How to Build a Clay Tonir

Words: Kate Leahy / Photos: John Lee / Video: Ara Zada

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On a Monday morning this past May, on the way from Gyumri to Yerevan, we made a stop in Sarnaghpyur to pay Spartak Aslanyan a visit. Aslanyan, and his cousin, Mrktich Aslanyan, make clay tonirs using a process that probably hasn't changed much in centuries.

We can certainly confirm that Armenians have been using tonirs for centuries. On our drive through Areni, an ancient winemaking region, we stopped to take a look at an archeological site that uncovered remnants of fermented grape juice dating back more than 6,000 years. And sure enough, next to the clay karas (the Armenian term for amphoras) used for storing wine, we also saw tonirs. The link between bread and wine, it turns out, goes back to early civilizations.

To make a clay tonir, the process goes like this: get clay mud from a nearby hillside and then knead it between two sheets of plastic by walking over it with your feet. Once the clay is ready, roll it into strips. These strips get stacked up to form a vessel that eventually becomes tall and wide enough to hide a man inside, as long as he bends his legs.

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There are a few key stages in between, the cousins demonstrated. You can't stack all the clay coils in one day because the clay is too heavy and the whole thing will break. Instead, the Aslanyan cousins coil a few layers at a time over the course of 10 days, giving the tonir time to dry in between layers. Once the tonir is more or less complete, the cousins smooth the sides with a damp sponge. Then the tonir is set aside to dry for 20 days or so.

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Finally, it's ready to be installed and seasoned. There's no single way to do it, but Spartak says he puts it in masonry (think of a large brick box), then fills the gaps between the tonir and brick with sand. But before baking lavash or cooking khorovats—or anything else—you season it. Make a small fire and slowly build it up for a few hours. Once the fire dies down, rub the walls with fat. Let the whole thing cool completely and what you're left with should be as strong as stone.

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The whole process—getting and making local clay, molding it with bare hands, drying it, seasoning it with a fire—embodies the idea of cheghatsis, making something from nothing. And while building one of these in your own backyard might be more of a project than most would be willing to take on, understanding the process gives us even more of a reason to respect and marvel at the simplicity of tonir-baked lavash.

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Protests, Road Blocks, and the Making of a Cookbook

Words: Kate Leahy / Photos: John Lee

On May 2, we woke up in Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Artsakh, packed up our Airbnb, and headed to a nearby bakery to meet the bakers and buy a few rounds of tonir hats (bread baked in a tonir). This is a cookbook research trip after all, and we figured that we'd be on the road for a long time and would need some fuel. We were right about the road fatigue, but not for the reasons we had expected.

Several hours later, we passed the Artsakh/Armenia border near Vardenis and drove straight into a political protest, one of many taking place across Armenia. The night before, the ruling Republican party decided to forego voting for a prime minister because they didn’t want the opposition leader, Nikol Pashinyan, to be voted into office. 

Pashinyan has become a hero of the Armenian people, standing for everything the ruling (and notoriously corrupt) Republican party does not. Since we arrived in Armenia, we've seen protesters supporting Pashinyan expand from students to nearly everyone we've come across, young and old. The no-vote decision on May 1 had unleashed a wave of fresh protests. 

When we hit the roadblock, we figured that the best thing to do was to get out of the car and start reporting. John has a background in photo journalism, and he jumped back into the role, getting shots of the chaos. With the help of Christine, our translator, and Raffi, our friend who also speaks Eastern Armenian, we started asking questions and documenting what was happening.

Some were yelling that they wanted to get through the blockade while others yelled “those who are with us are with us. Those who aren’t with us are garbage.” 

"Let me through! I have to visit friends. I have a plane to catch! Why can't you do this somewhere else?" asked one woman. Her story kept changing.

"You will be the last person I let through!" yelled the new leader, a guy in a bright red sweater who showed no intension of letting us through, either. No one would give us their real names.

After two hours, we were finally let through, only to encounter another group of protesters in the village of Mets Masrik.  This time, we immediately jumped out of the car and got our reporting faces on. This village had a more heartfelt protest message, telling us that their hope is to see an Armenia free from corruption, a country where their kids can stay here rather than emigrating to find good jobs. Like those from the earlier protest, they also planned to drive to Yerevan, a trip that would take at least a couple of hours. 

“We stand with Nikol. We want complete reform of the system and we want to establish justice,” explained Barseghyan Serob, a leader of the protest group. Unlike the group of protesters earlier in the day, he gave his real name “because I have nothing to hide.”

Since most roads were still closed, we took a deserted, bumpy backroad along Lake Sevan to Dilijan and pulled into town after 5 PM. By 7:30, we got the news that the Republican party was going to allow a prime minister vote after all. The expectation now is that Pashinyan will be voted in as prime minister on May 8, a hope that felt completely out of reach a couple of weeks ago when he was briefly imprisoned.  

Sometimes cookbook writing can take you in many unexpected directions.

Just Another Day in Yerevan

Who said making a cookbook is boring? 

Below is a video from April 22, made about 6-8 jet lagged hours after we arrived in Yerevan. What was intended as a morning of quiet and easy sightseeing turned into witnessing one of the most violent days in the recent Armenian protests against their prime minister Serzh Sargsyan.

In this video, politician and opposition party leader Nikol Pashinyan leads protesters on a march from Yerevan's Republic Square to the nearby suburb of Erebuni. They were met by busloads of police in riot gear. 

This Al Jazeera piece sums up the day's events nicely:

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/armenian-pm-sargsyan-walks-meeting-opposition-180422063600399.html

 

On the Lavash Trail in Armenia

This is a repost of an article Kate Leahy wrote for the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival blog. For those not familiar with the Folklife Festival, please click HERE

Words: Kate Leahy / Photos: John Lee and Ara Zada

 In Yeghvard, a village outside of Yerevan, home bakers offered us a platter of cheese and herbs to eat with the fresh lavash they were making.

In Yeghvard, a village outside of Yerevan, home bakers offered us a platter of cheese and herbs to eat with the fresh lavash they were making.

The first lavash we ate after arriving in Yerevan came from the corner store near our rental apartment. It was pale and paper-thin, but durable enough to wrap it around scrambled eggs and cheese. This lavash wouldn't be the lavash that changed our lives, but it served an important purpose: refueling our brains after two days of airports, layovers, and plane seats.

The "we" in this story comprises Ara Zada, a chef, John Lee, a photographer, and me, a food writer. Our admiration and interest in Armenian food is what brought us together to form the team behind the cookbook Lavash, to be published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Ara grew up going to an Armenian school in Southern California, but he wanted to dig deeper into his heritage. John got to know Armenian food—especially lavash—while teaching a food photography workshop at Tumo, an after-school digital media and cultural learning center for youth in Armenia. And I got hooked in college while writing thesis on food and Armenian cultural identity. Through friends and Tumo's global network, we met up and set out to create a cookbook about Armenian food, with lavash firmly at the heart of the story.

Why lavash? It's the most culturally important bread in Armenia, added to Unesco's intangible cultural heritage list in 2014. The act of baking lavash has also been documented in countless paintings. In the 1970s, President Gerald Ford even selected a print of "Armenian Ladies Baking Lavash" by Armenian-American artist Manuel Tolegian for the White House Bicentennial Collection. 

Yet lavash is also painfully misunderstood outside of the Caucasus. (One English-language cookbook suggested that tortillas make a good substitute—they don't.) Even the factory-made lavash we ate for breakfast, which came in a plastic bag, was miles ahead of the flatbread's imposters we had sampled back home. But it wouldn't be the last lavash we ate, either. If we wanted to learn how to make the real thing, we were going to need to venture much farther than the corner store.

The first stop: GUM Market, a large covered market near downtown Yerevan. In addition to the bright rows of dried fruit and nut vendors at the front of the market were tables stacked with large sheets of lavash, some were thicker and more blistered while others were light and tissue-thin. Periodically, the women sprinkled water over the stacks of bread using a water bottle with holes punched in the lid. This helped refresh the bread, keeping each sheet pliable. That's one of the great things about lavash: all it needs to come back to life is a splash of water. 

 Stacks of lavash line the tables in one corner of GUM Market in Yerevan, where customers can choose between thin and thick varieties.

Stacks of lavash line the tables in one corner of GUM Market in Yerevan, where customers can choose between thin and thick varieties.

 In the fall and winter, GUM market also sells lavash that has been rolled and dried to crumble into bowls of  khash , a rich bone broth.

In the fall and winter, GUM market also sells lavash that has been rolled and dried to crumble into bowls of khash, a rich bone broth.

We started talking to the women. "Why does this bread have so many blisters?" we asked. It's baked in a tonir, they answered, referring to the subterranean clay oven heated with a wood fire at the base. Like naan in a tandoor, bakers stick lavash to the sides of the oven to bake it, which gives it irregular blisters. In comparison, factory-made lavash is much more uniform in color. 

"Does the bread have yeast?" "Yes, drozhzhi," they said, the Russian word for yeast. Was it commercial yeast or something more like a sourdough starter? That they couldn't tell us.

If the women selling lavash at GUM could share part of the story, the rest could be gathered at a tonir village, a place known for the goods it makes from a tonir. But when we arrived in Argel, a village about 20 minutes outside of Yerevan, the women were taking the day off from baking. Instead, they were busy hanging strands of arishta, a pasta made from a salty flour-based dough, out to dry on clotheslines. 

We drove instead to Yeghvard, a nearby village, where a friend said her neighbors were baking lavash to prepare for winter. 

The large house had two green houses in the back while the floor of the entrance and the roof were covered in bedsheets. On the sheets were rows of just-baked lavash, drying in the open air. Between the house and the greenhouses, a tonir smoldered away, surrounded by four women, each with a different job, from shaping, to rolling, stretching, or baking the bread. To remove the bread from the wall of the tonir, one of the women used a hook to fish it out, letting it cool for a few seconds before stacking it on top of a pile of baked lavash. 

 In Yeghvard, each neighbor tool on a different responsibility around the tonir: some rolled the dough, some removed it from the walks of the tonir. But the most challenging job was spinning and stretching the dough out into a thin sheet.

In Yeghvard, each neighbor tool on a different responsibility around the tonir: some rolled the dough, some removed it from the walks of the tonir. But the most challenging job was spinning and stretching the dough out into a thin sheet.

 Balls of dough waiting to be rolled and stretched out for lavash.

Balls of dough waiting to be rolled and stretched out for lavash.

 The home we visited in Yeghvard had an outdoor tonir in the backyard between the main house and the green houses.

The home we visited in Yeghvard had an outdoor tonir in the backyard between the main house and the green houses.

 It's traditional to bake lavash in the fall to eat all winter long. At the home we visited in Yeghvard, the floors and roof were lined with lavash. Once dried, it was stacked and stored in a spare bedroom.

It's traditional to bake lavash in the fall to eat all winter long. At the home we visited in Yeghvard, the floors and roof were lined with lavash. Once dried, it was stacked and stored in a spare bedroom.

The bakers handed us strips of warm lavash and pulled out a plate of salty cheese, cilantro sprigs and skinny green onions to eat with it. Slightly charred and warm, this lavash was in a different league from the store-bough lavash from our first morning—chewier, less fragile, and deeper in flavor. 

The women explained that they're neighborhood friends and always get together to help make lavash in the fall, but only to eat for themselves, not to sell it. Once it's dry, they stack it and store it in a spare bedroom. We took a look: there was enough lavash in the house to stock all of GUM Market.

"Do you add yeast?" we asked. Yes, yes, they said, and then dictated their recipe. We ate a few more lavash wraps before thanking them and heading back to Yerevan.

A few days later, we returned to Argel on baking day so we could see the village in action. The women had similar roles as the women in Yeghvard, with an addition: One manned the shop, counting out change with an abacus when men rolled up in vans to purchase piles of lavash to resell elsewhere. It was a cold morning, so the bakers invited us to with our legs dangling in the hole next to the tonir to warm our feet while they got ready to start baking.

 In Argel, four women are needed to mix, roll, bake, and cool the lavash. A fifth woman minds the till, counting change with an abacus when customers bought lavash

In Argel, four women are needed to mix, roll, bake, and cool the lavash. A fifth woman minds the till, counting change with an abacus when customers bought lavash

 The woman who mixed the dough to make lavash was also responsible for portioning it out, which she could do by eye without the help of a scale.

The woman who mixed the dough to make lavash was also responsible for portioning it out, which she could do by eye without the help of a scale.

Do you add yeast?" we asked the woman mixing dough a large, old mixer fitted with a dough hook. Yes, she said, but she also saved dough from the day before and mixed it into a new batch. Why? We asked. For flavor and texture, she explained. She then covered the dough with a jacket to keep it warm while it rested in between mixes.

We then stayed quiet, not wanting to interrupt while the women cranked up the fire and settled into a fast-paced rhythm of rolling, streching, and baking dough. 

When it was time for a break, one of the bakers walked to the back of the shop and pulled out a pot of hot, boiled potatoes and some pickled beets and peppers. We wrapped the potatoes around the lavash. Without expecting much, we took a bite. 

Maybe it was the smell of the wood-fired tonir, maybe it was the superiority of the potato, maybe it was the feeling of getting this close to the source—whatever was the reason, it remains one of the most unforgettable things we ate in Armenia.

On our trip back to California, we packed lavash so we could keep enjoying it while we worked out the recipe. Like the lavash at GUM market, it rehydrated easily after being misted with water. That precious supply, however, is gone. And now the real work begins-- recreating that same lavash satisfaction, but this time in America. 

Postcards from the Lavash Road

Words/Photos: Kate Leahy

 Hanging arishta, an Armenian pasta, out to dry. Better with tomato sauce than laundry.

Hanging arishta, an Armenian pasta, out to dry. Better with tomato sauce than laundry.

December 1, 2017

I'm back from the first research trip to Armenia for Lavash, a cookbook about Armenia's famous flatbread and the food you eat with it, with Chronicle Books. (You can read a short summary about the book project, which I'm writing with photographer John Lee and chef Ara Zada, here.) As far as bread goes, lavash is on the subtle side, and it takes time to grow on you. The first time I ate it, some of the nuance was lost on me. After a few days in Armenia, though, eating it becomes an addictive daily habit.  Was it just me getting swept up in the excitement of being in a new country? I checked in with Dea, who grew up in California and now works in Yerevan, Armenia's capital city, at Tumo, a nonprofit organization that focuses on teen education on arts and tech. Did she really liked lavash?

"Yes," she said, without hesitating. "I eat it at least three times a day." She couldn't imagine a day without lavash.

The habit of eating lavash grows stronger the more you have the good stuff. My first lavash breakfast consisted of what we could find at the corner store.  Good, but not revelatory. A few days later, we were in Argel, a village about 20 minutes outside of Yerevan, watching as a woman wearing a Los Angeles Raiders sweatshirt wielded thin sheets of dough, gluing them to the walls of the tonir, a traditional subterranean oven, with the help of a firm pillow. That morning, we ate steaming boiled potatoes wrapped in lavash with pickled beets and peppers. With a wood fire burning hot at the base of the tonir, the light, thin bread had taken on irregular blisters, the classic indication of tonir-baked lavash--the best kind of lavash. 

On my first days back in San Francisco, I started rationing the lavash that Marie Lou Papazian, the director of Tumo, ensured we packed in our suitcases, trying to make the bread last. (Lavash is one of the few breads that travels well.) I even started to think about how viable a lavash-focused restaurant might be. Could you center one around a tonir, baking lavash in it but also using the ancient oven to cook khorovats, Armenian-style barbecue? What if you added an Armenian wine list? Could it be A16, but the Armenian version?

We didn't load up on carbs the whole trip (though potato-wrapped lavash was some sort of extreme-carb heaven that I want to return to soon). We also visited a wine incubator headed by Vahe Keushguerian, who has become the center of Armenia's small-but-growing wine renaissance. And we were on daytime Armenian TV, sandwiched in between a cooking demonstration and the horoscope reading for a lifestyle show. With Marie Lou and Tumo students Saten G. and Anna M., who documented our adventures, we also visited areas south of Yerevan, such as Goris (known for its beans--and opinionated home cooks), and the Republic of Artsakh, an ethnically Armenian country that claims it's independent. The story, though, is a little more complicated: Azerbaijan maintains that Artsakh is Nagorno Karabakh, a territory within Azerbaijan. (Last year, after years of some sort of detente, a four-day war between Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan erupted.) Conflict out of site from where we were, we ate khorovats, harissa, and chicken with dried cherries mixed with lightly sautéed sweet onions.

Artsakh's capital city, Stepanakert, is also famous in Armenia for its jingalov hats, a flatbread filled with anywhere from 10 to 21+ local herbs and greens, depending on the season (and the cook). Anyone heading to Stepanakert from Yerevan is asked by family and friends to bring back a box stacked with the herb-filled flatbread. One day in Artsakh, we ate five jingalov hats before lunch, making us pretty much jingaloved out by the end of the day. But then we encountered a sweet version of jingalov hats- the jingalov dough filled with a paste of sugar and butter instead of herbs. So we had to eat that, too.

There is more to download from this amazing first trip, but sometimes it's more fun to look at the pictures. So here they are: postcards from the lavash road. 

 20 minutes or so outside of Yerevan, Geghard Monastery feels otherworldly. We went on a Sunday during service, and the singing sounded otherworldly, too.  In front of the monastery, women sell gata, a kind of bread-like sweet that can be baked in a tonir.

20 minutes or so outside of Yerevan, Geghard Monastery feels otherworldly. We went on a Sunday during service, and the singing sounded otherworldly, too.  In front of the monastery, women sell gata, a kind of bread-like sweet that can be baked in a tonir.

 By our trip in November, Armenia was well into apple season. On the way to Geghard, we passed by hillsides that held a patchwork of fruit orchards. On our way back into town, we stopped here and bought apples.  

By our trip in November, Armenia was well into apple season. On the way to Geghard, we passed by hillsides that held a patchwork of fruit orchards. On our way back into town, we stopped here and bought apples.  

 At first I thought we were going to annoy these lavash-baking ladies by getting in the way. But they were not only gracious with information, they kept feeding us and serving us  soorj , Armenian coffee. That's a box of chocolates on the table. One of the women is fixing the  batat, the  pillow-like thing they use to stick the lavash to the walls of the tonir with a firm  whomp .

At first I thought we were going to annoy these lavash-baking ladies by getting in the way. But they were not only gracious with information, they kept feeding us and serving us soorj, Armenian coffee. That's a box of chocolates on the table. One of the women is fixing the batat, the pillow-like thing they use to stick the lavash to the walls of the tonir with a firm whomp.

 A tonir is a pretty great place to keep warm on cold mornings. Here, Ara and Marie Lou warm up with  soorj  and the fire on our visit to Argel.

A tonir is a pretty great place to keep warm on cold mornings. Here, Ara and Marie Lou warm up with soorj and the fire on our visit to Argel.

 You know how Game of Thrones make such a fuss about how winter is coming? In Armenia, the fuss is real. At one home we visited near Argel, a bunch of ladies bake lavash for home use. They bake enough to last them through winter. Here it's drying on the roof. Once dry, they'll stack it and put it in a spare bedroom. (It's easy to rehydrate dried lavash by sprinkling it with water and covering it for a few minutes.) Across the hall, from the lavash bedroom, one of the kids had painted "The Boy Who Lived" over the door frame. Harry Potter fans are everywhere.

You know how Game of Thrones make such a fuss about how winter is coming? In Armenia, the fuss is real. At one home we visited near Argel, a bunch of ladies bake lavash for home use. They bake enough to last them through winter. Here it's drying on the roof. Once dry, they'll stack it and put it in a spare bedroom. (It's easy to rehydrate dried lavash by sprinkling it with water and covering it for a few minutes.) Across the hall, from the lavash bedroom, one of the kids had painted "The Boy Who Lived" over the door frame. Harry Potter fans are everywhere.

 This restaurant in Yerevan is well worth a visit, but I can't give you its name. It doesn't have one. The owner told us he didn't need to name it because it's busy enough without advertising. If you want to find it, ask for the tax authority building. It's the restaurant next to the tax authority entrance, and it's packed with gruff-looking guys hunched over bowls of what probably reminds them of mom's cooking.

This restaurant in Yerevan is well worth a visit, but I can't give you its name. It doesn't have one. The owner told us he didn't need to name it because it's busy enough without advertising. If you want to find it, ask for the tax authority building. It's the restaurant next to the tax authority entrance, and it's packed with gruff-looking guys hunched over bowls of what probably reminds them of mom's cooking.

 In addition to the more famous G.U.M. market, Yerevan also has a more low-key village market, which is where people from the Armenian countryside show up to sell amazing produce to city slickers. And because it was apple season, it was also quince season. These smelled delightful.

In addition to the more famous G.U.M. market, Yerevan also has a more low-key village market, which is where people from the Armenian countryside show up to sell amazing produce to city slickers. And because it was apple season, it was also quince season. These smelled delightful.

 We visited Vahe Keushguarian's wine incubator, where he had us sample a vat of what he called "blue wine" -- I believe the grape was called Gaboudgeni? It looked like a blueberry smoothie. Who knows if this grape will be noble enough for anyone to take interest down the road, but these experiments are normal in  in this wine frontier land. Vahes daughter, Aimee, also makes wine -- here she's sticking her head in to see what her dad's up to.

We visited Vahe Keushguarian's wine incubator, where he had us sample a vat of what he called "blue wine" -- I believe the grape was called Gaboudgeni? It looked like a blueberry smoothie. Who knows if this grape will be noble enough for anyone to take interest down the road, but these experiments are normal in  in this wine frontier land. Vahes daughter, Aimee, also makes wine -- here she's sticking her head in to see what her dad's up to.

 Anna M., one of our Tumo student friends, at work at the central market in Stepanakert shooting pomegranates.  Here's what she shot .

Anna M., one of our Tumo student friends, at work at the central market in Stepanakert shooting pomegranates. Here's what she shot.

  Saten G , another one of our Tumo student friends, is holding our sweet version of jingalov hats in a small village in Artsakh. Eating here was like eating in an alpine cabin.

Saten G, another one of our Tumo student friends, is holding our sweet version of jingalov hats in a small village in Artsakh. Eating here was like eating in an alpine cabin.

 Tea and sweet jingalov hats -- sometimes simple is better. 

Tea and sweet jingalov hats -- sometimes simple is better. 

That's it for now -- I need to finish transcribing all my notes, and we need to get our recipe list in shape so our editor to take a peak. For more, follow @lavashthebook on Instagram and @lavashthebook on Facebook