Food is a beloved subject of expats and other globetrotters, don’t you agree? There is so much fun and exotic food to be found in foreign countries and it’s often an adventure trying out new comestibles. Of course not all adventures are created equal.
Today, let me tell you about a birthday party I attended while living in Armenia, a small country nestled in the Caucasian Mountains. It was not like any other birthday party I’d ever been to, although we did get cheery party hats.
ARMENIAN SOUL FOOD
Ah, the joy of exploring grocery stores and open markets in foreign countries! You’ll invariably come across food items you have never seen before. Not long after I arrive in Armenia as an expat I spot the cow hooves for sale in the market. To me they appear to be rather an inedible substance, but clearly I am wrong. I soon learn that cow feet soup, or khash, is not just soup. It’s Armenian soul food. An ancient traditional dish, originally poor people food, it has now been elevated to gourmet-status and the Armenians go into raptures over it. Eating khash is not just eating soup, it’s an event, a party, a cultural experience. It’s eaten early in the morning in the winter months, consumed with copious amounts of vodka. The stories I’ve heard about khash have been interesting. Armenians revere and adore it and (most) foreigners revile and abhor it. Armeniapedia describes it like this:
“a masterpiece of Armenian cuisine made by cows’ feet, stomach and Armenian ingenuity. Khash is a unique experience for any foreign visitor, and whether they like it or not (and many don’t), almost all enjoy the ritual of a khash party.”
One cold February day I too get the opportunity to experience this winter ritual. My man and I have been invited to a khash party to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The venue is a private apartment that has been set up as a commercial eating place by an entrepreneurial woman.
In a biggish living room a long table is set and ready with plates of pickles, herbs, lemons, sliced large radishes, bread, dishes of salt and chopped garlic, and the usual forest of bottles of soft drinks, wine, brandy and vodka.
I’m sitting next to our friend Arson who helps me to some water. As soon as all the guests are seated, somebody reaches for the vodka and pours all around. It’s just after ten in the morning. Toasting begins immediately, a bari luis (good light = good morning ) to all and down goes the vodka. I sip a careful drop: I’ve never had strong alcohol so early in the day, but I’ve been told I’ll need it.
I take in my surroundings while munching on radish slices. The windows are decorated with elaborately draped forest-green curtains festooned with a fringe of gold tassels. Paintings decorate the walls, from brownish bucolic scenes in ornate frames to a bare-breasted maiden with happy nipples. A piano stands quietly in a corner. It all looks rather cozy in a very old-fashioned way, sort of what your great-grandparents might have had in the early part of the last century – minus the naked nymph perhaps. However, this is the new millennium and to prove it there’s a state-of-the-art silvery CD player looking anachronistic in the old-world room. Next to it a stack of CDs is ready and waiting. There must be music, of course. And dancing, naturally. This is Armenia!
Khash arrives in bowls the size of the Caspian Sea. I study the soup in front of me with trepidation. It’s colorless and greasy and has a white, flabby piece of gelatinous cow foot in it. I take a spoonful of the broth and taste it. Nothing. No flavor worth mentioning. I’m not sure if I am disappointed or relieved.
“You’ve never had khash yet?” Arson asks, surprised, and I tell him no. He hands me a dish of salt and a spoon. “You must put salt in it,” he says.
I put in a couple of heaping spoonfuls.
“And garlic.” A dish with smashed garlic appears in front of my nose. I avail myself of a generous amount. Maybe there is hope yet.
“Now you take the meat out and put it on your plate and cover it up with lavash (thin flat bread) to keep it warm.”
I’m all for liberating my sea of soup from that white flabby stuff – if that is what is called meat. I don’t see meat, but they’ve got to call it something. I do as instructed, and take a fresh sheet of lavash and cover the glob up real good.
“Why do we do that?” I ask.
“Because it’s the best part and we save it for last.”
I smile politely. “Okay.”
“Now you take the dry pieces of lavash and put in as much as you can get into the soup.”
A bowl on the table holds a pile of dry lavash, broken into small pieces, like chips. People are grabbing it by the handful and dunking it in their soup. So I follow suit.
There is another toast, but I miss what this one is about as I watch transfixed as the bread sops up the soup, turning into a gloppy greasy gray mess. I raise my glass, clink it all around, and take a fortifying gulp of vodka.
So here I am, spooning in the bread soaked with grease and broth and garlic, practically feeling my arteries clogging up. It tastes fine – salty, garlicky, bready and greasy.
Everybody eats with gusto, some of the men emptying the enormous bowls as if they were starved desert nomads. Several of them get seconds. And all the while there’s the toasting and the downing of vodka. It’s now eleven in the morning.
“Don’t worry,” says Arson next to me. “The hoof fat in the soup coats the stomach and makes it possible to drink a lot of vodka.”
Is this good news? I am not sure.
“You need to try some of the meat,” Arson tells me several toasts later.
Lifting a corner of the sheet of lavash, I cut off a piece of the quivering white jelly stuff pretending to be meat. I put it in my mouth. It tastes like soft quivering jelly stuff. Who’d ever have thought expat life would find me eating this? I spoon in some more garlicky bread soup. I have another sip of vodka.
Someone puts on a CD. People get up and dance. I don’t know how they get up out of their chairs, let alone dance with their stomach weighted down with a gallon of khash. But this is Armenia and dancing is what you do at a party, always, no matter how full your stomach or how little the floor space.
“Why is khash always eaten in the morning?” I ask my friend Sona who sits across from me.
“Because it takes all day to digest,” she says promptly. Well, there’s that.
But it isn’t only the khash that needs digesting. When finally people have eaten to their Armenian soul’s content, the bowls are taken away and it’s announced that we should go entertain ourselves, until the khorovats is ready.
My mate and I look at each other, horror stricken. Khorovats? After this these khash-gorgers have room for huge chunks of barbecued meat and fish?
Yes. But not right away, because they haven’t even started the fire yet outside in the barbecue.
Someone starts playing the piano and people huddle close and sing sad, melancholy songs about the beauty of Armenia and the soldiers who have died and the loss of Mount Ararat (located in Eastern Turkey). Then another CD is put on and they dance, or play cards, or backgammon and keep drinking to keep their spirits up until the next sad song. Along with the cigarette smoke, conviviality fills the air. Apparently, people are settling in to feast away the whole day.
And we thought we were having breakfast, or maybe brunch.
We escape before the khorovats makes an appearance.
* * *
Think! Have you ever had an interesting food experience? Come on, tell me!
Great story! My father says that one of his “comfort foods” growing up in the Bronx was “ptchah,” a cow’s foot gelatin that his Russian-born mother used to make. She would first sear the foot over the stove gas to burn off any extraneous hair, before stewing the meat until it thickened into a kind of aspic. She’d top it with hard-boiled eggs and let it chill. One Thanksgiving a few years back, my mom and I decided to treat my father by recreating this favorite treat. It involved many hours of work – and incredibly nasty smells. I’m an… Read more »
It’s amazing what we can make into food if we have little resources. And whatever we eat growing up (often) becomes comfort food. A lot of “old-fashioned” food takes hours or days to prepare too — not at all what we are used to anymore with all the convenience food around. I love stories like yours; thanks for sharing!
My kids ate cowfoot soup in Belize and said they saw hairs attached to the hoof. Happy I wasn’t there. Just discovered a new Persian market in my neighborhood and trying new stews and tasty foods.
As long as your kids didn’t get sick, they had an interesting experience and now have a story to tell! Persian food is supposed to be good, so let us know what you discover!
I think I’ll pass on breakfast! Happy New Year to you.
A close friend of mine is Armenian, and from that I can tell not all Armenians adore khash. Well, at least not that particular one. Especially she hates to cook it (though she has to – her dad will be very upset if found himself left w/o khash on his Birthday). From what I know it takes around 10-12 hours to get the thing ready. It is what it takes to get broth from cow hooves, while cooking it on a low heat.
Great story! Myself, I wouldn’t be able to find a courage to try it!
Thank you for adding your story! Yes, cooking khash is a major operation! I’ve looked for recipes (out of curiosity, not because I wanted to do it!) and they’re affairs of epic proportions. It takes days to soak and clean the stomach and hoofs and then hours and hours to simmer them. It is said that it’s eaten in the morning because it takes all night to boil the soup. Just reading the recipes takes my appetite away 😉
“Cow heel” we call it.
I ain’t eating THAT! Not even when I used to eat meat.
We make a dish called pepper-pot, some people make it with cow heel. Recently, my cousin emailed me and we were talking about pepper-pot, and she said she refuses to eat cow heel pepper-pot, only the beef one would do.
Speaking of odd food, a Swiss friend told me he’s eaten snake.
Snake, yes, another delicacy, or not. When I lived in Indonesia I knew of a restaurant that only served snake. Boiled, stewed, barbecues, fried, any old way you wanted it. They had a supply of live ones on display and you could pick out the specimen that you wanted and have it cooked to your specification. I never ate there.
Hahaha! I LOVE your writing! This post reminded me of the time my Pakistani in-laws cooked a sheeps stomach. The smell while it was cooking sent me out for a walk (at 10pm in a not-so-nice area of Edinburgh – it was that bad!) The appearance wasn’t much better, all lumpy and bumpy and grey 🙁
When it was finally ready to eat, after trying it, lets just say I was glad there was an alternative dish going that night!
It being a muslim house, I didn’t even have the benefit of Vodka!
I know how you must have felt! And no vodka even! As westerners we do get more and more squeamish about the food we eat, finding only the best, prettiest parts of animals neatly trimmed and cut for us to choose from. And we are mostly separated from where the meat actually comes from: live animals. So it goes.
Hi, great post. You described the khash eating experience to a T. I have also written about this scrumptious repast on my own blog, Notes From Hairenik. When you go to the blog in the search field type Khash then search and several posts will come up. This one is my first: http://noteshairenik.blogspot.com/2005/11/khash-for-baby-girl.html. I even hosted my own khash party once!
My brother asked me to take him to a traditional Chinese meal. Our school happened to have a celebration (Chinese New Year) dinner during his stay. He got to try the thousand-year-old eggs (http://www.odditycentral.com/pics/century-egg-would-you-eat-one.html). As an out-of-towner, the table offered him the auspicious fish head – which he ate well.
I’m not too bad with seaweed now. I’ve been offered pig tail and chicken feet. A common saying in Guangdong (mainland) China: “We eat everything with four legs except the table and chairs.”
Thank you for your extreme food contribution — thousand-year-old eggs! (I know they’re preserved eggs but not 1000 yrs old). What do they taste like? You have a very adventurous brother!
Great story! And yes, I have many food stories, but I am just going to post a link to my fav… (which I suspect is a lame plea for some linky-love so please forgive me…)
That is a great story.
I was reminded of a grey fish soup I had in Tasmania. It looked like lumpy wallpaper paste but tasted delicious.
The oddest thing I ever ate was when I was living in Samoa. The family roasted a few bats they caught. I don’t know that they tasted like as they were all bone and well salted.
Bats! I’ve not heard of eating those. About your Tasmanian fish soup: it is amazing how important the appearance of food is, and how deceptive it can be in terms of what it tastes like.
That was an interesting post – I had never heard of this soup before. My father was Armenian and I visited his side of his family in Turkey and Egypt – even was in Cairo for New Year once, but never heard of this soup. I wonder if this soup is mostly from the Eastern Armenians (Russia, etc.) as my father and his friends and family never drank vodka – he liked raki which is Turkish. Of course my father was from the large Armenian diaspora and they could have forgotten many of the old customs I guess. I was… Read more »
I think khash is indeed an Eastern Armenian food. It was originally poor people food, and also other foods are different. I brought an Armenian cookbook with me when I moved to Armenia. It was written by a “diaspora” Armenian in California. When my Armenian friend in Yerevan read the book, she was amazed because she didn’t know many of the foods. Also, it is an arduous process to make this soup and might well have gone by the wayside in the diaspora in the last 90 years or so. I probably would have tried that cobra soup if it… Read more »
Wow that was quite an experience. I am not a soup eater at all so I wouldn’t have survived that adventure and than washing it down with vodka I salute you that you went through all this. I haven’t had any bad experiences but my brother told a story when he travelled through india a friend was invited by a familie were they ate from monkey heads
Eating from monkey heads, I don’t want to visualize that scene!
Your storytelling skills are superb, the soup not so much – haha! I had lunch with my Taiwanese bf and his father. It was their favourite, sticky rice with goat. There is no water involved, any rice plumpness comes from the oil, the goat’s meat was like broken, damp toothpicks. It truly was a mouthful but I smiled through it.
Thanks for the compliment – I honed my writing skills writing romance novels. Your goat meat story sounds like quite a culinary adventure as well!
Wow! Amazing story. You made me feel like I was right there with you!
You’re very brave! I’m not sure I’d have managed to eat that. The long eating sessions sounds very much like France although there’s less vodka here!
Well… what about the crispy fried grasshoppers in Thailand? We had them all the time with some beer, so crispy you don’t even know they are bugs! Or these days we eat crispy chicken feet with a beer… a Chinese delicacy.
Crispy sounds good. I think crispy things are easier to try than soggy, soupy, chewy foods like some of the ones mentioned in the other comments. I’ve never had crispy fried grasshoppers, but I’m willing to try. Just have to get over the idea of them being insects, but then I eat shrimp and they’re like sea-insects. We are so brainwashed about food in our various cultures!