From pickles to pilaf, these are Armenia’s best bites.
To the uninitiated, eating in Armenia can be discombobulating. One meal you could be spooning tabbouleh onto flatbread and licking tahini off your fingers, while the next you might be excavating a mound of Russian-style potato salad or gobbling down dumplings that wouldn’t look out of place in a dim sum parlor. That’s the joy of Armenian food: It cherry-picks the most enticing flavors from Persia, Russia, Georgia, and the Levant to shock even the most jaded of palates.
But Armenian cuisine isn’t just an East-West hodgepodge—it’s very much its own thing. Dishes like khash, a garlicky trotter stew, and lavash, the nation’s omnipresent flatbread, have graced the Armenian table for centuries if not millennia. And the discovery of the world’s oldest known winery in the Areni Cave complex makes Armenia a contender for wine’s place of origin (though Georgia currently holds the title).
Today the question of what Armenian food is—and what it isn’t—is highly subjective (and even contentious), since the Armenian diaspora stretches from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles to Moscow and beyond; in fact, nearly three-quarters of the world’s Armenians live outside the mother country. The main impetus for this dispersal was the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which forced millions of Armenians to flee their ancestral home of eastern Turkey. These Levantine refugees cooked quite differently from their Armenian brethren farther east, which is why Armenian cooking in diaspora communities often skews more Middle Eastern than most of the food you’ll encounter in Armenia today.
The differences between eastern and western Armenian culinary traditions would grow more pronounced in the decades following World War I, when Armenia came under Soviet control. Collectivized farming homogenized and Russia-fied Armenian cuisine, replacing lamb with pork and beef and wine with vodka and cognac. Food was scarce to begin with, and those who could afford it were introduced to Eastern European dishes like chicken Kiev, borscht, and okroshka that supplanted countless traditional Armenian recipes.
Thankfully a new generation of Armenians is reclaiming its culinary past. In Yerevan, restaurants like Dolmama, Tapastan, and The Club spotlight dishes from both eastern and western culinary canons with some international touches (teriyaki sauce! prosciutto!) sprinkled in. And then there are organizations like the 1,000 Leaf Project, whose mission is to research and promote edible wild plants and mushrooms that were once a cornerstone of the Armenian diet.
Waves of repatriation of diaspora Armenians from Lebanon, Iran, and (most recently) Syria and beyond are also shaking up the country’s food scene with previously unfamiliar Levantine-influenced dishes. For instance, Yerevanians can now choose whether they want their lahmajoon, a meat-topped flatbread, served old-school (with lemon and parsley) or Syrian-style (with pomegranate molasses and Aleppo pepper).
In the midst of all the culinary cross-pollination, compiling a be-all-end-all list of Armenia’s best bites might sound like a fool’s errand at best and a death wish at worst (we can hear the Armenian grandmothers turning in their graves)—so consider these dishes a delicious jumping-off point, an Armenian-food CliffsNotes to keep in your back pocket whether you’re in the Caucasus or at your local Armenian restaurant.
Dolma is the catch-all name for vegetables stuffed with meats and grains. In the summer, tender cabbage leaves and hollowed-out zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes heaped with spiced beef, rice, and fresh herbs are fixtures on the Armenian table, only to be switched out for tart and briny grape leaves (and in west Armenian communities, apples and quince) in the fall and winter. Served warm or at room temperature, dolma can be eaten plain—in nothing but their rich, slow-simmered juices—or enriched tableside with madzoon, thick Armenian yogurt.
Pushkin famously griped in Voyage to Arzum that Armenian bread was “half-dough and half-ash.” Poor, poor Alex—he obviously never tried lavash, one of the tastiest breads on earth. Baked until blistered and crackling on the wall of a tonir, Armenia’s traditional tandoor-like oven, lavash is speckled and puffy like good naan and pliable like a fresh tortilla. It sops up sauces, envelops baked meats and fish, and swaddles juicy kabobs. Lavash tastes remarkably different from kitchen to kitchen despite its short ingredient list (flour, water, salt, butter, and sometimes yeast or ttkhmor, sourdough starter) and is deceptively tricky to make. Armenians have been eating lavash for centuries if not millennia, says Kate Leahy, author of the soon-to-be-published Lavash cookbook. “Armenia is a cradle of wheat biodiversity, so it’s likely that some form of lavash was made in prehistoric times,” she says. “Archaeological findings around Yerevan show that tonirs [ovens] were present in the time of the Urartu civilization, which preceded the first Armenian kingdoms.”
Not to be confused with the North African chile paste, Armenian harissa (aka keshkeg) is a thick, savory porridge of cracked wheat and pounded chicken or lamb. Think risotto as opposed to cream of wheat—harissa is a decadent special-occasion dish that requires hours of constant stirring and an experienced hand. Armenians around the world typically tuck into the buttery mash on Easter day, when the Lenten fast is broken.
The Brits have scones, the Chinese have youtiao, and the Armenians have gata, a sweet, egg-rich bread that sings alongside tea or a cup of surj, wickedly dark Armenian coffee. The magic of gata lies in its gooey center, a melt-in-your-mouth “custard” of flour, butter, sugar, and (sometimes) walnuts that’s encased in a brioche-like dough. The pastry varies widely in shape and ingredients depending on the region, reason enough to sample it as often and in as many places as possible.
Lahmajoun is Armenian fast food at its finest. The floppy, inhalable flatbread is topped with spiced meat, crushed tomatoes, a flurry of parsley, and a healthy spritz of lemon juice. Try a textbook version at Mer Taghe in Yerevan, a lahmajoun institution that’s been slinging pies for nearly two decades, or sample a more Levantine-influenced iteration, redolent of pomegranate molasses and cinnamon, at Lahmajun Gaidz, a pocket restaurant owned by Gaidzak Jabakhtchurian, a Syrian refugee.
To make khash, all you need is cow hooves, water, and time. Armenia’s love-it-or-hate-it hangover cure, this panacean soup is eaten for breakfast with palate-jolting add-ins like fresh garlic, salt, vinegar, and lemon juice. Cooking khash may be a straightforward endeavor, but eating it is an elaborate, ceremonial affair. Each person’s bowl sits over a candle (lest the broth cool), and lavash is draped over every dish to further trap in the heat. There may even be poetic toasts led by a tamadan, or toastmaster, that adhere to a preordained order rooted in centuries of tradition.
Khorovats, or barbecued food, is inescapable in Armenia, and that’s a good thing: It’s a treat to have such ready access to the primal pleasures of meat grilled over open flame. To make khorovats, you simply thread chunks of salted pork, lamb, or beef onto a shampoor, or skewer, and let the fire do the rest of the work. Vegetables are merely decorative here—khorovats are all about the meat. Traditionalists insist that marinades and sauces, particularly those with vinegar, detract from the pure, fresh flavor of the meat, though anyone who’s sampled the tangy mulberry gastrique that accompanies barbecue dishes at Dolmama restaurant in Yerevan may beg to differ.
This autumnal show-stopper consists of a scooped pumpkin filled to the brim with spice-scented rice, toasted nuts, and dried fruit. Ghapama is so universally irresistible that Armenian pop sensation Harout Pamboukjian rhapsodized it in a ditty called “Hey Jan Ghapama,” whose catchy chorus many Armenians know by heart. The dish makes a fine counterpoint to savory mains—grilled pork chops and Thanksgiving turkey spring to mind—and an impressive standalone dessert.
If you dig the salty, umami-rich funk of beef jerky, just wait until you try basturma, Armenia’s dry-cured beef rubbed with fenugreek, allspice, garlic, cumin, and a host of other spices. In restaurants, it’s often sliced paper thin and plated alongside olives and a tangle of chechil, flossy Armenian string cheese, while home cooks like to fold it into scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions. Impress your Armenian friends by making basturma yourself: As cooking projects go, basturma is relatively easy to make, and a little goes a long way.
These dainty thumb-sized dumplings are especially popular among west Armenians, who devour them by the dozen on special occasions. Unlike Georgian khinkali, which are boiled, manti bake side by side like Parker House rolls until their allspice-scented meat is cooked through and the dumplings’ outer edges are shatteringly crisp. The final flourish? Dollops of spicy tomato or red pepper sauce and garlicky yogurt passed tableside.
For many Armenians, weeknight fare means yeghents, or pilaf, made from rice, bulgur, or cracked wheat cooked in broth and enlivened by spices, onions, dried fruits, and fresh herbs. Not unlike Indian biryanis, yeghents often incorporate meats, vegetables, and legumes to turn them into a filling one-pot meal. A favorite variation, particularly in Armenian-American households, is arishta plav, a Mount Ararat of butter-toasted egg noodles and rice cooked in chicken broth. As with many pilafs, the trick to achieving its characteristic nutty flavor is browning the grains in clarified butter before adding the broth.
Matzoun, or yogurt, is everywhere in Armenia, and it’s always unadulterated—no raspberry-banana swirl here. You won’t miss the flavorings: Armenia’s yellow-tinged milk is so fresh, rich, and pure that a spoonful of matzoun will forever ruin the bland yogurt you’re used to back home. Try it in its liquid form as tahn, a yogurt beverage (ingredients: yogurt, water, salt) that’s an ideal counterpoint to chile-spiked dishes like Syrian-style sujuk and pickled hot peppers.
In Armenia, “kabob” doesn’t describe an entire genre of grilled meats like it does in Turkey and the Middle East but rather a specific, succulent dish of spiced ground beef or lamb kneaded around a shampoor and roasted over fire. Dried mint, cumin, onion, and a bevy of other aromatics find their way into the mix, but the smoky char is what gives these elongated “meatballs” their signature summery taste.
For a landlocked country, Armenia boasts a surprising array of fish dishes, and ishkan, trout, reigns supreme. The sweet, white-fleshed Sevan Lake variety needs little more than salt, pepper, and a squirt of lemon juice to coax it to perfection, and that’s precisely how it’s served at Cherkezi Dzor, a family-run restaurant on the outskirts of Gyumri that breeds the fish in idyllic on-site ponds (catching actual Sevan Lake trout is illegal for conservancy concerns). “The secret to great trout is raising it in cold spring water from the mountain,” says owner Hrach Gevorgian. “Trout, fried potatoes, and a glass of Armenian white wine—there’s truly nothing better.”
Pickles called torshi are a bright and crunchy counterpoint to Armenia’s meat-heavy meals. Cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, cauliflower—almost every summer vegetable finds its way into brine for year-round enjoyment in Armenia. Some cooks toss in sliced beetroot with the veggies to imbue their torshi with a cheery fuchsia tinge.