Tolma Festival: Traditional Armenian ways of wrapping meat in leaves presented anew

The fragrance in the air at the Sardarapat Memorial heralds the opening of the festival of the traditional Armenian dish – tolma. Chefs in white caps enthusiastically explain to visitors the various methods of cooking tolma before treating them to delicious meatballs wrapped in grape and other leaves. “Taste this tolma and you will see it for yourself,” they say.

The dish is served in ceramic dishes. The tastes of different tolmas is different reflecting the methods of preparations and ingredients used in different areas - Artamet, Alashkert, Echmiadzin, Mush, and others. Among the novelties is the tonir tolma.

“A wrapped tolma is put on a stick and then to the tonir (a clay oven),” explains Sedrak Mamulyan, the head of the “Armenian Cookery Traditions Development and Protection” NGO that has organized the festival (as part of the Golden Apricot international film festival).

As many as 23 pavilions feature 30 types of tolma.

“The goal is to popularize traditional Armenian dishes and to assert Armenian cuisine, which is considered to be one of intangible cultural values. Also, it is to present tolma as an Armenian dish, disproving the wrong opinions that tolma has Turkish roots,” says Mamulyan.

The pavilion of the Tufenkian Hotel Complex presents four types of tolma – the bean-leaf tolma (Artsakh), pumpkin unfecundated flower wrapped tolma (Lori), raspberry leaf tolma (Tavush, Sevan) and Lent tolma with rice (Dilijan).

“We search for old recipes for the dish and offer then anew. There are numerous tolma variations in our cuisine. The more we research, the more we understand that Armenian cuisine is very strong,” says Tufenkian Hotel Complex chef Ruben Poghosyan. “This festival will become a traditional one and the world will know that Armenian cuisine does not yield to French cuisine.”

The festival organizers and chefs explain that tolma is Armenian, while dolma is not. They say dolma means “stuffed” and tolma means “wrapped”, that is in grape leaves.

Afrikyanneri Pandok restaurant chef Grisha Antinyan says that often tolma becomes a matter of speculations as some claim it is not Armenian. Meanwhile, he says, even its name suggests that it is an Armenian dish.

“Tolma is a word that consists of two Urartu language roots, ‘toli’ and ‘ma’, which mean ‘grape leave’ and ‘wrapped’,” he says.

Armenian cuisine’s ‘top five tolma chart’ includes grape-leaf tolma, Echmiadzin tolma (with cabbage and vegetables), Lent tolma, Yerevan tolma (like Echmiadzin tolma with the addition of quinces), and Mush tolma made of chopped meat and bulgur.

Chefs say that they find many recipes in archives, even in cuneiform records, such as the recipe of the Erebuni tolma.

The Afrikyanneri Pandok restaurant chef says they got the Erebuni tolma recipe from the Erebuni museum in Yerevan. He says they adapted it to our own days and present it anew. This tolma variation was known still in 782 BC in the fortress city founded by King Argishti, the son of Menua. The recipe was in historical archives.

“It is made of chicken meat, mushrooms, string cheese, nuts. We serve it with mushroom and walnut sauce. We also present the Taron tolma. It was a dish on the tables of the Mamikonyan royal dynasty. This tolma is of sliced beef tongue, we serve it with cherry sauce. In the ancient times all tolmas were sliced. And we have an old Bayazet Lent tolma with rice and vegetables, we serve it with Cornelian-cherry sauce,” says Antinyan.

Besides the tolma fragrance visitors at the tolma festival venue in Sardarapat, some 40 kilometers west of Armenian capital Yerevan, can also listen to Armenian folk songs and watch national dances. Guests taste the tolma and then start dancing kochar. Mamulyan says the location has been chosen not without a reason as Sardarapat was the scene of a 1918 battle that stopped the Turkish onslaught and led to the establishment of the first democratic Armenian republic.

“This place symbolizes self-defense... And cuisine is the field where we need to develop our self-defense instinct. Our cuisine is one of the world’s most famous and ancient cuisines and has served as a donor to our neighboring countries. All took advantage of the Armenian [cuisine]. The cuisine of this region is Armenian. We have nothing to prove, we only have a problem recognizing it ourselves,” he says.

Meanwhile, such recognition is possible after tasting the fish and crawfish tolmas offered at the Sevan pavilion by the Sargsyans family restaurant.

Chef Armen Sargsyan says that fish tolma has always been a dish cooked in the vicinity of Lake Sevan – once the main fish used was ishkhan (Sevan trout), now sig meat is mostly used.

“Fish was caught from the lake, bones were removed and the meat was chopped, then it was kneaded with bulgur and wrapped in strawberry leaves. Crawfish tolma is more modern and stylish, again it is wrapped in strawberry leaves. These two tolma types are very fashionable at the Sevan now,” he says.

The next tolma at the Sarsgyans pavilion is tolma with thal (ghavurma, or boiled and then fried lamb meat with fat poured on it, made for winter storage). In cooking this tolma bulgur is also added to the meat.

People leave the pavilions with recipes, proving that one of the goals of the festival to reintroduce the forgotten dishes anew has been achieved. Organizers say that a brochure with all recipes will be published.

“We have had the festival of khorovats (barbecue) for already three years. Soon, we will also hold a bread festival. The countries that have ancient cultures often hold festivals, and our cuisine is an inseparable part of our culture,” says Mamulyan.