Yerevan-based Marianna Grigoryan finished 2013 off with what might be Eurasianet's wildest story of the year: an article about one Armenian supermarket that is offering up an entire smoked crocodile as an item for the traditional New Year's feast.
Here's a taste of her great article:
Situated on a bed of lettuce and lemons on a counter in SAS supermarket’s meat department, the 12-kilogram, 90-centimeter-long crocodile, imported from the United States, weighs in at the staggering price of 380,000 drams, or $940; roughly twice the amount of the average monthly salary.
“Who can afford such luxury?” fumed 48-year-old Yerevan dressmaker Silva Alexanian. “Once the markets used to be full with people before New Year’s nowadays; now they are empty. People have either left the country, or cannot afford celebrating New Year’s. Most of them hope for the money their relatives working abroad send them.”
With roughly one-third of Armenia’s approximate population of 3 million people now officially living in poverty, for some, the crocodile symbolizes all that has gone wrong economically with this South Caucasus country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Migration has increased by 12 percent this year, while remittances increased fivefold in the first six months of the year to $1.2 billion, according to official data.
Grigoryan's smoked crocodile tale was so intriguing that I followed up with to get more details about the story and some of the economic and sociological background to it. Our exchange is below:
A this blog wrote about in a previous post, apricots hold a particularly important place in Armenian life, both culturally and economically. Writing for the wonderful Mashallah News website, journalist Liana Aghajanian delves deeper into this story, producing a beautiful ode to the apricot. From Aghajanian's piece:
Indeed, there is not an apricot in the world that tastes like the ones found in Armenia. It is more than just a piece of fruit – the weight of a country and a diaspora’s national psyche, with equal parts tragedy and nostalgia, rests on its shoulders.
Scattered across the world by the horrors of a genocide at the turn of the 20th century, the Armenian Diaspora’s feet have always been on the move, planted elsewhere by accident and circumstance, but constantly pulled back by the heavy gravitational force of Armenia. As immigrants in faraway lands struggling with a collective, passed down trauma and relishing in the nostalgic notions of homeland – a place kept neatly framed in scenic oil paintings hung on walls from Beirut to Boston, there is an intense longing for home, a place to feel grounded and whole in again, a place where an apricot can be so delicious, that no other apricot found in any other corner of the world will do.
The feeling can only be described in words that have no direct English translation. One of them is the Portuguese “Saudade”, a deeply melancholic state for the absence of something or someone. The other is a Welsh word, “Hiraeth”, defined by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David as “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed.”
Forever homesick, Armenians are always searching for that fulfillment of home, for what was lost to be found.
For the third year, Yerevan played host to an annual festival celebrating dolma -- the dish made by stuffing grape leaves and other vegetables with an assortment of ingredients. Reports the Asbarez website:
Taste-Testers flocked through the flanked winged oxen of the Sardarabad memorial for the third annual Dolma Festival on Wednesday, July 10. Traditional music, singing, and dancing set the mood for the festival as 24 groups locked in a battle of vine leaves and stuffing for prizes in a number of categories including the longest Dolma.
The festival was organized by the Armenian Cookery Traditions Development and Protection Organization (ACTDP) and exposed visitors to a number of variations of the traditional Armenian dish. Qajik Levonyan, a representative of the Araratian Restaurant , said that the name of the three thousand-year-old dish stems from the Armenian word Dol, which means vine leaves, and that the recipe’s secret lies in the freshness of the ingredients.
As previously reported on this blog, though, the dolma festival is more than just about dolma. This being the Caucasus, the event also has a political subtext to it, with ACTDP head Sedrak Mamulyan telling Armenian reporters two years ago that one of the motivating factors behind the festival was to keep dolma (or "tolma" as he called it) from being "appropriated" by neighboring countries. "We have done nothing to patent our national dishes," he said at the time.
Eurasianet corespondent Marianna Grigoryan's recent piece about hypermarket chain Carrefour's struggle to break into the Armenian market because of a group of oligarchs' control over the food supply chain, provided a fascinating glimpse into how rotten politics can impact the most mundane daily chores, such as shopping and cooking. Interested in hearing more about this story, I sent Marianna a list of followup questions. Our exchange is below:
1. What made you think about reporting on this subject?
When nearly six months ago it was announced that Carrefour is coming to Yerevan, many people were curious to see if that at least will happen. In Armenia, where in many spheres there is the heavy existence of monopolies, Carrefour’s possible existence became some kind of question of principa. I was excited, as were many others, to have Carrefour in Yerevan as a competitive hypermarket next to Yerevan's existing two or three supermarket networks. But at the other side speculations started as expected and severak months later there is still nothing exact – only Carrefour's “Opening soon.” So I decided to write about the situation in light of a story I had already started about Armenian oligarchs. 2. In general, where do Armenians shop for their food?
In general in Armenia, especially in Yerevan, the biggest network of supermarkets-hypermarkets is 'Yerevan City,' which belongs to the pro-government oligarch Samvel Aleksanyan, a member of parliament who controls sugar, flour and other spheres of food import and dictates the “prices.” For example, officially 99.9 percent of sugar imports and domestic sales belong to his family. There are also two other supermarket networks but they have been mostly empty in recent months. 3. Do you think Armenians are looking for the kind of shopping experience a Carrefour would offer?
As the situation in Syria continues to spiral downward, a growing number of members of the country's historic Armenian community are seeking refuge in Armenia. Reports the New York Times:
The flight of Syrian Armenians — one of many lesser-noticed ripple effects that could reshape countries well beyond Syria’s neighbors — is raising questions about the future of Syria’s diversity. And it is forcing Armenia, which depends on its strong diaspora communities to augment its otherwise scant geopolitical heft, to make delicate calculations about whether to encourage their exodus or slow it.
For now, Armenia is hedging its bets. It is sending aid to Armenians in Syria, helping them stay and survive. But it is also helping them come to Armenia, temporarily or permanently, by fast-tracking visas, residency permits and citizenship.
“Our policy is to help them the way they tell us to help them,” said Vigen Sargsyan, the chief of staff to Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan.
About 6,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Armenia as fighting engulfs Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where an estimated 80,000 of Syria’s 120,000 Armenians live. More arrive each week even as a few trickle back, unable to afford Yerevan or stay away from houses and businesses they left behind unguarded in Syria.
Meanwhile, as the Armenia Now website reports, some of those refugees -- from the city of Aleppo -- have opened a restaurant in Yerevan, hoping to keep a taste of home while they're away from Syria. From the site's story:
Are elected officials in Yerevan trying to take any local color out of the city's food scene? That certainly seems to be the case. Last year, the city's mayor issued a ban on street vendors -- many of them fruit and vegetable sellers -- in an effort to "clean up" Yerevan. More worrisome for Yerevan residents, it now looks like local leaders are turning a blind eye while the city's well-known indoor market, the now shuttered Pak Shuka, is in danger of being demolished by a businessman cum politician who reportedly wants to turn it into a supermarket.
In a detail-rich report, The Armenian Weekly lays out the whole sordid tale:
There are many cities whose name is associated with great barbecue: Kansas City, Memphis, Austin, to name a few. But what about the Armenian town of Akhtala? Located in the country's Lori province, the town hopes to put itself on the global BBQ map by hosting its third annual barbecue festival, on Sept. 18. More details here.
If you think dolma (or "tolma," as pronounced in Armenia) is simply grape leaves stuffed with rice, a visit to Yerevan's "Tolma Festival" might be in order. The event, which is being run as part of the current "Golden Apricot" film festival, certainly seems to add a whole lot to our understanding of what dolma/tolma can actually be. Among the varieties on offer (via ArmeniaNow.Com): "bean-leaf tolma (Artsakh), pumpkin unfecundated flower wrapped tolma (Lori), raspberry leaf tolma (Tavush, Sevan) and Lent tolma with rice (Dilijan)." One purveyor is offering fish dolma, wrapped in strawberry leaves. Another claims to have found an ancient recipe for dolma written in cuneiform:
Chefs say that they find many recipes in archives, even in cuneiform records, such as the recipe of the Erebuni tolma.
The Afrikyanneri Pandok restaurant chef says they got the Erebuni tolma recipe from the Erebuni museum in Yerevan. He says they adapted it to our own days and present it anew. This tolma variation was known still in 782 BC in the fortress city founded by King Argishti, the son of Menua. The recipe was in historical archives.
“It is made of chicken meat, mushrooms, string cheese, nuts. We serve it with mushroom and walnut sauce. We also present the Taron tolma. It was a dish on the tables of the Mamikonyan royal dynasty. This tolma is of sliced beef tongue, we serve it with cherry sauce. In the ancient times all tolmas were sliced. And we have an old Bayazet Lent tolma with rice and vegetables, we serve it with Cornelian-cherry sauce,” says Antinyan.
ArmeniaNow.com recently published a great feature about an extended Yerevan family that has cornered the market on khash, a traditional Armenian dish made out of boiled tripe and the lower part of a cow's leg. From the article:
Since the 1990s, the seven families of Vardanyan brothers who reside in 154 Mashtots Street are the initiators of this business that has become something of a tradition. In the town, it is well known as “khash district”.
Hasmik Makaryan, 53, wife of one of Vardanyan brothers (Arayik Vardanyan), says that her mother-in-law started their business, and later they – the daughters-in-law and their husbands continued it.
“This is how we earn money. We have all got education, but we needed to live, to survive somehow, therefore we started this khash business. People were telling our address so often that as a result the name of our district has become ‘Khashi Tagh’,” Hasmik says.
The brothers’ houses are next to each other. If Arayik does not have the product a client wants, then he sends him or her to Vardan’s house, and if Vardan does not have it, then – to Rafik’s house, and so on.
More details about this true cottage industry here.
The online edition of the Armenian magazine Ianyan is running a two-part series featuring images of "traditional" Armenian foods taken by photographer Liana Aghajanian. Among my favorite images is that of a roadside stand selling homemade wine in old Coke bottles. The photos can be found here.