Armenian Food and Culture
An oval of mountainous land dominated by the lofty Caucasus Mountains, of which Mount Ararat in the Armenian Republic is the highest, stretches between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. This area, commonly referred to as the Caucasus, is made up of three republics: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Neither the people nor their languages are Slavic in origin, and even their foods hear more resemblance to Eastern Mediterranean cuisine than to Russian. But they do have several things in common: an incredible zest for life, unsurpassed hospitality, and the talent to use obscure excuses for feasting and merrymaking.
It is still a matter of considerable debate whether the Armenian Mount Ararat is actually where Noah docked his ark. What is known is that the Armenians are one of the oldest civilizations, dating back to the sixth century B.C.E., and one of the first peoples to accept Christianity.
Though Armenia is a landlocked country it has caught the eye of many conquerors because it forms a vital land bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. A Mongol and Tatar invasion in the early 1200s wiped out Armenia as a state. Four hundred years later, Turkey and Iran partitioned the territory of Armenia, and shortly thereafter, czarist Russia took over eastern Armenia. During World War I, the Turks starved or killed more than a million Armenians for the “crime” of living too close to the border.
The arable land, though small in area, is highly productive and lovingly attended. The climate varies between subtropical and sub temperate and allows for production of a variety of crops: almonds and walnuts; rice, wheat and corn; stone fruits (peaches, apricots, plums), citrus fruits, grapes; tobacco; and olives. But perhaps more important is the valued production of wool, milk, and cheese from the goats, cattle, and sheep that nibble the tender greens of the high rocky slopes.
The general use of fresh food (frozen and pack-aged foods of any type are scorned) in season and the practice of drying, smoking, and pickling to preserve food for winter is common throughout the Caucasus. But where corn, walnuts, and many types of dried beans are the Georgian staples, Armenians prefer rice, wheat, and pine nuts. Many writers feel that Armenian cuisine combines the finest of Persian (Iranian), Greek, and Turkish foods, while others consider that Armenians “cook mostly in the Turkish style.”
Researchers have long puzzled over the reasons for the almost legendary longevity of the people of this area. With an estimated “thirteen times as many centenarians as there are in every 100,000 people in North America,” the question is intriguing. Senior citizens in North America are warned of the dangers of alcohol and tobacco consumption, yet strong brandy and wines are daily fare in the Caucasus and many people smoke heavily. And although the consequences of overindulgence in food are well-documented, it is also well-documented that Georgians and Armenians love nothing better than a party, one where the dishes on the table are so numerous that they must be piled one on top of the other. A party where each guest vies in toast making — everything from the favorable and unfavorable attributes of the host to a salute for world peace – as an accept-able excuse for draining the glass then promptly refilling it.
Perhaps these wondrously genial and generous people are so happy and hospitable because they have known lean times when bread and beans could constitute a blessed feast. Perhaps most of all, their personal warmth and longevity can be attributed to their inextinguishable philosophy of living life to the fullest.