Special for the Armenian Weekly
After finally receiving my 10-year residency card in Armenia, I knew the best way to celebrate would be to travel to Arstakh (Karabagh) without—finally!—needing a visa. Although I was one of the few people who still had to get out of the mashootka to prove I had it at the border, it still felt like a small victory.
I had farmers to meet, fields to visit, people to interview, and had asked our wonderful host family of Saro and Hasmik if they could organize one additional activity for me: a lesson on how to make the legendary jingalov hats.
For those who have never tried it, jingalov hats is a Karabaghtsi specialty. It’s a flat bread filled with more greens than you can count. I tried it on my first trip to Artsakh after happily discovering it was vegan, and its unique flavor piqued my curiosity right away. When I began asking about it, the information I received varied depending on who I asked; the general consensus, though, was that there are more than 40 wild herbs in it. This would have explained why I couldn’t put my finger on what the myriad of flavors was, but I knew by that point to always take such comments with a grain of salt. I tried jingalov hats from various places in Yerevan when I returned, even though I was warned not to, and of course the advisories were correct: horribly bland imitations with salt and oil as the main ingredients were what was available in most shops. The information I found online about it was very vague and often not true.
Hasmik said we would prepare it together the second night I was there, and that I could collect the herbs with her. On the first day I arrived in Shushi, I went to a small café with my German friend Monika and while we waited for our host family to finish work to meet them, she ordered a coffee and I ordered a tea. What we received instead were two servings of jingalov hats and a jug of red wine. A worker there had decided that would be best for us, and insisted that it was a rule that one could not eat jingalov hats without a fine red wine.
We laughed and dug into what was a very delicious and unexpected meal coupled with a surprisingly good wine, while he confused us with his Karabaghtsi dialect. I noticed one of the women in the kitchen had come back inside with a huge bowl filled with various greens she had clearly just picked. I bombarded her with questions and got the names of just some of the various herbs involved (once they were translated from Russian, of course). Right away I understood that this is a recipe-less dish.
When we finally arrived at Saro and Hasmik’s home, full and a little tipsy, Hasmik said she had already collected the herbs and showed them to me. I asked her about the rumor I had heard of the 40-plus greens and she laughed, saying that it can be more than 20 depending on the season, but it is usually between 15 and 20 different herbs, which I still thought was impressive. She said spring and fall were the best times to make it, as during any other time the greens tend to be too bitter. I was very happy to recognize stinging nettle featured in the greens used; it is a plant commonly treated as a weed, but is actually an adaptogen high in iron. I tried to get more names of the herbs that I did not recognize, but Hasmik had to remind me that there was no specific recipe one had to follow. Still, she had rules about what herbs did not go in. Thyme apparently does not make the cut, for example. Just as I was getting used to the no-rule mentality, I realized there were indeed some rules.
Hasmik learned how to make jingalov hats from watching her mother, and told me she was no professional. Still, she had lots of information and mentioned that it was created during difficult times with the mentality that “Karabaghstin sovadz chi mnoum” (the people of Karabakh do not remain hungry), noting the strong will and determination of the people. She said that was why it was more often translated as “forest bread,” as the idea was for people to eat whatever they could find in order to survive.
Saro recalled reading how under the reign of Louis XIII, peasants complained that they were hungry, to which Louis XIII responded, “Go into the forest.” During the war, the people of Artsakh made the first vegetarian broth of local wild greens, which, Saro shared, was better than any khash he had ever tasted, by gathering greens from the forest. This idea of gathering greens from the forest during difficult times is the same principle that is behind jingalov hats. Saro shared that it was through the story of jingalov hats and the vegetarian khash that he finally understood what Louis XIII had meant. It seems that Hasmik was right—“Karabaghtsin sovatdz chi mnoum.”
After a busy second day, we came home covered in mud and Hasmik said it was time to get started. The first thing she told me was that although some people use a lot of salt in their versions, she believed that greens do not like salt since it removes their water, and therefore used very little. Saro overheard this and said that a lot of salt was tastier. Hasmik politely asked him to leave the kitchen and do dghamartgants work. She cut up all the greens quicker than I would ever think possible, and Monika and I asked how many servings it would make. She told us “we’ll see,” reminding us that it was a recipe-less dish. She rolled the dough flat and put in generous amounts of the cut-up greens mixed with some salt, oil, and pepper, and closed it up.
While it looked simple enough, the moment it was my turn to put theory into practice, I could not even roll the dough thin enough, let alone close it without creating holes. I finally patched it up to meet the minimum standard, and while Hasmik assured me it was not the appearance that mattered, Saro asked me if I had ever cooked before. My confidence was re-gained once Monika (who bakes constantly, I might add) had her try. Hers was so bad that Hasmik made her re-do it and jokingly told her that she would get a 2/10 as a student and I confirmed with her that mine was in fact better. Victory number two.
We cooked them all on the saj pan until the dough was crispy, but it was important that the greens still remained fresh and crunchy. Right before we sat down to finally eat the fruits of our labor, Saro pulled out a wine and reiterated the apparently common knowledge of jingalov hats having to be coupled with a good red wine. Needless to say, as it was the freshest I had ever eaten it, it was the best one yet, and even Monika’s fish-shaped one was a hit (with her). When Saro asked if we would now make it ourselves, I had to remind him that it was a recipe-less dish, since people work with the greens available at the time, add the salt and oil to their liking, and no one has a full list of the greens usually used, just of the ones that shouldn’t be used.
I planned to return to Yerevan with a detailed recipe. But even though I watched it being made, asked as many questions as could be acceptable in a hot kitchen with too many people, and made it myself, jingalov hats remains an enigmatic dish that you must come to Artsakh to discover for yourself. I can live with that!