Eating is more than just sustenance in Armenia; it’s vital to the warm hospitality for which the nation is known. Get talking to any Armenian and there’s a good chance you’ll be invited to dinner and presented with any number of regionally grown and lovingly prepared dishes to savour. To say no would not only be futile but also be deeply foolish.
Armenian cuisine has much in common with Persian and Arab cooking. A typical Armenian dinner table will be laden with a variety of complementing tastes and textures, from smoky barbecued meats and salty baneer cheese to crunchy raw veg destined to be stuffed into folds of traditional leavened lavash bread and enjoyed over the course of several hours. Presented with modest simplicity, Armenian food is a lesson not only in flavour but culture, history and humanity – and there’s no better way to learn than to pull up a chair. Here are six dishes you should not miss.
A staple at every table, lavash is a traditional soft flatbread that resembles a colossal Mexican tortilla. The dough is made from a simple combination of flour, salt and water, though it’s in the centuries-old technique that the magic really lies. The tonir, or oven, is a deep circular cavern that is sunken into the ground with a blistering hot fire at its base. After being rolled and cut on a baking board, the dough is hand-spun like a pizza base before being stretched out over a padded batat, which resembles a mini ironing board. Bakers then vigorously slap the stretchy dough onto the side of the oven where it crisps up in a matter of minutes. Once the bread is ready, it is typically removed by the most senior baker before being frisbeed onto a rapidly building pile. Amateur bakers can roll up their sleeves at Sergey’s Place, a traditional restaurant nestled in a leafy garden in Garni, just minutes from the Greco-Roman Garni Temple and 27km east of Yerevan. Under the guidance of wisened lavash makers Noyem and Nariné, visitors can swirl and slap to their heart’s content, before sampling the finished product with a spread of local delicacies.
Gata is to Armenians what crepes are to the French; fresh, doughy and available everywhere. Devoured morning, noon and night by sweet-toothed locals, the dense, bready cake is a mixture of butter, flour and sugar with various nut and fruit fillings on offer. For a true gata education, look no further than Haghartsin Gata in the grounds of Dilijan’s Haghartsin Monastery, 100km north of Yerevan. Here, sisters Lusaber and Susana run a tight ship, communicating through a series of expressive grunts, which leave little room for misinterpretation. We’re told, via our guide, that we will be shown the technique for making gata once and once only, though the tough masks soon begin to slip as the sisters hoot with laughter and dish out grandmotherly hugs when the cakes emerge hot and golden from the wood-fired oven. Enjoy your handiwork fresh out of the pan while wandering around the impressive 13th-century monastery. The Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, was so impressed during his 2005 visit that he funded an entire refurbishment, though his opinions on its gata remain a mystery.
Armenia’s famously loaded vine and cabbage leaves are packed full of minced meat and rice, stewed slowly in a light sauce and served up tapas style, ready to be thrown back in gluttonous abandon. If you opt to eat in a homestay (which you absolutely should), the range of dolma on offer can be overwhelming, featuring a pick ‘n’ mix of bulghur, nuts, spices, veg and dried fruits. In restaurants, common dolma tends to comprise minced meat and rice with an increasing number of vegetarian options available. For a stimulating way to sample dolma, head to Sherep Restaurant just steps away from Yerevan’s Republic Square. From the open kitchen and live music to the chic industrial décor, the lively space is brimming with character for a tantalising night on the tiles.
Khurjin is a dish you will eat once and dream about for all eternity. The lamb parcel is wrapped in lavash dough to the effect of a clay jar, which is ceremoniously snipped open at the table using silver tongs and kitchen scissors. The outpouring of tomatoes, onions and succulent morsels of buttery lamb is an eruption of gastronomic bliss, creating a molten cascade of flavours unlike anything else in the Caucases or beyond. For five-star khurjin, head to Lavash Restaurant in Yerevan for farm-to-table fare served up in a bright and airy dining room that spills out onto the street. Don’t leave without a wedge of the famous milfey, a towering dessert of crispy layered pastry and silky cream.
Khorovats – or barbecued meats – are served everywhere from fine-dining restaurants to roadside stalls. Seasoned skewers of pork, chicken, lamb and beef are typically barbecued over wood coals and dished up with a parcel of lavash. The Armenian word for “life lived to the fullest”, khorovats are served at every Armenian gathering, be it a wedding celebration or a birthday party, with waiters regularly dancing as they serve the sizzling skewers. To enjoy a similar jovial atmosphere, few places compare to Tavern Yerevan Riverside in the capital. Here, live theatrical performances are staged regularly, complete with an all-singing, all-dancing cast – though the waiters remain suitably stationary between services.
Though it may seem gratuitous to add fruits and vegetables to a list of iconic dishes, the garden crudités in Armenia really are a highlight of any meal. Outside of Yerevan, the most popular occupation is agriculture, and the quality of locally grown produce is notable and rare. Armenians grow what the climate favours. Food is seasonal and hasn’t crossed continents to make it to your plate. The country is perhaps best known for its apricots, though peaches, pomegranates, plums, cherries and grapes all flourish in Armenian soil. Salads – or aughtsan – are remarkably fresh, with both mixed dishes and raw platters usually served early on in a meal. Perhaps most unusual to a foreign palate is red ruben basil, a highly fragrant herb with a distinctive dark purple hue and strong notes of aniseed. Though served in almost every restaurant, local fruits, veg and herbs are best enjoyed with a view. Zarni Parni Restaurant in Haghpat is 170km north of Yerevan, teetering on a cliffside with rolling green mountains and picturesque valleys as far as the eye can see. Overlooked by an accessible cave fortress and museum, it’s a tremendous way to combine culture and cuisine and a fitting end to your Armenian culinary schooling.