Like anywhere, the best food in Armenia is home cooking. No restaurant can begin to compete with the lavish attention and extraordinary dishes Armenians create in their kitchens. The table often groans under courses served at the same time, and it is considered an affront to refuse to taste everything, the cook often considering it a bad reflection on her culinary skills.
As a tourist, you will have limited opportunities to enjoy dinners at home, but if you are invited, by all means go! You'll wonder what happened between the home hearth and restaurants forever thereafter. For Armenian cuisine--developed over thousands of years of multi-ethnic recipes--has somehow been reduced to grilled meat and vegetables at almost very venue in the country. Most visitors rave about the succulent grilled pork, beef and chicken--until they have had the same menu every day they are here. Expats most often complain about the same ole same ole, one even calling the food bland (This from someone whose national cuisine is meat loaf).
These same folks also rave about the incredibly fresh and tasty fruits and vegetables grown in Armenia. The variety is astonishing, beginning with apricots and peaches, both of which originated in Armenia, through cherries, apples, grapes, figs, pomegranates, pears, quince, plums, oranges, lemons, an incredible variety of melons, squash, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, onions, potatoes, carrots, peas, beans, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts---the list is almost endless, and each region has it's own special variety and type which are mouthwatering just to look at.
Herbs and spices include cinnamon, cardamom, clove, cumin, nutmeg, garlic, thyme, rosemary, parsley, sage, as well as wild salad herbs (called greens), that include water cress, lettuce and spinach. Wild rice and wheat still grow much as they did 15,000 years ago, when mankind first began to cultivate them.
It does take some knowledge of Armenian food to enjoy the full variety, and you need to understand that recipes are prepared seasonally, using the freshest meats, vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices available.
Places to Eat, To Buy Food
Armenia still separates restaurants (formal sit-down affairs) from café's (which may or may not serve hot meals) and bistros (sit down, stand up, take out, eat in-- it's hot, its there, and it's usually fast). A "Fast Food Restaurant" is a misnomer to your average Armenian, still conditioned to the old days when restaurants were the harbingers of waiting for hours while surly staff sat idly by and sipped their tea, or choosing from menus dripping with indecipherable lists of food (and a little grease from the kitchen), not a single one of which was available except for the party at the next table.
While restaurants are much improved, they are also expensive; typical meals can run to $30 or more per person for the unsuspecting diner in Yerevan. Restaurants outside Yerevan are a little cheaper, but you need to figure on spending an average of $7-10 per person for full course meals with wine. Restaurants have tablecloths, printed menus, and serving staff to take orders and serve food. They often have live bands that play a variety of light muzak to Armenian traditional music, and customers often erupt into traditional dance as the evening continues.
Cafes are a legacy in Armenia, which was the first republic of the Soviet Union to be allowed to open them. Most are on sidewalks or in parks, but a number of small bistros are called cafes. At cafes you can order snacks, sandwiches and drinks, and some offer hot meals. And of course coffee, which comes in two varieties: Nescafe instant, or Haikakan Style (Armenian Style).
Coffee is often ordered with water (order soverakan or you'll get a bottle of mineral water which you have to pay for), and a pastry or cake. The joy of cafes is that they almost always set in parks or have plants and flowers around, many have small fountains nearby, and you can sit as long as you like, watching the world go by, visiting with friends, and just contemplating why there isn't a café as nice as this in your neighborhood.
Bistros are small restaurants that serve limited menus often displayed at a front counter. Some have menus and wait staff, and often the difference between a bistro and a restaurant is negligible except bistros are much more reasonably priced ($3-7 for set meal). A bistro will tend to have specialty dishes and more homemade food, a number in Yerevan feature Georgian and Russian specialties, as well as grilled food and the ever present khorovatz (barbecued pork).
Also known as Bistros, Snack bars are strictly stand up or eat and run affairs, with fixed sandwich or specialty menus. Snack bars usually offer fried potatoes and soft drinks on the menu, but the emphasis is on fast food. Snack bars and Bistros are the best option for travelers on the go. Food Stands are scattered throughout City parks and near shukas (food markets). They specialize in very limited menus, which are filling and can be bought for as cheap as 50 AMD ($0.10) a portion.
T'khvatsk Shops (t'kh-VAHTSK, Bakeries, patisserie)
Entrikner sell cakes (traditional and western style cream cakes), cookies, chocolates, sweets and soft drinks. Armenians pride themselves on their desserts, and authentic recipes are delectable. The incredible concoctions called cakes (torte) can be too much sugar filled and lacking in specific taste, but traditional walnut and honey treats and the national dessert called gata are delicious.
Shukas are Fresh Food markets, known as rinoks (REE-noks) in Russian. You owe it to yourself to visit a shuka while here, if for nothing else than sampling the myriad smells of fresh produce and spices. Shukas are stocked with freshly butchered meat (sometimes set apart from the main shuka in a separate location), fish, vegetables and fruits piled in beautiful designs, spices, a variety of greens (fresh herbs), mushrooms, cheeses and dairy products, breads and a few canned food shops mixed in the throng. Often farmers will stand outside the main entrances peddling the same quality foods for a little less. Recently, sidewalk sellers have begun to gravitate towards shukas, where they sell everything from hardware, light bulbs, toiletries and magazines. Sellers offer anyone they think might buy a free sample and you should feel free to taste before buying. There are no fixed prices at a shuka, so bargaining is required, often considered an essential part of the shopping experience. A good Armenian phrase to learn is verchin gina inch eh? (vehr-CHEEN geen-ah eench eh?) which means "What's the final price?" since you can haggle for ages, and this phrase cuts to the quick.
One of the best times to shop at a shuka is in the Autumn, when the apples and grapes are in season--the varieties and tastes are overwhelming. Armenian food is practically chemical free, a benefit of the collapse of the local economy, which made chemical fertilizers unavailable or too expensive. As a result, though, you may not see the gorgeous colors you are used to in the USA, but then again, you won't have to put up with bland tastes--this food is incredible.
Bread shops offer freshly baked bread at affordable prices (150 AMD is the average). The typical bread is a leavened oblong loaf about an inch high, made from a mixture of whole and white wheat. "Box loafs" are also available, as is the traditional Armenian bread, called lavash. Lavash is very large paper thin, chewy bread that can only be made by hand, often in underground ceramic kilns. Good lavash has a flexible texture to it, and looks nutty-brown when cooked. Lavash is easily dried, and can be re-used by sprinkling water on it then covering with cloth and letting sit for a while. It also makes excellent soup crackers (esp. with Khash), and we have even made respectable fried tortilla chips from it.
Breakfast (nakhajash, entrik: nah-khah-JAHSH, un-TREEK)
Most Armenians make do with a cup of Armenian Coffee, bread and jam, though more lavish spreads include cold meats, fish, pickled vegetables and omelets. A tasty version is made with whipped eggs and fresh tomatoes (ask for a tomati omelet). Restaurants and hotels serve the more lavish affair, which costs between $2-5, or is included in your overnight fee. Café's primarily offer pastries or cakes for breakfast. A real favorite in the rural areas is mountain yogurt (matsun, mah-TSOON), that comes in several consistencies, all of them incredibly delicious. If yours is a little sour, just add sugar or honey.
Lunch (jash, nakhajash: JAHSH, nah-khah-JAHSH)
Traditionally mid day meals are light, with the main meal occurring around 5-7 p.m., after work. If you order josh, you will get a large multi-course meal. nakhajash is a light meal.
The evening meal occurs after 5 p.m., with restaurants and bistros serving until midnight or the last guest leaves. A full course meal in Armenia begins with appetizers (also known as salads), that feature herbs (greens), cheese, sliced sausage, basturma and sujukh (dried spicy beef), prepared bean and vegetable salads and bread. First course is usually soup (spas, borsch, piti are specialties to ask for), or other prepared specialty (mushroom julienne is something to try). The main course is a variation on meat or fish, though there may be two main courses, varying between the two. Tradition demands that fruit and dessert always completes the menu, along with a demitasse of Armenian coffee and sweets.
Late Meal (entrik)
Customary late meals before sleeping are very light, with herbal or western tea, bread and jam, perhaps matsun (mah-TSOON, yogurt). A specialty of Armenia is Walnut jam (popok muraba: poh-POHK moo-rah-BAH), which is made from green walnuts that are boiled in sweet syrup until as tender as plums. It is a true traditional dish found only in Armenia.
Appetizers: khortik ("khohr-TEEK")
Be careful of the first course! Most foreigners make the mistake of chowing down as though it is the main meal, only to discover that there are three more course to go! The first course is usually a selection of sliced yershik (yehr-SHEEK, sausage) and Armenian basturma (bah-stourm-AH) and sujukh (shoo-ZHOOK), two varieties of a pastrami-like meat (also compared to beef-jerky, but that does no justice to its delicate aromas and tastes). If the basturma is prepared well, it will be coated with red or brown spices, the meat the color of red wine.
Salads with lolik (loh-LEEK, tomatoes), varung (vah-ROONK, cucumbers), sokh (SOKH, onions), giazar (gee-ah-ZAHR, carrots), bokhk (BOKHK, radish), kialam (kee-ah-LAHM, cabbage). Each appetizer course also includes panir (pah-NEER, Armenian cheese), which is often salty, pickled onions, cucumbers, green, red and banana peppers.
Other dishes may include zeitun (zay-TOON, olives), aveluk (ah-veh-LOOK, a wild plant that is dried into long braids, then prepared by steaming or boiling), and several types of b'derjan (buh-der-JAHN, eggplant), either zharitarats (zhah-ree-tahr-AHTS, fried) or tapagats (tah-pah-GAHTS, first roasted on fire, then peeled and mixed with garlic, onions, herbs and spices); also maghadinos (mah-hgah-dee-NOS, sliced and folded over heaps of garlic, walnuts and herbs).
In season you may get (and do ask for), Georgian lobiov pashtet (loh-bee-OV pahsh-TEHT, a pate made of red beans and walnuts, garlic and spices); s'khtoruk (s'kh-to-ROOK, pickled garlic stems--a treat not to be missed); spanakh (spah-NAHKH, spinach mixed with eggs or with s'khtor matzun (s'kh-TOR mah-TZOON), garlic mixed with yogurt); sunk (SOONK, mushrooms--pickled, spiced, fried, mixed into a pate);
The waiter will also bring (de rigeur) a large plate of kanachi (kah-nah-CHEE, Greens). These are very tasty herbs that include fresh tarragon, rosemary, oregano, thyme, dill, and others. It customary to have two or three types of tomato or yogurt based sauces on the table as well. You may never eat more powerful s'khtor (s'kh-TOR, garlic) than in Armenia.
The matzun (mah-TZOON, natural yogurt) is almost certainly homemade, and village yogurt is a riot of delicate tastes and naturally sweet--you ain't had yogurt until you've had it in Armenia!
Armenians love their bread (hots: HAHTS). They might eat half a kilo each per day. If anything identifies the Armenian cuisine, it is the traditional form of bread, called lavash (lah-VAHSH) which is a very large oblong thin bread made entirely by hand and cooked in stone or clay jar-sized ovens buried in the ground. To see the process as done in the villages is to see a 12,000-year-old tradition without change. Lavash is cut or torn into smaller sections, and the bread is used to make b'rduch (b'r-DOOCH) or a kind of cold burrito, where you roll the cheese, greens, tomatoes and sauces into the lavash and munch between toasts.
Armenians will also have a fair amount of Russian delicacies on the table for festivals and parties, including ikra (EE-krah, caviar), usually the karmir ( kahr-MEER, red) variety, but the best is the sev (SEHV, black). Spread it on buttered bread. A few other dishes worth trying is the salted fish, smoked salmon, and the Armenian variety of mushrooms in sour cream, called julienne, which verges on the orgiastic.
There are a few Armenian specialty soups that you ought to try if you get the chance. They include spas (SPAHS), made from yogurt, greens and herbs, and aveluk (ah-veh-LOOK), a river green, prepared in soup. There is a type of bean soup made in Vaik, which has a walnut base, and should not be missed.
And Khash. Khash (KHAHSH) is more than soup, it is an Armenian institution. Songs and poems have been written about this one dish, which is made from ham hocks and herbs made into a clear broth. Tradition holds that Khash can only be cooked by men, who spend the entire night cooking, and can be eaten only in the early morning in the dead of winter, where it served with heaps of fresh garlic and dried lavash. You smell like a garlic field for a week afterwards, but the taste is incredible.
T'ghit is a very special and old traditional food, made from T'tu Lavash, cut into small pieces, which are boiled in water. Onions fried in oil are added, and the mixture is cooked into a puree. Pieces of fresh lavash are placed on top of the mixture, and it is eaten hot with fresh lavash used to scoop up the mixture by hand. Unbelievable taste.
K'rchik is an amazing dish made from cooking pickled cabbage and wheat kernels--it may sound odd, but the taste is wonderful.
Other soups include borsch (BOHRSH) a beet root soup with meat and vegetables (served hot in Armenia, with fresh sour cream), akroshka (ah-KROHSH-kah, Russian), a cucumber, garlic and sour cream soup, kufta (kiuf-TAH) soup, made with large balls of strained boiled meat and greens, s'nkapur (s'n-kah-POOR), soup with mushrooms, and bozbash (boz-BAHSH), a vegetable soup served usually in Summer.
Main courses are divided between meat and fish, and include other Armenian specialties.
Meat dishes are divided between Chicken (Hav, HAHV), Pork (khoz, KHOHZ), and beef (tavar, tah-VAHR). The most popular dish is call khorovatz, which is barbecued or grilled meat that has been marinated. Khorovatz also includes grilled eggplant, potatoes, whole onions and green, red and hot peppers. Most popular khorovatz is pork, in fact grilled beef is called grill to differentiate it from pork barbecue. Grill also includes whole or quartered chicken roasted on the spit.
Fish dishes include grilled, khorovatz, steamed and prepared in soups. By far the most popular fish is steamed Ishkhan (eesh-KHAHN, lake trout), whose name means prince. Another is Sig (SEEG, lake trout), considered by some far tastier. Ishkhan is native to Armenia, with the Lake Sevan variety an endangered species. Fishponds have sprung up throughout the country to raise Ishkhan, but it is still the most expensive kind to eat ($10 a kilo). Sig was introduced from Russia, and is plentiful, as are other river trout found in the country. Trout is usually prepared by steaming with bay leaves.
Other specialties include dolma (dol-MAH), kufta (koof-TAH) and boiled or grilled mutton (moo-TON). Dolma comes in two varieties, spiced meat and rice wrapped in grape leaves (served with yogurt mixed with grated fresh garlic), and summer dolma, which is wrapped with cabbage leaves. Another version is to stuff tomatoes, eggplants, apples and quince with spicy meat and rice, and cook over a slow oven with plums. Kufta is specially prepared strained meat that is boiled until tender in large balls, served with hot butter or oil. Mutton is almost always prepared boiled in salty water, though it can be served as shashlik, thin slivers grilled on a spit.
Pilaf (usually steamed rice) can be served with apricots and plums, and makes a tasty side dish, though it is usually served after the main course.
These represent the most popular dishes in Armenia, but in truth there are hundreds of recipes that incorporate local spices, herbs and vegetables. Your best bet is to look for mushroom based dishes, and ask for specialties of the house.
Unlike other cultures, which bring courses on one at a time, Armenians tend to make the first impact with appetizers and salads already set on the table, and then begin piling on soup and hot courses. And the desserts will be prominently displayed near the main table before guests arrive.
The dessert course always includes fresh fruit, which is peeled and sliced into quarters at the table. In season, none of the fruits are to be missed, even in the winter apples, pears and grapes continue to be tasty.
Special desserts include cake (tort, TORT), each woman of the house priding herself on her own special recipe. Often loaded with walnuts, fruit, chocolate and mounds of icing or meringue, the cakes are about the largest desserts we have ever seen, making seven layer cakes look like pigmies. Cakes can be made with cream centers, in thin layers with icing layered between, with fresh or candied fruit on top, or in any variation the cook prefers.
Traditional desserts are much as they are in Greece, creating huge debates between nationalities on their origins (along with dolma). The Armenians seem to be winning, since walnut is native to Armenia, and not to Greece. Armenian versions of baklava (layers of thin pastry filled with honey and nuts), fritters with honey or syrup, kataifi (chopped nuts inside shredded wheat soaked in honey), halvah (sesame seed paste) and rice pudding are all traditional desserts. Others are gata, a long oblong pastry, and delicate fruit-filled tortes.
A favorite in summertime is paghpaghak (pagh-pagh-AHK, ice cream), that comes in many varieties and tastes. The imported stuff is a waste of money, since it is months old and costs $1-3 a bar. Local ice cream includes Shant and Tamara, both made in local dairies using whole cream and the latest technology, served in cups or bars, in chocolate, fruits, and hazelnut flavor, packed in recyclable wrapping. At 80-250 AMD each, you can afford to have seconds!
Fruit sujukh, not to be mistaken for the meat variety, is made from strings of shelled walnuts dipped in grape syrup until a thick and tender coat covers them (100-150 AMD). It is a wonderful high-energy snack that can be taken on hikes and day excursions, eaten at will.
Another snack is T'tu Lavash (t'-TOO lah-VAHSH), which are thin paper-like layers of sour plum puree. Known as a "fruit rollup" in the USA, you do just that: take the t'tu lavash , roll it and eat (50-150 AMD). Dried fruits and fresh nuts are available at all shukas, and make great snacking (500-2000 AMD a kilo).
Other snacks found at street vendors include spicy "Armenian Hamburgers" ( sliced meat grilled and served in fresh bread, 150-250 AMD), Piroshkis (deep fried potato crust with ground meat or cabbage as filling; 50-100 AMD), Georgian Cheburekis (a wonderful deep fried flat round bread with spicy meat inside-just roll it and eat; 100 AMD), Khachapuri (a chewy bread with fried eggs in the center-incredible taste at 250-400 AMD) and Shashlik (slivers of grilled mutton and greens in a small pocket bread, 200-250 AMD).