Words/Photos: Kate Leahy
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.