Food is a beloved subject of expats and other globetrotters, don’t you agree? There is so much fun and exotic food to be found in foreign countries and it’s often an adventure trying out new comestibles. Of course not all adventures are created equal.
Today, let me tell you about a birthday party I attended while living in Armenia, a small country nestled in the Caucasian Mountains. It was not like any other birthday party I’d ever been to, although we did get cheery party hats.
ARMENIAN SOUL FOOD
Ah, the joy of exploring grocery stores and open markets in foreign countries! You’ll invariably come across food items you have never seen before. Not long after I arrive in Armenia as an expat I spot the cow hooves for sale in the market. To me they appear to be rather an inedible substance, but clearly I am wrong. I soon learn that cow feet soup, or khash, is not just soup. It’s Armenian soul food. An ancient traditional dish, originally poor people food, it has now been elevated to gourmet-status and the Armenians go into raptures over it. Eating khash is not just eating soup, it’s an event, a party, a cultural experience. It’s eaten early in the morning in the winter months, consumed with copious amounts of vodka. The stories I’ve heard about khash have been interesting. Armenians revere and adore it and (most) foreigners revile and abhor it. Armeniapedia describes it like this:
“a masterpiece of Armenian cuisine made by cows’ feet, stomach and Armenian ingenuity. Khash is a unique experience for any foreign visitor, and whether they like it or not (and many don’t), almost all enjoy the ritual of a khash party.”
One cold February day I too get the opportunity to experience this winter ritual. My man and I have been invited to a khash party to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The venue is a private apartment that has been set up as a commercial eating place by an entrepreneurial woman.
In a biggish living room a long table is set and ready with plates of pickles, herbs, lemons, sliced large radishes, bread, dishes of salt and chopped garlic, and the usual forest of bottles of soft drinks, wine, brandy and vodka.
I’m sitting next to our friend Arson who helps me to some water. As soon as all the guests are seated, somebody reaches for the vodka and pours all around. It’s just after ten in the morning. Toasting begins immediately, a bari luis (good light = good morning ) to all and down goes the vodka. I sip a careful drop: I’ve never had strong alcohol so early in the day, but I’ve been told I’ll need it.
I take in my surroundings while munching on radish slices. The windows are decorated with elaborately draped forest-green curtains festooned with a fringe of gold tassels. Paintings decorate the walls, from brownish bucolic scenes in ornate frames to a bare-breasted maiden with happy nipples. A piano stands quietly in a corner. It all looks rather cozy in a very old-fashioned way, sort of what your great-grandparents might have had in the early part of the last century – minus the naked nymph perhaps. However, this is the new millennium and to prove it there’s a state-of-the-art silvery CD player looking anachronistic in the old-world room. Next to it a stack of CDs is ready and waiting. There must be music, of course. And dancing, naturally. This is Armenia!
Khash arrives in bowls the size of the Caspian Sea. I study the soup in front of me with trepidation. It’s colorless and greasy and has a white, flabby piece of gelatinous cow foot in it. I take a spoonful of the broth and taste it. Nothing. No flavor worth mentioning. I’m not sure if I am disappointed or relieved.
“You’ve never had khash yet?” Arson asks, surprised, and I tell him no. He hands me a dish of salt and a spoon. “You must put salt in it,” he says.
I put in a couple of heaping spoonfuls.
“And garlic.” A dish with smashed garlic appears in front of my nose. I avail myself of a generous amount. Maybe there is hope yet.
“Now you take the meat out and put it on your plate and cover it up with lavash (thin flat bread) to keep it warm.”
I’m all for liberating my sea of soup from that white flabby stuff – if that is what is called meat. I don’t see meat, but they’ve got to call it something. I do as instructed, and take a fresh sheet of lavash and cover the glob up real good.
“Why do we do that?” I ask.
“Because it’s the best part and we save it for last.”
I smile politely. “Okay.”
“Now you take the dry pieces of lavash and put in as much as you can get into the soup.”
A bowl on the table holds a pile of dry lavash, broken into small pieces, like chips. People are grabbing it by the handful and dunking it in their soup. So I follow suit.
There is another toast, but I miss what this one is about as I watch transfixed as the bread sops up the soup, turning into a gloppy greasy gray mess. I raise my glass, clink it all around, and take a fortifying gulp of vodka.
So here I am, spooning in the bread soaked with grease and broth and garlic, practically feeling my arteries clogging up. It tastes fine – salty, garlicky, bready and greasy.
Everybody eats with gusto, some of the men emptying the enormous bowls as if they were starved desert nomads. Several of them get seconds. And all the while there’s the toasting and the downing of vodka. It’s now eleven in the morning.
“Don’t worry,” says Arson next to me. “The hoof fat in the soup coats the stomach and makes it possible to drink a lot of vodka.”
Is this good news? I am not sure.
“You need to try some of the meat,” Arson tells me several toasts later.
Lifting a corner of the sheet of lavash, I cut off a piece of the quivering white jelly stuff pretending to be meat. I put it in my mouth. It tastes like soft quivering jelly stuff. Who’d ever have thought expat life would find me eating this? I spoon in some more garlicky bread soup. I have another sip of vodka.
Someone puts on a CD. People get up and dance. I don’t know how they get up out of their chairs, let alone dance with their stomach weighted down with a gallon of khash. But this is Armenia and dancing is what you do at a party, always, no matter how full your stomach or how little the floor space.
“Why is khash always eaten in the morning?” I ask my friend Sona who sits across from me.
“Because it takes all day to digest,” she says promptly. Well, there’s that.
But it isn’t only the khash that needs digesting. When finally people have eaten to their Armenian soul’s content, the bowls are taken away and it’s announced that we should go entertain ourselves, until the khorovats is ready.
My mate and I look at each other, horror stricken. Khorovats? After this these khash-gorgers have room for huge chunks of barbecued meat and fish?
Yes. But not right away, because they haven’t even started the fire yet outside in the barbecue.
Someone starts playing the piano and people huddle close and sing sad, melancholy songs about the beauty of Armenia and the soldiers who have died and the loss of Mount Ararat (located in Eastern Turkey). Then another CD is put on and they dance, or play cards, or backgammon and keep drinking to keep their spirits up until the next sad song. Along with the cigarette smoke, conviviality fills the air. Apparently, people are settling in to feast away the whole day.
And we thought we were having breakfast, or maybe brunch.
We escape before the khorovats makes an appearance.
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Think! Have you ever had an interesting food experience? Come on, tell me!