Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Taste of Armenia

By Jesse Hirsch
Tue, Oct 11, 2011 at 4:28 PM

Tell people you’re going to an Armenian food festival and see what happens. Puzzled faces mostly, with heads tilted to the side like a cocker spaniel. If they care (or want to do a good job pretending), they’ll try to place Armenia on the globe, then deduce the cuisine based on its neighbors. “Lots of onions? Lamb? Hearty grains?”

Throw in some phyllo dough, cheese, and gobs of butter and you’ve nailed most of this weekend’s Armenian Food Festival at St. Vartan’s Church in Oakland. Though the diet-minded could nibble on a limp side salad with vinaigrette, most items brooked no dainty eaters.

koofta!
  • koofta!
One highlight was the koofta, aptly described as “meat stuffed with meat.” No turducken this, it’s a dense little hockey puck of lamb-on-lamb action. Despite its stripped-down look, koofta prep is a two-day ordeal: first some ground lamb is mashed with onion and spices, then left to firm for a day in the fridge. Next a springy outer shell is created with more lamb and bulgur, and a portion of lamb paste is injected into each shell. At the St. Vartan’s festival, one 97-year-old woman oversaw all koofta aesthetics, and by all accounts she was a tough customer.

Next was the beoreg, phyllo dough (in a continental flair, the festival described the dough as “French puff pastry”) baked around lamb and onion paste or parsley and cheese. I danced a quiet jig when I saw this on the menu, as I've yet to find it anywhere in the Bay Area. Before I moved here, I used to smuggle a few slices of beoreg's Balkan cousin, burek, from New York in my suitcase. The two items are not identical: burek slices are densely packed, weighing up to 1/3 pound, contrasted with the lighter, pastry-like beureg. Also, the Armenian cheese was an oddly inauthentic Monterey Jack blended with a heavy dose of butter, unlike the salty feta-like filling I’m used to. Nonetheless it was an apt substitute, and I was told I could always call the church ladies to get some take-home beoreg from their freezer.

beureg, sarma, koofta, limp salad
  • beureg, sarma, koofta, limp salad
The Armenian sarma, little grape leaves surrounding lamb and rice, was virtually indistinguishable from a Greek dolma. In fact, in a bit of cross-cultural fusion, the festival sold t-shirts that boasted: “My grandma’s dolma is better than your grandma’s.”

The festival also had a hopping “country store,” where you could take home Armenian coffee, cracker-like flatbread rounds, marinated olives, and other assorted sundries. Outside the church was an “Armenian-grown” produce booth. The fruits and veggies did not travel 6,000 food miles, however; they came from an Armenian farmer in Fresno. The booth operator assured us, “Armenians know best tricks to grow grapes, never sour or small.” I was skeptical, until I ate a few grapes. Now I have a pound at home, and haven’t hit a bum grape yet. Well-done, Armenia.

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