“I want you to make me Armenian food,” he said.
The first week of June, one of my very close non-Armenian friends was celebrating a birthday. He chose to celebrate with just me, since he was unable to have his typical big party. This friend is a major foodie; he loves to try cooking new dishes and is open to trying new flavors. He had never had Armenian food before, and he specifically requested for his quarantine birthday that I make him an Armenian meal.
I was overwhelmed at first. I had never cooked Armenian food before, as my mother or grandmother would usually make it at home or I would buy it from local Armenian markets. After consulting with my family and a few friends on dishes that would be fun and exciting but still palatable for someone who had never tried this type of food before, I decided to combine four different dishes to make a full Armenian meal: lahmajun, yalanchi, hummus and jajookh. In true Armenian woman fashion, I was making an entire feast for two people.
I did not have any recipes for these dishes and had no idea where to begin. Like any good Armenian daughter, I consulted my mother and grandmother. Through their social networks and recipe boxes, they were able to give me all the information (and fresh parsley) I needed to get started. My friend’s birthday was on Thursday, so my grandmother offered specific advice for the cooking order of operations: first, I would make the yalanchi filling on Monday. On Tuesday, I would put the filling in the grape leaves and cook them. On Wednesday, I would make the hummus. On Thursday, I would mix ingredients for the jajookh and make the lahmajun fresh. Cooking a full meal like this certainly takes time, but I was grateful to be able to space it out over multiple days.
On Monday, I began the process as planned. I donned an apron that my medz mama made for me with specific stitches and patterns indicative of the Marash region, where my father’s family came from after the Genocide. Making the filling for the yalanchi was not difficult. I had been given specific instructions to use “River Rice,” but could not find it in the grocery store. I grabbed whatever long grain rice I could find, cooked it with the onions, olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, spices and plenty of dill. I would have liked to use fresh dill, but could not find it in the grocery store, so I settled for dry dill instead. I cooked the mixture in a big pot and let it rest overnight. It smelled heavenly.
The next morning, I began the process of stuffing and rolling the grape leaves. This is where my rookie mistakes began. I should have realized this when the filling made about half as many grape leaves as had been mentioned in the recipe. Unfortunately, I overstuffed them. After boiling them in the pot, I removed the lid only to find that many of them had fallen apart. I salvaged what I could and put the rest in a separate container to keep as a “deconstructed yalanchi salad” for myself. The good news was they tasted fantastic! I would have left them in a little longer if they had not been exploding, as I tend to like the rice in my yalanchi a bit mushier than it came out.
On Wednesday, I made the hummus. As I was making it, my friend told me he had tried hummus only once in his life before and had not liked it. I decided to keep going anyway. The recipe called for four cloves of garlic and four tablespoons of lemon juice. I put a little extra of both these ingredients, blended it all in the food processor, and could not resist tasting it before Thursday. My friend tasted it too and is now converted to being a hummus fan!
Finally, on Thursday I made the lahmajun and jajookh. I cheated a bit with the lahmajun and used flour tortillas instead of making homemade dough due to time and resources. I believe this made my process significantly easier, though I also think it contributed to the edges burning a bit more than if I had used fresh dough. The recipe only called for basic ingredients: ground beef, parsley, onion, green pepper, garlic, and crushed tomatoes. I quadrupled the amount of garlic, as it originally called for just one clove of minced garlic, and mixed it with a spatula. (My friend and I are garlic lovers.) The recipe also called for water, but I think this made the mixture too moist, so it took longer to cook. The lahmajun met with strong approval from my friend who thought they were amazing.
The only part of the meal we were uncertain about was the jajookh. While healthy and refreshing, I am not sure if I achieved the correct ratio of cucumber, dill and garlic. At first I forgot the garlic, and the dish was quite bland! Putting some garlic in improved it slightly. I think the main problem was that I used store-bought yogurt. I am used to eating it with my grandmother’s homemade yogurt, which I was not yet brave enough to try. Maybe next time!
The entire birthday meal passed the taste test with flying colors. My friend could not get enough of the Armenian food and is eager to try more. Next on our list is choreg! I had a wonderful time channeling the women before me making these recipes and none of them were very difficult! I felt as if I was fulfilling a role I had been born to play but not yet tapped into. When I posted the pictures on social media, other Armenian friends commented asking for recipes, which I gladly shared with them. It was a wonderful feeling to be keeping these Armenian traditions alive, and I cannot wait to try more!