Posted 17 September 2005
The following article appeared in the 9th September 2005 (weekend supplement) of the Dubai English daily "Khaleej Times".
The Armenian diaspora in the UAE is a few thousand strong. SHALAKA PARADKAR talks to Liza Saghtejian who describes her people as hardworking, creative, inventive and resilient.
My first brush with Armenian culture started innocuously enough in downtown Mumbai. Trying to locate a sharebroker firm, I stumbled upon a little gem of a building, nestling in the shadow of the stock exchange tower — the Armenian Church.
There was something heartwarming about how Mumbai’s Armenians (a grand total of four, including two octagenarians) had defied logistics and economics to maintain their beautiful church, with its gilded dome, polished hardwood pews and crystal chandeliers. Faith shone bright here, as also some sentimentalism. The adjacent ghastly grey apartment block, also owned by the church, was called Ararat — after the mountain where Noah’s ark was believed to have landed. Another sweet touch was the grapevine trailing over the backyard, transplanted from Armenia and struggling to establish its identity in Mumbai’s less-than-salubrious Fort precinct.
Thankfully the Armenian community in India has had a happier fate than that vine. They are believed to have landed sometime in the 17th century in the then-capital, Calcutta. Armenian contributions to the city’s culture and cuisine include a ferocious rugby team, many fine buildings and the delicious dolma, a dish which Bengalis believe is as much of their soil as rossogolla and Satyajit Ray, little knowing its roots stretch all the way back to the Caucasus mountains.
How did the dolma make its journey from a tiny landlocked nation bordered by Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia to across the Middle East, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and even as farther afield as the USA and France? Once a cradle of civilisation and now a republic that gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia has been witness to ethnic strife, bloodshed and genocides in the intervening millennia. Armenia’s history is an almost linear progression of foreign rule under the Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Egyptian Mamluk, and Ottoman Turk empires before accession to the Soviet Union. Waves of emigration resulted in Armenians finding refuge in countries such as the UAE, where they have made valuable contributions as a hardworking community of businesspersons and young professionals.
In the UAE, the Armenian diaspora is a few thousand strong. Much of community life revolves around the church, Al Yarmook, built eight years ago in Sharjah. Curious to know more about this remarkable community and its flavoured cuisine, I met Liza Saghtejian. A 33-year old schoolteacher, church volunteer and mother of one, Liza is fiercely proud of her Armenian heritage even though home is Aleppo in Syria where she was born and Sharjah where she has lived for the past eight years.
Thanks to improved flight connections, a favourable exchange rate and visas on arrival, many more of the diaspora are winging their way to Armenia. Liza recently holidayed in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where her son Jack attended an art camp for children. It was as much a holiday as a homecoming, as she still has family in Yerevan. Says Liza of her culturally gifted people, “Nearly everyone I met in Yerevan wrote poetry or played musical instruments or sang or painted — everyone has some creative interest.” Liza herself plays the duduk, a reed instrument which has to be wetted before playing. She also embroiders intricate antabi designs on velvet, a hobby that needs plenty of patience and skill. Settling down for our chat over coffee and baklava, she says, “If I were to describe my people in brief, I’d say they are hardworking, creative, inventive and resilient. Despite all the emigrations, we thrived and have been well-liked in the countries of our residence. I am proud to be Armenian.”
Armenian cuisine reflects much of their history. There is a significant Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influence in the recipes and ingredients. Geography too plays its part in what people eat. Thanks to the fertile, well-watered soil and the warmth of its sheltered valleys, Armenia produces an abundance of fruit: plums, figs, apricots, apples, cherries, oranges and grapes. (A bumper harvest this year resulted in Yerevan’s major cultural event being rechristened The Golden Apricot Film Festival.) (Click Read More)
For Ara Keusseyan, current president of the Armenian Community Council, the memory of Armenian fruits still linger from his visit there. “The absence of chemicals and fertilisers in farming render the fruits quite extraordinary in taste and smell. You could find your way blindfolded to a peach being eaten 15 metres away, so powerful is the fragrance.”
Keusseyan moved to the UAE from Beirut in 1983 to join his family which has been here for the past 40 years, and even though his dinner table sports an international look, traditional Armenian dishes do make a frequent appearance. Two of his favourites are mante, a lamb pie, and nivik, spinach and chickpea appetiser.
The colour and flavour of Armenian produce is incredible, which lifts the dishes way above the ordinary. The cuisine is also quite healthy, with its emphasis on grilling and steaming, and consuming choice seasonal fruits, salads, yoghurt, spices and herbs. (The pattern of consumption is less healthy with the evening meal being the heaviest one, stretching into several courses, while breakfasts are light — usually coffee, cheese, jam and bread.)
Having said that, Armenians do like it hot! Garlic is a firm favourite, and their love of the barbie would do an Aussie proud.
“Beef, chicken and vegetable barbecues are a distinct feature of Armenian cuisine. It is the men who are involved in grilling meat, as we really don’t like our ladies to smell of barbecue!” says Ara. Spices used for meat rubs and marinades include cinnamon, cumin, cloves, sumac and fiery peppers from Liza’s home town of Alleppo. Meat is also air dried and spiced to make soujukh — an extremely popular dish.
Yoghurt is usually set at home, and eaten for breakfast or as the salty summer drink tan. The Armenian bread lavash is a staple at all meals, for breakfast with cheese, or scooped with vegetables and salad, or broken into bits over soup. A thin oval flatbread, it is baked in earthen ovens called tonirs, very similar to tandoors. Lavash can be left to dry and moistened before eating by placing it under a damp cloth.
Showing us pictures of Yerevan — lots of fine statuary, lovely old churches, some dating back to the 5th century, and scenic beauty — Liza reminisces about the memorable meal she had at the Heen Yerevan restaurant. “It’s done up like an old country house, the walls are decorated with hanging clusters of peppers, onions and garlic. We had a tahini and eggplant appetiser, and the entree was my favourite — kufta made with bulghur and minced beef.”
Some 60 kilometers from Yerevan is Sevan Lich, a gigantic lake that is home to the endangered ishkhan trout, known locally as the king of fish, and unavailable elsewhere.
Freshwater fish makes a frequent appearance on Liza’s dinner table in many avatars: grilled with garlic and spices, stuffed, steamed or served as soup.
Traditional harvest time specialities include preserves made from fresh green walnuts; eggplant jam (which Liza assures us is indeed very tasty and also has walnuts) and fruit sujoukh, a type of walnut candy. These are not available in the UAE, but you can sample them at the Annual Armenian Bazar in Sharjah, usually held in December, just before Christmas.
Armenians are staunch Christians who fast during the 40 days of Lent when delicious vegetarian versions of dolma, or stuffed vegetables, and ghapama, or pumpkin stew, are eaten. Dolma is made by stuffing grape leaves, cabbage leaves, Swiss chard, eggplant slices or even firm vegetables like zucchini, courgettes, tomatoes and bell peppers that have been hollowed out. Accompanying sauces are simple tomato or yoghurt based.
Explaining that a typical Armenian meal is served in courses, Liza elaborates, “Every meal starts off with appetisers: garden salad made from fresh vegetables like tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers, panir, a salty cottage cheese, sujukh, pickles and olives. The main course is usually barbecued meat or fish, and the meal is rounded off with desserts, fresh fruit that is sliced at the table and Armenian coffee.”
Liza also shows us her collection of pomegranate curios, yes, you read that right. Of all the fruits available in luscious plenty, the pomegranate (noor) holds a special place in Armenian culture.
“The noor is symbolic of the cycle of life and renewal, each one of its translucent red seeds is a metaphor for a day in your life and one fruit is believed to contain 365. If you eat a seed a day, it brings you good luck!”
Pomegranates are a recurrent motif in Armenian art and craft; they appear on incense burners, cruet sets, souvenir plates and various touristy tchotchkes. Why pomegranates? Possibly because they are coloured red which is also an auspicious hue for Armenians, it is one of three colours on the national flag and represents all the blood that has been shed over centuries (the other two being blue and orange, for Armenia’s land and skies).
A toast to Armenia then, Genatsit! May its skies and lands be forever free. And of course to open minds and happy tables groaning with good food. The recipes below, courtesy Liza, serve four. Use your imagination to adapt and improvise, for that is the Armenian way.
4 large firm tomatoes or 4 medium bell
Cooked rice 2 cups
Minced lamb 250 gm
Minced beef 250 gm
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup canned tomato
1 tsp lime juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients for stuffing together. Prepare the vegetables for stuffing by carefully cutting off the top and removing the core and seeds. Fill the vegetables loosely with the stuffing, leaving room for it to expand during cooking. Arrange the vegetables in a pan. Cover and simmer with water and tomatoes, to cook the vegetables until just tender. Season and add lime juice. Add more water as needed during the cooking process .
minced lamb or beef 500 gm
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped
3 tbsp chopped parsley
1/2 tsp chopped mint leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted and chopped
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp dried basil
Salt to taste
For outer cover
minced lamb or beef 750 gm
3/4 cup fine bulgur
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Brown the ground meat for the filling. Add onions and cook for 30 mins. Add peppers and parsley, cook further for 10 mins. Add remaining ingredients. Cool. Mix all the ingredients for the outer cover together. Pulse in a food procssor until light and fluffy. Take a little of this mixture and flatten it in your palm. Fill it with a walnut-sized ball of the stuffing. Cover and shape into a round meatball. Make all the meatballs this way.
Heat 1 litre of chicken stock until boiling. Drop the kofta into the stock and let them cook for 10 minutes.
MAAMOUL or EASTER COOKIES
2 cups semolina
11/2 cups shortening or ghee
1 cup boiling water
3/4 cup caster sugar
2 cups roughly ground walnuts or almonds or pistachios
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
1/4 cup icing sugar
Place the flour in a bowl, and cut in the shortening using a fork. Pour the boiling water and knead to a solid dough. Turn the dough onto a floured work area and knead some more. Cover and let stand for an hour or even overnight.
Mix together sugar, walnuts and cinnamon. Set aside.
Preheat the over to 350 F/ 175 C.
Knead the dough again and roll into walnut-sized balls. Shape a hollow and fill it with the nut mixture. Seal the dough over. Place the balls on a cooking sheet, using a fork to gently make a pattern on the top. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until ight brown. Dust with icing sugar when warm.