“Portal” from Pots: New book offers fun facts on familiar food

Who was the first foreign guest to attend an Armenian Party? What role did coffee play in Armenian marriage rituals? What are the rules for toasting at an Armenian party? What exotic herbs and fruits are sold in Yerevan markets?

Even if you think you know the answers to these and other quirky but fascinating questions concerning Armenian culinary culture, you may find some surprises in a new book that digs into the topic like David of Sassoon into . . . Well, what exactly did the “Armenian Hercules” eat? Read the book.

In “Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore”, writers/researchers Irina Petrosian and David Underwood unwrap the dolma, so to speak, on Armenian food habits and give a context to the “why” of rituals and recipes.

Don’t go looking for the “best matsun” recipe or a chapter on how to choose a pumpkin for ghapama.

The 272-page book, presented as “Hayastan’s first modern food guide written in English,” is not a recount of “how” but a fresh look at “why”.

Why, for example, is the word for “eat” also the word for “steal” in Armenian? Find the answer on page 226.

Irina Petrosian, a native of Armenia, is a professional journalist who has written for Russian, Armenian, and US-based newspapers. She says that her interest in the food culture of Armenia was inspired by the many questions asked by her husband, David Underwood. He is from Indiana, USA, and has been a newspaper staff member at The Indianapolis Business Journal and other American publications.

“Our goal was to create an informative, easy-to-read narrative that would also be entertaining,” Underwood said. “When I first visited Hayastan six years ago, I realized that there were no books written in English that fully told the fascinating story about Armenia’s delicious foods. Most Armenia travel guides barely touch the subject. The story of Armenian food is a portal into Armenian life and culture.”

Petrosian says the book answers meaning behind the myth of cooking, while also having fun with Armenian folklore.

“The way of the creation of the book is very interesting,” Petrosian says. “However, the most interesting thing to me was the opportunity as a co-author of my husband to look at Armenian tradition and lifestyle from aside. I saw many interesting things I wouldn’t notice before.”

The book was published in Yerevan, and is the result of two years of research and writing.

“We carefully documented our sources with an extensive bibliography. In fact, we compiled so much information, we could only include a fraction of it all in this first edition,” Petrosian said shortly before returning to the States after several months with her family in Vanadzor.

What’s the story behind Winston Churchill’s purported love of Armenian cognac? How did the USSR years influence the Armenian cuisine and further development of the lifestyle?

Answers were collected by the authors during travels across Armenia to visit ethnographers, restaurateurs, historians, housewives, even cab drivers and tatiks (grandmothers) who work in bazaars. Hundreds of hours were spent in musty libraries, pouring over ancient texts and tomes.

“It is quite amazing that there is an ancient Armenian fable that warns against the concept of genetically-modified foods. It was one of many remarkable discoveries we made while researching and writing this book,” Underwood added. “In the United States, fruits like Red Delicious apples have been altered to look red and ripe, even though they’re still green inside. As we explained in our book, Armenian fruits and vegetables are natural and delicious, untainted by such artificial, flavor-destroying processes. We think that one of the most interesting sections is the descriptions of vegetables, fruits and herbs that are virtually unknown to Westerners, like avelook, a dried green that is sold in beautiful long braids.”

The first edition printing was aimed mostly for English-speaking tourists to Armeina, but Petrosian says they hope to do a second, more colorful, version in the USA.

For information on how to purchase a copy of “Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore”, write to hyefood@yahoo.com.