KHASH: AN ARMENIAN DELICACY
BY TALIN LINDSAY
Somewhere it is written that every country must have its delicacy -- a dish that defines its people, a dish that takes hours to prepare, and a dish that is composed of delicate and rare fauna or their prized parts.
The French have, among their many delicacies, cassoulet, made from sausages, duck confit and pork, all simmered for several hours among a bean stew. The Spanish have paella, where an assortment of seafood and poultry are added to saffron-infused rice, again cooked for hours. Persians have fesenjan, a stew of walnuts, pomegranate juice and browned duck, served on fragrant basmati rice. And in this vein, Armenia has its delicacy, which some would agree is khash.
Once having found this out, Ian wanted to try it. When in Rome, as the saying goes. And we were going to be living in Armenia for a year on Ian's Fulbright, where he was conducting research for his dissertation in archaeology.
“Oh, Ian jan, so you will be here in the winter, yes?” Ian's colleagues would ask of him in the summer. “Then you will have a chance to taste khash,” they would beam at him, smacking their lips and further raising Ian's expectations.
And as of November first, restaurants put out signs on their storefronts to indicate that they have khash. This only reminded and encouraged Ian to nag his colleagues about when he would get to taste khash.
“Soon, Ian jan, soon,” they would say. “Khash is only eaten in the months with the letter 'r' in it.”
Very late one night in mid December, we got the phone call.
“Ian jan, we have reservations for khash tomorrow morning,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “Meet me on the corner of Mashtots and Toumanyan at 9:20,” the ominous directions ran.
And so, the next morning, a particularly foggy one, before the rest of Armenia was even awake, we met the caller on a street corner. He led us down Toumanyan and into a courtyard, and further into the labyrinth of the courtyard. Here we met the others for the khash party, a small group of Armenian and Georgian archaeologists.
The restaurant was actually someone's home where the sofas had been pushed aside in the living room for the four tables set and ready to go for customers. Grandma was in the kitchen stirring large steaming pots. They say one just can't have khash in a restaurant but must have it in a home. This home/restaurant made for the perfect setting.
Our table had been set with the requisite number of dishes, silverware and shot glasses. In the center were plates of pickled vegetables, baskets of dried stale lavash bread and little bowls of raw garlic smashed in boiled water. Ian was already hungry, so he crunched into a stale lavash chip and immediately noticed the look of disapproval from across the table.
“That's for the khash,” Ian was told.
The waitress stood at the head of the table taking orders, which were either “with meat” or “without meat.” When she came to me, I asked for eggs and tea.
“You're not having khash?” asked Ian's colleague with a surprised, almost bewildered look on his face.
“No, I don't like it,” I said.
“Then why did you come?”
“To watch Ian eat it,” I replied smiling mischievously.
Looking around the table, I noticed all my breakfast-mates were men. Apparently, the eating of khash has taken on ritualistic qualities, and therefore is primarily a men's meal. My non-khash-eating presence was tainting this ritual, desanctifying it.
Before the khash arrived, the vodka was poured, and the ritual began with the first traditional toast called “Bari Louys” (Good Morning), aptly named as it was the first thing to enter everyone's empty stomachs at the ungodly hour of 9:35am in Armenia.
The khash arrived one by one in bowls so big and deep that they were usually reserved as soup terrines. Everyone's head was quietly bowed over bowl, hands quickly moving about the table to add condiments.
Ian stared into his bowl. In the center of it was the foot of a cow. His friend, probably noticing Ian's hands were idle, began explaining what to do.
“First take the meat out and place on that plate,” he directed.
“By 'meat,' do you mean this foot?” Ian asked.
“Then you add some salt. Maybe one more pinch… yes… and now add some garlic.”
At this point, Ian's bowl exuded the wonderful aroma of garlic - and I actually considered trying it.
“Now take the meat off the bone and add it back to the soup,” he continued.
The “meat” he was referring to was not muscle tissue, as cow's feet are composed primarily of cartilage, but something else entirely, now turned into a grayish-tannish gelatinous mass, which Ian was directed to put back into his bowl.
“Crumble up this lavash and add to the bowl,” continued the directions.
Considering these the equivalent of oyster crackers, Ian crumbled in a handful of crisp lavash and began stirring.
“More, more,” he was urged. “You must add lavash until it soaks up all the broth.”
“Ian, some people eat khash with their hands,” another added to indicate the amount of bread needed.
Ian crumbled more and more handfuls, noticing that all his table-mates had opted for spoons.
“Now is it ready?” Ian asked, his stomach growling.
“Just one more thing. Take a piece of fresh lavash and cover half your bowl with it so the khash doesn't get cold.”
Stirring up the concoction once more, Ian had a spoonful, and then a few more.
“So, Ian jan, good, yes?” they asked smiling, lips glistening from the grease.
“Yes, it's good,” was the reply.
Fooled by Ian's poker face and the alluring aroma of garlic, I asked for a taste. My eggs and tea were yet to arrive.
Once you get past the smell of garlic, the taste sets in. The bread has no taste and neither does the gelatinous foot “meat.” All that's left to taste is the broth. Ever notice how when you boil the foot of a cow for soup, the whole thing takes on the taste of the cow's foot? That's kind of what khash tastes like, but very greasy. And the texture of the soaked bread is familiar, but the ubiquitous gelatinous foot “meat” feels like eating a very soggy gummy bear. And all you have to wash it down with is vodka. Oh, yes, and local mineral water that has a very harsh carbonation.
My egg omelet finally arrived. Everyone seemed halfway done with their breakfasts. The waitress had suggested I order harisa, a slow-cooked meal of grain and chicken to which sugar and butter and cinnamon are added -- perhaps the more feminine version of khash -- but I opted for the faster-cooked omelet. After all, I was hungry too.
At this point, one of the other tables was taken by a small group of women. Surprisingly, they too ordered khash and vodka, in what seemed to be a you-go-girl moment. The men at our table all looked at each other with the “take a look at that” nod and smirked.
Meanwhile, the eating of khash and the toasting at our table continued. We were on our third bottle of vodka. Ian continued to quietly eat his khash and drink the vodka toasts.
There are some four stages in the eating of khash. First is the awakening of the senses, brought on by the aroma of garlic and the warmth of the khash on a cold winter's day. The second stage is the slowing of the pulse as the gelatinous foot “meat” congeals in the veins. The vodka at this stage is to act as lubricant. At the third stage, the khash eater experiences tunnel vision, where only the bowl and vodka glass directly in front are visible. Some also attest to experiencing distortions in their hearing.
The fourth and last stage is the dimming of consciousness, where the only cure is sleep. This may also be brought on by the vodka, though folks here put the blame squarely on the garlic.
Ian was deep in the third stage when the waitress reappeared again.
“Ian jan, you like?” his colleagues asked again.
He nodded slowly and continued moving the spoon from bowl to mouth.
“Are you ok?” I whispered.
Ian nodded, continually spooning.
“If you need me to finish the rest, just let me know,” I whispered, getting ready to numb my senses to eat the rest.
Before his first bowl was finished, a second bowl of khash appeared before Ian and Ian alone. Everyone else was sitting back, munching on pickled vegetables and musing about excavations past. It looked to me as if Ian was being hazed into the khash ritual, whereas, in fact, our breakfast-mates had asked Ian whether he would like more. Inebriated, not wanting to be a bad guest, and not knowing that his would be the only order, Ian had given his approval.
Ian passed the unfinished bowl to me and took a deep breath. This being a men's ritual, he would have to uphold his virility by finishing the second bowl, while on the verge of descending into the fourth stage.
In solidarity, I ate a couple of spoonfuls from the bowl sent in my direction. Each spoonful required a full shot of vodka to wash down and cleanse the palate of the foot “meat” taste. This is the kind of situation where multiple vodka shots provide salvation. Immediately sensing the limitation to my khash-eating abilities, I chose to just put my spoon aside, leaving my nostrils as the only victims.
Meanwhile, Ian was still concentrating on finishing.
“How are you doing?” I asked again.
Ian slowly nodded.
“You don't have to finish it all,” I whispered. “I don't think they're paying attention anymore.”
“Wouldn't it be great if Saveur magazine did a piece on khash?” Ian suddenly slurred. “Great full-page photos, the article would go into detail about the ritual involved, a list of vodkas paired with this meal and, of course, the recipe.”
It was clear to me Ian had entered stage four.
I smiled and nodded, noticing his pupils were dilated and a glazed look had come over his face. I am not sure this is how he foresaw this adventure.
“Ian jan, you haven't touched your vodka. You should eat your khash with vodka,” someone said, apparently also noticing Ian's countenance.
So another bottle of vodka was ordered and more toasts made. Once a bottle is set on the table, it must be opened and drunk to the last drop -- similar to the rules for using a samurai sword: once out of its sheath, it must draw blood, even if it is the blood of the owner.
Somehow, by 11am, the adventure ended and we realized we were stumbling our way home with vodka and khash and garlic oozing out of our pores. If you have never had the pleasure, walking home drunk so early on a winter's morning in hazy sunshine is quite surreal.
We didn't wake up until 6pm.
The next morning, with still a potent amount of alcohol in his blood, Ian set to finding the khash recipe. He must have been lucid when making the Saveur article comment.
At the institute, after reminiscing about the khash, Ian asked a colleague how the Armenian delicacy is prepared. With pen and paper in hand, he was ready to take dictation. His colleague ceased working on the computer and turned to fully face Ian.
“Ian jan, khash is very special,” he said solemnly, taking off his glasses. “We only eat it in the months having the letter 'r.'”
“Yes, yes. Someone explained as much earlier.”
“Khash takes a lot of effort,” he continued, slightly lowering his head to underscore the gravity of what he was about to say. “You boil cow's feet in water for twelve hours.”
He leaned back in satisfaction, hands clasped over his chest, now having revealed the great secret.
Ian sat pensively, pen in hand awaiting further cooking directions and a list of ingredients. After a lengthy pause, Ian looked up to see his colleague back at work on the computer.
“And?” Ian asked.
“What? 'And' what?” he looked up surprised.
“Twelve… hours…” he enunciated momentously, shaking a finger at each word, and eyeing Ian from above his glasses. After a lengthy stare at Ian, he got back to work.
A few minutes later, he looked over his shoulder and cheerfully asked Ian, “So when do you think the article on khash will be published?”
Printer-Friendly Recipe for Khash:
Add cow's feet.
Simmer for 12 hours, stirring optional.