Piti: From the crock to “special fans”

Finding someone to prepare an Armenian ethnic dish called “piti” for this column proved harder than expected, as those approached most often said they knew how to prepare the dish, but insisted that it could only be made in a stone oven.

When others fail, turn to mama.

“Of course I can do that, I invite you to our house to eat piti tomorrow,” said my 60-year-old mother, Anahit Harutyunyan.

Piti (from the Armenian word for “crock”) is a traditional Armenian dish made of chickpeas and mutton, dried plums and okra and is cooked in a pot for some three hours until all ingredients mix – a sort of Armenian chili, maybe.

We arrive at my mom’s house early to follow the cooking process and find all necessary ingredients on the kitchen table: mutton, peas, onion, potato, okra (sometimes referred to as “gumbo”), butter, plums, tomato paste, cayenne and black paper, salt.

The cooked peas and mutton (browned, with bones removed) are already on the table in the kitchen.

Mother chops onion into small pieces, then fries in butter, adds two tablespoons tomato paste, cayenne and black pepper. In a few minutes she adds the broth, the peas, and the mutton. (Peas should be soaked at least two hours prior to cooking.)

“After cooking the meat, it is necessary to remove the bones before adding it to the broth. It is very important for the pea to be properly cooked, almost melted. During my childhood, when we used to live in our village (Geghard), I remember how my mother was preparing piti in a clay pot. The whole mass was put into a clay pot and hung it in a tonir (an oven prepared in a hole in the ground, usually used for baking bread). Piti was cooked in stone ovens in many provinces of Armenia. Restaurants still use this (stone oven) method,” she says. “Now housewives can use either electric ovens or cook it on a gas stove.”

Mom says that, of course, the piti cooked in a tonir tastes differently. But she also agrees with the adage that any dish will be delicious if the cook puts her soul into it.

In 15 minutes she adds potato, sliced into small cubes, to the boiling mixture, and when they (cubes) are cooked, she adds dried plums and two cloves of garlic.

“In a few minutes we add okra. Dried plumps are cooked longer than okra that is why we add it later, and then we add some chopped parsley, and wait for about 10 minutes,” she says.

My mother’s spices are resting in one corner of the kitchen. It seems that the secret of her delicious dishes lies here. And while piti is being cooked, she says, “Smell it, it smells nice, doesn’t it? This spice is especially for potato, this one – for fish, this one I use only while cooking chicken, and we will add this mixture of seven types of spices (common caraway, cayenne pepper, black pepper, coriander seed, garlic powder, cinnamon, ground allspice tree) to our piti.”

The smell of piti is spread in the whole house. And while she lays the table, mom says that “piti” has also come to mean “everything mixed with each other.”

And with “everything mixed together” the piti is ready. The yellow pea and green okra make a colorful display together in the pot; black dried plums are shining in the background.

My mother fills plates with piti and says, “Piti has special fans. It is necessary to love this dish in order to be able to eat it. So, try it, and I wish you good appetite.”

The following ingredients are necessary for cooking piti:

1 kg of mutton
½ kg chickpeas
2 medium-sized onions
2 cloves garlic
2 medium-sized potatoes
200 grams okra
200 grams butter
5-6 dried black plums
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Cayenne and black pepper to taste

How to cook piti:

1. Cook 1kg mutton and ½ kg peas adding salt (soak peas before cooking)
2. Chop two onions into small pieces and fry in butter
3. Add two tablespoons tomato paste, cayenne and black pepper
4. Add the broth and mutton (previously removing the bones) and peas
5. Cook for 15 minutes, then add potatoes (cut into cubes)
6. Add plums.
7. In 15 minutes, add two cloves of garlic, parsley and okra
8. Cook until all ingredients are well mixed

Total process should take 2-3 hours. It is preferable to cook piti in earthenware pots.