Meat Balls and Regional Differences: Kufta, made Gavar style “with love”

Anush Grigoryan says it is possible to have the best recipes in the world and yet not be able to cook tasty dishes.

“The thing is that those housewives, who are good cooks, never cook just for the necessity. It is necessary to cook dishes with love,” says 54-year-old Anush.

With love, then, sets about to prepare pilaf with kufta, mushroom, and spelt. She has ordered the kufta especially from Gavar (Qyavar), Gegharkunik province.

Kufta meat is made of sirloin. There are two types of kufta in Armenia – of Echmiadzin, Armavir province, and Gavar, Gegharkunik. As usual, Echmiadzintsis (people from Echmiadzin) do not like the kufta of Gavar, and Gavartsis do not like the kufta of Echmiadzin. Food is a matter of pride.

“The meat used in Gavar kufta is much harder, whereas Echmiadzin’s kufta meat is softer,” says Anush who is from Gavar, as she starts preparing the dish.
She puts one kilo of kufta meat into a bowl, adds one chopped onion, one egg, a tablespoon of flour, half a teaspoon of black pepper, one teaspoon of cognac. Then Anush starts mixing the mass by hand. When the mass becomes blended, she adds water little by little, almost half a glass. She adds the water gradually, so that the meat blend remains uniform (does not curdle). She starts pounding the meat by hand.

“Kufta loves being pounded. It is necessary to pound the meat for some 15 minutes until you hear a crackling sound when slapping it which sounds like music to your ears. We do not add salt to kufta meat, because it already has salt in it,” Anush explains. “When you prepare this dish either in spring or in summer, you may add some chopped tarragon, which adds delightful freshness to the dish.”

After pounding the kufta meat, Anush pours one liter of water into a pan and puts it on a gas fire. When the water is about to boil, and when the water bubbles are to appear on the surface of the water, Anush takes a ladle and shows how to put the kufta meat into the water.

She puts the ladle into cold water and takes it out, leaving a drop of water in the ladle, and then she puts the meat into the ladle by hand. She rounds the meat in the ladle by hand, then lowers the meat ball into the pot and starts stirring it. The kufta balls smoothly flow from the ladle to the water.

A special mallet for pounding kufta meat is resting in Anush’s kitchen; Gavartsis used to call it ‘tokhmakh’. It looks like a mallet, but it is a bit bigger. She says that Armenians used to pound meat with such a mallet before, making it kufta meat. Now, however, this process is mechanized.

“I remember when I was a child, I saw how old ladies gathered to pound meat with mallets. I can still hear that sound. It was an interesting and traditional custom. When a family was having a wedding or another party, then the housewife of that family could not pound the meat alone. So she declared that day a kufta pounding day, and all ladies of the neighborhood gathered to help her,” Anush recalls.

Anush adds two cups of spelt (a type of wheat), previously cleaned, into the water where the kufta is being cooked.

“When you feel that the water for kufta is too much for spelt, you must remove some part of it. Usually we should remember that one cup of spelt is being cooked in two glasses of water,” Anush explains.

And while the spelt grains are being swelled in the pan, Anush passes to the next important procedure.

She cleans half a kilo of mushrooms, washes them and cuts into big pieces. The frying-pan put on a gas fire is already warm. Anush puts 200 grams butter in the frying-pan, and when the butter melts, she adds the mushrooms, and some salt. In a few minutes, the mushrooms’ juice appears. She stirs the mushrooms with a wooden spoon, until they redden. Then she makes the flame low.

Anush cuts onions in half and then she chops them like half-moons.

“When we see that the mushroom juice disappears, and only the yellow butter is left, we add the onion. Some people prefer adding onion earlier, but I would not suggest doing so, because onion cooks very fast. As a result, the butter burns, and reddens, and then it does not look good. Whereas mushroom juice does not allow the butter to burn,” Anush explains.

At the same time, she follows the spelt and kufta being cooked.

The spelt is almost ready, the water entirely disappeared. She adds some 50 grams of butter to the pilaf. And then she closes the pan with a lid tight and covers the pan with a towel at the end.

“I studied covering a pan with a towel from my mother. She used to close it and say, “I cover a pan with a towel to make the food keep its taste.” I do the same,” Anush says.

In a few minutes Anush serves the pilaf with kufta, mushrooms and spelt. She cuts the kufta balls roundish. She puts the spelt in the middle of a plate, and arranges kuftas around it. She adds the mushrooms with stewed onions on the spelt. Before serving, she sprinkles black pepper on kuftas.
“By the way, it is necessary to eat spelt the way Gavartsis do – with lavash (Armenian traditional flat bread), taking each bite with a piece of lavash,” Ansuh says and shows the eating process like a true Gavartsi.

The following ingredients are necessary to cook pilaf with kufta, mushrooms and spelt:
1 kg kufta meat
2 cups spelt
½ kg mushrooms
3 onions
250 grams butter
1 egg
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon cognac
½ teaspoon black pepper
salt – depending on taste
black pepper – depending on taste

How to prepare the dish:

Add one chopped onion, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon flour, 1 teaspoon cognac (or vodka), ½ teaspoon black pepper, chopped tarragon to 1 kg kufta meat, and start beating by hand. When it is mixed, pound the meat by hand, gradually adding ½ glass of water. Add the water little by little. Pound the meat by palm for some 15-20 minutes. Pour 1 liter of water into a pot and put it on heat. When the water is about to boil, and when the water bubbles appear on the surface of the water, make a ladle wet leaving a drop of water in the ladle, and then put the meat into the ladle by hand. After rounding the meat in the ladle, lower the meat balls down the pot and start stirring it. The kufta balls appear in the pot. In some 15 minutes, add 2 cups of spelt, previously cleaned, into the water where the kufta is being cooked, and salt according to taste. While the kufta and spelt are being cooked, prepare mushrooms.

Clean and wash ½ kg mushrooms, warm a frying-pan, and add 200 grams butter. When the butter melts, add the mushrooms cut into big pieces. Wait until the mushrooms juice disappears, and add some salt to the mushrooms depending on taste. Cut 2 onions like half-moons. When the water disappears, add the onion. When the spelt absorbs kufta’s water, close the pan with a lid tight and cover with a towel, leaving for several minutes.

While serving, cut kufta balls roundish, put the pilaf in the middle of a plate, and arrange the cut kuftas around it. Put the mushrooms with stewed onions on the pilaf. In case of serving guests who prefer no onions, serve the mushrooms in a separate plate. Sprinkle black pepper on kuftas.