it’s only through Armenian home cooks or by your own cooking. Luckily, we’ve all got a bit of time on our hands now, so what better time to dig in?
There’s a sweet everyday type of beauty to Armenian food; like an onion, you can cut it any which way you want to and as you peel away those layers, you’re more than likely to shed a tear or two. Armenian cuisine incorporates both the foods of present-day Armenia (‘Eastern Armenia’) and of current eastern Turkey (‘Western Armenia’), as well as dishes from many Middle Eastern countries where Armenian populations now dwell, such as Lebanon, Syria and Iran. With so many concentric cuisines, questions of ownership and appropriation endlessly abound. As with many foods from the Eastern Meditarrean, ‘History’ is constantly debated, kebab skewers easily drawn and, well, recipe books are often written by the victors.
If you’ve enjoyed minerally, garlic-laden sujukh (beef sausage), gossamer-thin and fenugreek-spiked basturma (cured beef) or lip smackingly sweet-sour muhammara (red pepper and pomegranate molasses dip) at a Lebanese restaurant on Edgware Road, maybe you’ve wondered why you’ve also found duplicate dishes at Turkish restaurants? It’s because you’re also enjoying Armenian food – dishes Armenian Genocide survivors took from Turkey to Lebanon - without even knowing it. Some people won’t want to hear that duality, but the reality is that Armenian and Turkish cuisines are endlessly entwined, and that’s okay. Meat features heavily, and though once just a celebratory food, it is now eaten abundantly, happily and non-stop after centuries of struggle without it. From vats of hangover-beating khash – boiled cow feet soup with a depth to match any French consomme – to crispy, lard-sodden pork rib kebabs called khorovats, meat is centre-stage to many Armenian meals. Despite this, Armenian cooks have for centuries used whole-grains, pulses and judicious spicing to satiate their Lenten hankerings for meat, especially when tough times meant they had to do without.
Many Lenten dishes are also alimentary signposts to Armenian meanderings across the Middle East, and other Orthodox communities such as Greeks and Greek Cypriots cook similar dishes too. Baki Sini Kofte or Kibbe – a popular dish in Lebanon – is a traybake of crispy crunchy bulgur which emulates a minced meat filling using potatoes, walnuts, pomegranate molasses and allspice. Chi kofte – a red pepper paste and bulgur ‘meatball’ – is popular throughout Turkey and with ‘Western Armenians’, those who fled Turkey in the early 20th century and who continue cooking this dish at weddings and celebrations. Topig – a cold chickpea-based dumpling stuffed with numerous dried fruits and nuts – graces many a mezze spread in Istanbul, with its origins as an Easter appetizer. Lastly, Tahinov Hatz –a crumbly tahini cookie encrusted in brown sugar and cinnamon baked with oil rather than butter – appears in a number of different guises in Cyprus, and Turkey too.
Armenian Lenten dishes are simultaneously ancient, on-trend and relevant to the situation Londoners find themselves in for the foreseeable future, as we delve deeper into the cupboards, as supermarket shortages become the norm, and as online distribution struggles to keep up with our smartphones. London supports so many amazing food communities, yet there are many that have little presence outside home cooking and deserve further appraisal. Personally, I’m finding solace in cooking these simple, satisfying meals. Spirituality through spice and side dishes is one I can get on board with. Like the proverb suggests, maybe Spring is simply just a state of mind.
Baki Sini Kufte / Armenian Kibbeh
This Armenian recipe is served family style, so it's great for batch cooking or for sharing with your fellow isolators; It’s basically a crispy Middle Eastern Shepherd’s Pie and the allspice makes it sing. Pomegranate molasses and bulgur wheat can be found in most larger supermarkets, with an even wider selection at any local Turkish/Lebanese grocery or cornershop. Serve with a luscious salad of your choice and lemon wedges for extra zing.
Use as much butter as you like; I’m sure neither Jesus nor the quarantined gods will judge.
Adapted from ‘Vegetarian Dishes from the Middle East’ by Arto der Haroutounian
Serves 4 (with a bit leftover)
2 potatoes, boiled, peeled and mashed
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
2 cup of walnuts, chopped (150g)
½ cup of pine nuts, whole (50g)
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon chili flakes (I used pul biber - not too spicy but fragrant and fruity)
2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
½ a lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons Butter/Vegan alternative/Olive Oil
500g bulgur - fine or coarse, whatever you can find
4 potatoes, boiled, peeled and mashed
½ small onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
A4 piece of baking paper
Pinch of allspice
2 tablespoons of Butter/Vegan alternative
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons water
Peel and boil potatoes till soft (20 minutes), then set aside.
Prepare the filling. Fry onions in oil/butter until translucent. Add the garlic until slightly golden and then stir in the chopped walnuts, allspice, salt, pepper and pine nuts. Season to taste.
Once combined, add pomegranate molasses and lemon juice. Stir thoroughly and cook for a few minutes until it resembles a minced meat texture. Set aside, stir in the parsley and leave to cool.
Prepare the kofte. Rinse the bulgur in a sieve until it runs clear and then leave on some baking paper for 10 minutes to dry.
After 10 minutes, add the bulgur to the mashed potato, onion, salt and pepper and knead for 5-10 minutes until the mixture is as smooth as possible. Divide in two.
Preheat the oven to 190C/gas mark 5.
Grease a shallow ovenproof casserole dish with butter/olive oil. Sprinkle a little allspice on the base and then spread half the kufte mixture over the bottom, pressing down firmly. Cover evenly with the walnut mixture and spread the final kufte layer, again pressing firmly.
Cut through all the layers with diagonal or straight lines – whatever pattern you prefer. Dab each segment with melted butter if you’re using. Mix the oil and water together and pour over the top.
Place in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes or until the top is crispy and golden. Serve immediately with copious lemon wedges, top quality yoghurt and chili flakes.
Jack Fargher is a market manager at KERB, as well as a food writer and historian with a deep love for all things Levantine. He was paid for this article.
The illustration was done by Tara Tate, an artist and designer of Armenian heritage whose work you can find at https://www.taratate.com/ . Tara was also paid for her work for this article.
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