Symbolic and Tasty: A lesson in the traditional Armenian Easter feast

Easter is the most festive of times for painter and ethnographer Lusik Aguletsi. Each Easter season (celebrated this Sunday) her kitchen becomes a parade of food.

Eggs, fish, rice, dried fruit, raisins, different types of edible greens, pastry dough, lavash (traditional Armenian flat bread) are lying on her kitchen table.
But before starting to cook something, Aguletsi shows empty eggs, which she has previously pricked with a needle, emptied the whole substance from inside, and dyed them. She ties ribbons around the eggs, and decorates an Easter tree, being helped by her grandchildren and daughter-in-law. They hang eggs of various sizes, and colorful ribbons from the branches of the tree.

“Big eggs symbolize our passed life, the middle-sized – the present, and the small ones – the future,” Aguletsi explains.

On Easter, too, Armenian housewives, put a small plate full of sprouted wheat seeds on the festive table, and call it ‘atsik’ (malt).

“Atsik is the symbol of dying and resurrecting life. You plant the wheat grain, it dies, and then it shoots and the wheat germ with a green sprout growing from the core symbolizing the beginning of new life,” she says and starts cooking.

Lusik dyes eggs using red roots called “toron” that can be found in vineyards.

She washes toron, then puts it into an old teapot (an old pan is preferable, because it becomes stained form the color). She carefully puts the uncooked eggs on the toron and adds water as much as to cover the eggs and adds a tablespoon salt. Then she puts the teapot on a gas fire. The eggs must be cooked for at least 30-45 minutes.

The next important dish on an Easter table is cooked greens. Different types of greens can be bought at markets in Yerevan (brought from provinces of Armenia). Lusik cooks one roughly translated as “snake-like goat’s beard or salsify”. (There is another type of “goat’s beard”, but she says “snake-like” is better because it is softer.)

She puts a liter of water on a gas fire and waits until it boils. While boiling she adds a tablespoon salt, then she adds a kilo of the greens she had previously washed.

“It is essential to cook the greens in boiling water, so that it does not lose its green color, and looks beautiful on the table. After cooking the greens for some 15 minutes remove it from the pan and strain it,” she says.

Later she takes a frying-pan, adds 100 grams butter, and some olive oil. And by the time the frying-pan gets warm, she cuts the edible greens into big pieces. Then she puts some salt, cayenne and black pepper on the greens, puts them in the frying-pan and stirs.

She previously beat three eggs. In a few minutes, she adds the beaten eggs to the greens, sprinkling more cayennes on it until the red and yellow colors mix.

“Armenian cuisine is not complicated,” she says. “You just have to love it.”

Now she prepares Kutap a stuffed pastry.

Lusik prefers preparing Easter kutap of zhingyal, a type of greens particularly popular in Karabakh, famous for their “zhingalov hats” (bread made of zhingal).
Dough for the bread is made of one liter of Armenian matsuni (natural yogurt), one egg and flour estimated by sight. It is possible to prepare it simply using ready-made dough sold in markets.

She bought zhingyal from a market, too. She washes the greens and cuts them into large pieces.

While the zhingyal is being cooked, she stews three onions, using 150 grams of olive oil, she adds the mix to the zhingyal in a frying pan and adds more cayenne and black pepper and a variety of other greens.

“There is no need to cook the greens here, you must simply mix and stir the whole mass properly, and then take it off the fire,” she explains.

She puts some oil on her hands, and puts some on the surface where she is planning to put the pieces of the dough. She opens a small piece of dough by hand, puts the ready greens on it, closes carefully sticking the edges of the dough to each other and puts it in the pan which she has previously oiled. When the pan is full of kutaps, she puts it into the oven (250 0C).

Lusik shows how it is possible to prepare kutap using lavash instead of dough, too. She cuts lavash into rectangular pieces. She takes one piece of lavash, puts some greens there and wraps it into a triangle.

Then she oils the pan using olive oil. When the pan is a bit warm, she arranges the kutaps made of lavash there. From time to time, she turns the kutaps over to fry them equally.

The kutaps being cooked on the gas fire get prepared faster than the kutaps in the oven (25 minutes).

Lusik shows the method for eating kutaps and offers them to her guests.

“It is necessary to cut kutap into two pieces with a knife in the middle, and put a piece of butter on it once it is hot, and eat that way,” she explains.

Next on the Easter table list is khnjloz another type of greens found in mountainous areas of Armenia. Khnjloz has a bulb and Lusik also pickles the plant. She says that Armenians used to prepare khnjloz on Thursday prior to the Easter, so that until Sunday it gets pickled enough. She puts one liter of water in a stew-pan on a gas fire to boil, adds one tablespoon salt, and when the water starts boiling, she puts khnjloz into the pan and cooks it until slightly soft. Then she removes the greens and puts them into a strainer. When strained, she pours on cold water, then puts some khnjloz on the bottom of a bowl and sprinkles with half a tablespoon salt and a bit of apple vinegar. She repeats the step, layering the dish until using all the greens.

“We try to keep a little bit of khnjloz juice [do not strain it entirely]. And then we leave it that way until Easter, and an amazing pickled khnjloz comes out,” Aguletsi says.

Next: trout. She salts and peppers the fish, then opens its belly and stuffs it with walnuts.

Lusik layers the bottom of a pan with tarragon and puts the trout on it. Then she puts 100-150 grams butter on the fish adding cold water as much as not to cover the fish entirely, and puts the pan on a gas fire to cook.

“Usually when a fish eye comes out, we say that the fish is ready, but trout must be cooked at least 40 minutes, on a low flame. The longer the fish gets cooked, the tastier it becomes,” she explains.

Now the most important Easter dish: Pilaf, for which dried fruits and lavash are essential.

She pours two liters of water into a pan, adding a tablespoon salt to it, and puts the pan on a gas fire. When the water boils, she adds two cups of rice. In 15 minutes when the rice cooked, she puts it into a strainer.

By the time the rice has drained, she cuts the dried fruit into small pieces. Lusik says the Easter pilaf she makes is typical to natives of Nakhijevan. Each housewife uses dried fruit, raisins, and persimmon depending on family members’ wish and taste.

Lusik puts the cut dried fruit and raisins into a small pan, adds some water and 50 grams butter to it. She cooks until they soften. (She does not cook the persimmon, because, as she says, it would soften too much.) She says it is also possible to soak the dried fruit a day before and not cook them at all.
And then she starts cutting lavash into triangles.

“Triangle symbolizes the universe; it is also the symbol of women. Two triangles put into each other symbolize male and female,” Lusik says, putting the lavash on the bottom of a pan.

She puts the white rice on lavash, adding the colorful dried fruit to it. She puts some 150 grams butter to the dried fruit and puts the pan on a slow flame.
“The butter melts and flows reaching to the lavash. The sweet taste and flavor of apricot, peach, and plum are mixed with raisins and persimmon; and they together – to the rice and lavash. While cooking we check whether it is ready or not by raising lavash a bit. When we notice that it is reddish, we take the pan out of the gas fire,” Aguletsi says.

Easter pilaf is also ready in a few minutes, but Lusik continues cutting dried fruit. She says that it is also necessary to prepare ghoshab (juice made from dried fruits).

Apricot, apple, pear, plum, peach, cherry, sweet cherry… She says that we may take any dried fruit we have at hand, mix them, and add two liters of water; a few tablespoons of sugar (depending on taste) and put on a gas fire. Ghoshab is cooked until the fruits soften, and the tastes are mixed with each other.
“The dried fruit necessary for making ghoshab, must not be previously made in sugar syrup. After cooking, you may use it both warm and cold. You may also add some raisins to the Easter ghoshab, depending on taste,” she explains.

After the labor of love, the Easter table is ready. It is beautiful and rich not only in its colors, but also taste and flavor. The family of Lusik Aguletsi gathers at the table to celebrate, adding glasses of red wine.

At Easter Christians congratulate each other saying: “Christ has Risen” and receive the answer: “Blessed is the Resurrection of Christ.”