By Ugur Ümit Üngör
Yerevan: From Culinary Desert to Oasis
The first time I visited Yerevan was for the fieldwork for my Ph.D. research in the summer of 2006, when I took the tantalizingly slow Soviet night train from Tbilisi. Back then, the choice of restaurants was so limited that I distinctly remember going to bed some nights with a bag of soggy Russian crackers. Fortunately, those days are over, and nowadays, Yerevan must be considered a culinary destination, for it boasts a very wide range of cuisines: Russian, Iranian, Lebanese, French, Georgian, ‘Caucasian’, Italian, Iraqi, Mexican, American, Chinese, Japanese, etc. Once, I even spotted a tiny Indian mom-and-pop curry house on Komitas Avenue. Indeed, this time around, as I came to stay in Yerevan for a writing retreat of two months, I was ready to let the city surprise me.
But how good is Syrian food really in Armenia? With all this new gastronomic buzz in town, I decided to spend my time not only writing my next book, but also reviewing the new Syrian restaurants. Now, I need to offer a disclaimer: this is not an exhaustive list of every single place that offers Syrian-Armenian dishes. Nor does it properly tackle two distinct categories that are slightly special, but for which the Syrian connoisseur will rightly forgive me: Syrian fast-food snackbars, and the unmistakably Lebanese places. For example, Adzoukh, Tumanyan Shaurma, and Abu Hagop Sandwich are examples of the first category: they offer delicious, folksy snacks in fresh Arabic bread in a no-frills environment, just like in the streets of Damascus.
The second are places that explicitly present themselves as Lebanese, such as Beirut, Lebanon Tavern, or Chez Hratch. A good example is Bourj Hammoud, named after the historically Armenian neighbourhood in Beirut. It might have the best kibbeh nayye in the city, lush and velvety, although the lights in the place are set a little too bright. Or Taboulé, apparently one of the earliest Lebanese restaurants in Yerevan, which serves simply great food, including – unsurprisingly – amazing tabbouleh. As a carnivore, I never thought that a simple chopped salad could be so tasty. Another one is Al-Mayass, whose presentation is awesome, service professional, kebabs lovely, and ingredients fresh. But I caught a bit of a hard crust on the ichli kufta, and its allegedly “special” hummus and mutabbal are not more special than simply having added pomegranate seeds and molasses on the regular versions. Everything is forgiven with its zaatar, with its crust so thin and crispy that you can hold a slice into the air as and it will stay as straight as a pencil.
A special honorable mention must be given for restaurants that are not strictly Syrian but broadly speaking Western Armenian, such as Anteb. On a Thursday evening, hungry, we walk into this simple but professionally-kept place with low expectations; after all, in the past years, I had spent lots of time doing research in the actual city of Antep, so what could this place in the South Caucasus offer me that I hadn’t tasted yet? Well, was I wrong about that! The lahmajoon is hands down the best I have ever tasted in my life: crispy and crunchy, but generously topped with well-spiced minced meat — there’s a great butcher shop next door, so that might have something to do with it. Another staple of the Aintab region is ichli kufta, which at Antep is cooked very correctly, but without the liberties that Syrians would take by adding allspice or cinnamon to the mince. The excellent meat dishes, including liver and heart kebab, and very reasonable prices make Antep one of Yerevan’s top restaurants. Oh, and did I mention the unbelievable baklava?
A Panorama of Syrian Restaurants
But let us now turn to the Syrian scene, and the below discussion is in alphabetical order for impartiality.
Abu Hagop: let us start with this ambitious restaurant, established in 1957 by Syrian repatriate Antranig, better known by Syrian custom as ‘Abu Hagop’. It has a good varied menu, serves fattoush with cute little serrated pieces of Arabic bread, and creamy chicken liver that is finger-licking good. The tarator chicken has got real pizazz, stringy and smooth, and so is the well-presented mutabbal, which is thoroughly pureed. At Abu Hagop, the overall presentation is great, with white tablecloths, and generous portions, even if the dishes are a bit oily and a touch under-seasoned. I lived next door to this restaurant, and noticed that it was either totally empty or totally full.
Derian is a veritable institution in Armenia with two restaurants in Yerevan, both with a wide selection of delicious foods on their menu. We order a very creamy hummus with minced meat, the yalanji is smooth and voluptuous, and the fried kibbe is cone-shaped and crunchy, tasty, with distinctly refreshing tones of allspice and pine nuts. The muhammara is very solid, and the amazing mutabbal made from eggplants clearly charred on an open fire – illegal in most EU countries. We also try the chi kufta, which gives the right smooth sensation, like Turkish delight (can I say that?), although I did feel some grinding between my teeth from the bulghur… Anyway, all praise here is reserved for the well-seasoned kebabs: we dig into a most juicy set of skewers, and it is obvious that Derian grills with the sheep’s tail fat. The shish tawuk was really something else, simply scrumptious alongside a tasty home-made tan (yoghurt drink). Critique? Well, they serve lavash bread instead of Arabic bread, but otherwise I can’t consistently excellent. When I mentioned Derian to a well-informed friend, he leaned over and whispered in my ear: “The one on Teryan Street is even better, because there, it’s ‘mama’ cooking…”
Gaidz Lahmajun is another institution in Yerevan, but for a different reason. Sure, the ichli kufta here is not as good as in other places, they were out of samsak both times when I visited, the mutabbal is very smoky and chunky but a bit runny, the hummus nicely thick but a touch heavy on the cumin. But hey, rule #1 in gastronomy is: when eating somewhere, order their speciality. Indeed, we’re really here for the lahmajun, and rightly so. Gaidz serves them as crispy as a potato chip, flour dusting off it like snow, and bursting with flavour. Delicious. Gaidz is on top of the lahmajun game.
Jano is one of the few restaurants that is not situated in Kentron (much like Haleb restaurant on Komitas Avenue), and perhaps therefore is spacious, with comfortable tables and high ceilings. Jano offers basic grub, with some nice surprises such as the sujukh rolls, an excellent smoky, stringy, garlicky mutabbal, and good muhammara which had pepper paste in it, all in all a deeply sympathetic place with old photos of Aleppo on the wall. The waiter was pleasantly surprised to welcome an Arabic-speaking customer, and the UAE embassy seemed to be hosting an iftaar that evening. All in all, fairly pleasant, but the lahmajun and shish tawouq seems to be cooked in a toaster.
Lagonid on Nalbandyan has been in Yerevan for 20 years now, and offers a very rich menu with variations on staples like hummus or mutabbal, which, by the way, cannot be prepared any better than the absolutely perfect version I ate here. Then the yalanji, up to par, with hints of sumac coming through the taste of quality olive oil. The ichli kufta is legit and very filling, and the shish tawouq is by the book: charred, well-seasoned, rich, and chewy, with exactly the right garnishes on the side: toasted Arabic bread toasted with chopped parsley and onions, sprinkled with sumac. The Lebanese pop music adds to the great experience, so we ask for dessert. “We only have kunafa,” the waitress tells us, to our delight, because it’s exactly what we need now: a hot, sweet plate of that oozing goodness with a glass of tea on the side. Therefore, we were the more disappointed when we were brought a plate of kadaif. Really not the same thing.
Maza, located on Pushkin St, has cosy ambience, and one of the places where I frequently saw Arabs dining. Sofas are set up along the walls as chairs, so you sink into them when you sit, which makes feel like a little boy sitting at the grown ups’ dinner table. European sports channels on the muted TVs. The food then: the chicken is delicious and well-spiced, the chi kufta is great: spicy and the bulgur has been thoroughly kneaded into the tartar. The ‘Lebanese hummus’ with parsley is very creamy, the chicken tarator is smooth with hints of tahini, and the toshka sandwich is exactly what I ate in Damascus in the old days. All in all, the flavors are good, the prices are affordable, but the dishes are not warm enough. Maza also specializes in sandwiches, including chicken heart and beef tongue – not easy to pull off. A very decent place.
Yasmine is a very well-kept, somewhat upscale place with nicely presented food. On the wall is a huge poster of the Aleppo Castle. A busload of elderly Dutch tourists are seated in the corner and get louder with each glass of Armenian wine. Yasmine also serves two types of bread with the starters, lavash and Arabic bread. The ichli kufta is fried to perfection: crunchy on the outside, and heart-warming on the inside. The chi kufta is very smooth and almost smearable on bread, difficult to distinguish in color and texture from the equally appetizing muhammara. The hummus is truffle-like: a thick, pleasant paste with 3 cute chickpeas swimming in a mini-bath of olive oil. The eggplant salad gave off the right charred flavour and smell, the batata harra was cubed up a little small, but still excellent, and the shish tawouk was warm, spicy, and chewy in a good way. I’m not sure why fattoush needs feta cheese in it though. All in all lovely experience, with free clove tea on the house.
Zatar is an unassuming place near Republic Square, with thousands of social media followers, and waiters with impressive tattoos. The lahmajun here was flavorful but not as crispy as elsewhere because they are folded into two. The fattoush was decent, the mutabbal heavy on the tahini, which perfumed through heavily, but drizzled originally with red pepper flakes fried in butter. The loshik bread was lovely: hot and puffed up, like you want to slice it open sideways and take a warm nap in it. The falafel was a little too thick (almost round), which made it doughy and not as crispy as it should have been. The real tastes here are reserved for the kibbeh, which was with plain meat (no nuts or exotic spices) and had a deep meaty flavor to it – the most surprising dish here.
Zeituna is an upscale restaurant frequented a lot by Bolsohay families and friend groups, and serves a wonderful set of very well-prepared dishes in a street that has more Middle Eastern restaurants than many Middle Eastern cities. Well, where to start, really? I ordered a couple of dishes, but when the mouth-watering kibbehshowed up first, and I tasted it, I forgot about the rest and ordered another portion. They are truly delectable, both the large ones and the cute miniature versions. The labneh is as thick as toothpaste, the fattoush a true harmony of textures, colors, and flavors. The yalanji almost gave me a jaw cramp from the explosion of flavors. Zeituna also makes a good effort at diversifying its menu with a special version, but the “Kuftah Zeitunah” looks like a flat falafel and is not that special. Nevertheless, Zeituna deserves its self-attributed motto of ‘the home of food’.
Food and Exile
Displacement, migration, and food are phenomena that exercise a deep influence on each other. Whether it’s Italian restaurants in New York, Indian curry houses in London, or Cantonese dim sum in Vancouver, it is not merely plates of necessary calories that these cuisines present. Food is an intensely emotional experience. Therefore, I feel that it is the Hrabarag Metro area that truly epitomizes Syrian Armenia. This area is truly little Aleppo: its one-room shops offer the same spice mixes, bars of Aleppo soap, and tahinov hats as in the now defunct Aleppo souq. The old kamancha player fiddling his melancholic tunes, the barber shop owner sitting on his plastic chair chatting away in Arabic (and yes, also Turkish) with fellow Aleppines, and the very, very symbolic sight of a flock of teeny tiny sparrows struggling tooth and nail for a piece of bread on the ground.
Also situated in this area is Spidag, literally a hole-in-the-wall, snuggled in a corner of Hrabarag metro station, to which I feel compelled to give the ‘most authentic Syrian restaurant’ award. Because few eateries in Armenia symbolize the Syrian experience better than this kiosk. Spidag specializes in sandwiches: exactly the right type of buns, filled with exactly the right toppings, and toasted in exactly the right fashion. There is nothing more satisfying in this three-dimensional way than a beef sujukh or lamb tongue sandwich with typically Syrian mukhallal (pickles) stuffed in a long, warm, subway bun. The sensation of spicy and sour is mind-blowing and soul-warming at the same time. Ustaad Vahram prepares his sandwiches with a seriousness and care, full of muted passion for this simple but pleasing Syrian-Armenian soul food. I am dead serious in stating that Spidag’s sandwiches gave me FOMO (for the non-millennials: ‘Fear Of Missing Out’) while I was eating them. The sujukh sandwich was definitely one of them: after taking only my first bite, I already wanted to order my next one. And I did, again and again.
So, Which One Is ‘the Best’?
Alright, let us do away with the current-day obsession with having “the best” of everything. What does this type of inflated use of superlatives even mean? Instead, I would like to dish out some pointers but also give some compliments to all of these restaurants.
First, I don’t know who comes up with the idea of using frozen fries, but it’s wrong on many levels. Armenia has good potatoes, so show the earth apple the respect it deserves: peel them or wash them thoroughly, slice them up, and double-fry them in an appropriate oil or duck fat. Some places even had the batata harra microwaved, with potato nuggets shriveled like a mushroom in the sun. Another venal sin I encountered here and there was microwaved ichli kufta, bottom burnt and filling dried. “Ya weelee!” they would exclaim in Syria: woe! To treat such a delicacy in this way is outright criminal; either put it on your menu and treat it properly, or don’t serve it at all. Then, the labneh is good in most places, but often a touch on the sour side, which is not exactly how it should be. I’m not sure why this happens but it seems to be a systemic malfunction. Finally: pay your staff better. There are very credible rumors that the owners pocket the waiters’ tips, and judging from some of their facial expressions, that might well be the case.
But there is a lot that all of these restaurants in Yerevan do a great job at. All of them are very good in preparing one particular dish, but none of them succeed in consistently maintaining top quality of all dishes, in an overall way. The falafel is best at Araks, kebab is best eaten at Derian and Lagonid, Antep dominates the lahmajun game, for chi kufta definitely hit Bourj Hammoud, and Zeituna is kibbehheaven. However, the Syrian-Armenian restaurants unabashedly offer two amazing dishes that are borderline illegal in the European Union: chi kufta or kibbeh nayyehwith meat, and the charring of eggplants on an open fire. The former wouldn’t pass food security regulations (instead we are stuck with the dull and palate-numbing Çigköftem), and the latter would be met with a veto from your friendly local fire department. Try the chi kufta and mutabbal in any Yerevan restaurant and tell me with a straight face that you’re going back to eating the grout in Europe again. Not me.
For now, I can confidently say that Yerevan has got it all. Sahteen!
(Uğur Ümit Üngör is a Dutch scholar of genocide and mass violence. Üngör, who was born in Turkey and raised in Enschede in the Netherlands, earned a doctorate from the University of Amsterdam in 2009, and teaches history at Utrecht University and sociology at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies.)