Stir This UNESCO!: Food fight underway to annul slight over harisa

Stir This UNESCO!: Food fight underway to annul slight over harisa

The Development and Preservation of the Armenian Culinary Traditions NGO, is planning to appeal UNESCO’s decision passed during its annual session in Bali on November 22-29, by which one of the most popular dishes of the Armenian ethnic cuisine – harisa – has appeared on the UNESCO list of Non-Material Heritage as a Turkish national dish called Keshkesk.
Sedrak Mamulyan(left) and Vahe Atanesyan(right) spoke about the importance of harisa as “national identity of Armenians “and the plan to appeal UNESCO’s decision

Vahe Atanesyan, secretary of the NGO, says that a number of historians and ethnographers are currently collaborating with their organization collecting historic facts related to harisa. A special strategy is being developed on both scientific and legal grounds drafted to prove the origin of the dish and its cooking methods. The complete package will be submitted to proper instances demanding an appeal to UNESCO to have it annul the decision.

“But it is beyond the NGO’s power to resolve that issue on its own. The Ministry of Culture has a lot to do here. Until now we have not enshrined any ethnic Armenian dish. And by that we are playing into Turks’ hands,” says Atanesyan.

Writer and publicist Lia Avetisyan says that cuisine is part of culture and as such should be the culture ministry’s responsibility; however the ministry, she says, fails to perform its main functions, namely, to retrieve what’s been lost, preserve what we have and present it to the world.

According to Avetisyan the dishes using grains testify to exclusively sedentary lifestyle, and Turks originated from nomadic tribes. That, she argues, is the main proof harisa is a truly Armenian dish.

“The first sedentary households where grains were cultivated existed only in the Armenian highland. It has at least a 12,000-year history documented in our petroglyphs (prehistoric rock carvings) depicting oxen working the land, and other images,” says Avetisyan. “A dish name contains a code which tells about its origin. Harisa means “hari sa” (stir this), meaning it has to be stirred until it becomes a homogeneous creamy substance.”

Head of the NGO Sedrak Mamulyan says that harisa is one of the national dishes proving Armenian identity, like a national passport. When trying to identify the origin of any dish, its ingredients and cooking tools are considered.

“Harisa is cooked with pre-processed wheat in a clay jar in a tonir (a round, clay oven). It should be noted that wheat processing is typical of only Armenians [among the peoples of the region], just like pottery and the tonir. The other ingredient of harisa is chicken or mutton, as well as grains and vegetables. There is no doubt that it’s authentic Armenian,” says Mamulyan.

Writer Avetisyan brings another fact as a proof of harisa’s Armenian origin: according to Armenian chroniclers, some 2,000 years ago harisa was served as breakfast to soldiers of the Armenian army. And the tradition is preserved at the Armenian army even today. Harisa is very nutritious and nourishing.

Mamulyan stresses yet another time that state assistance is necessary to rectify the situation.

“It is not accidental that the Armenian word chef ‘khoharar’ means ‘a thinking person’. If we are detached from our ethnic cuisine, we cannot speak about ethnic music, literature, architecture, etc. The recent trend in Armenia is that they open a Georgian restaurant in Yerevan and serve Armenian dishes. We alienate ourselves from our cuisine, which speaks about general neglect,” he says.