Beyond Kebabs

Most of the time, if you mention Armenian food, people conjure up images of lula kebabs and pilaf. And while I can’t go too long without lula (Beef? Lamb? Hello, the best of both possible worlds!) Armenian food does not end there. The next time you have a chance, venture into your local Armenian (or in some cases Middle Eastern) market and add some new staples to your pantry and refrigerator!

Until you have tried Armenian string cheese, you have not lived. We can’t keep it more than a day or two, because it gets ravenously snacked on as soon as it hits the refrigerator. It is a little saltier and a tad denser than the more familiar mozzarella variety, and black caraway (or nigella sativa) seeds are embedded within and permeate the entire cheese with their unique, herbal, almost oniony flavor. My husband likes to put it in grilled cheese sandwiches, or in pita with tomatoes and cucumbers– but my favorite way to devour it is simply to rip it off into ropy chunks and eat it straight.

There was a lot more cheese on this plate before I started taking pictures of it.
There was a lot more cheese on this plate before I started taking pictures of it.

There is an Easter bread that sometimes can be found during other times of the year, and if you are a fan of panettone, pan dulce or Greek Easter bread (tsoureki), you might also be a future fan of choreg. It has a faintly sweet, eggy dough speckled with nigella seeds, is braided, and then brushed with egg yolks for a pretty finish. If you see a bag of it, BUY IT. They look a bit like dinner rolls, but are so much better. Also, they make a really kickass bread pudding if substituted for the usual boring bread. Trust me on this.

One of my husband’s work friends knows he has a weakness for cured meats, so she brought him some basturma. I could see why this might not be to everyone’s taste– it is air-cured and still a raw pink, and while not hot-spicy does retain an herbal flavor from the cumin paste that was rubbed on it as it dried. I’m an adventurous eater, but it took me a few bites to rid myself of what I thought it should taste like, versus what it actually did taste like. I also found that I liked it better if I went ahead and pan fried it like prosciutto or if I put it on pizza. We have gone back to get more, but go when it isn’t too busy, because it takes a while to get shaved off and it’s rather intimidating to have a line of impatient Armenian grandmothers behind you.

I absolutely love that a basturma GIF exists! Photo credit: Nevit Dilmen
I absolutely love that a basturma GIF exists! Photo credit: Nevit Dilmen

The latest new thing we tried was also a present from our friend: Tarragon soda. What? I’ve got a history of putting tarragon on chicken, but that’s about it. It never ever occurred to me that it would be a soda flavor. But we tried it and liked it! Well, my daughter didn’t like it, but she doesn’t like Torani’s orgeat syrup either, and that is almost exactly what tarragon soda tastes like. That, or a virgin ouzo. I checked the ingredients– all natural tarragon flavor. Go figure!

As a Greek-American who lives in a city with no Greek restaurants or markets, it’s a relief to have Armenian markets to get some Greek standbys– loukoum, dried mint, rose and orange blossom water, and halvah– but it is only lately that I’ve come to appreciate the diasporic nature of Armenian food. Sometimes it is really Russian, sometimes more Turkish, sometimes pan-Middle Eastern– and I think it gets overlooked, blended into a general idea of what a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cuisine should be instead of appreciated for what it is. Kind of like my reaction to basturma. It looks like prosciutto jerky, so I expected basturma to taste like that. When it didn’t, my tastebuds rebelled– for a moment– then acclimated, then craved.

We are lucky, most Americans, to live in cities where there are little markets tucked into shopping centers that carry food from cultures not our own. Why not branch out? Why not take a peek into another culture through cuisine, like a tiny, armchair version of Anthony Bourdain?

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