Shish kebab, pilaf and kheyma

Enjoy shish kebab, pilaf and kheyma at an Armenian food festival.

(Paige Impink photo)

Ethnic food festivals and bazaars are a real treat to visit and a way to enjoy the cuisine of another culture. In the Merrimack Valley there are Greek food festivals, Portuguese festivals and Celtic celebrations.

However, you may not be as familiar with the Armenian bazaars. There are several in the area including the Hye Pointe bazaar in Bradford hosted by the Armenian Apostolic Church each August, St. Gregory’s Food Festival in North Andover (Sept. 8, 12 - 5:30 p.m.) and St. Vartanantz in Chelmsford (Nov. 22-23). There are also several in Watertown and Cambridge, areas with large Armenian populations including St. Stephens (Nov. 1-2) and Holy Trinity (Nov. 15).

Armenian food fests are sponsored by local churches and the main draw is the food. Having the chance to enjoy favorite foods of one’s childhood, especially grilled specialties, is a treat. There are tables of baked goods such as paklava, a light and crispy layered pastry. You may know the Greek version, baklava. Khadayef is an­other favorite, made in large sheet pans using shredded layers of dough and cream filling or cinnamon dusted walnuts, drenched in a simple clear sugar syrup.

Another traditional item is chor­eg, a slightly sweet bread roll not dissimilar in flavor from the Mexi­can concha or Portuguese sweetbread. Choreg uses mahleb, a spice derived from ground cherry pits. Other treats include almond cookies, and boreg, a flaky layered cheese and spinach savory appetizer.

Dried fruits and roasted nuts can also be found, as can rolled and stuffed grape leaves called yalan­chi, and eetch, a tomato and bulgur wheat dream. On occasion, lahmejun is sold, a thin meat pizza on a leavened crust, similar to pita. Fun fact: in Montreal there are drive through lahmejun shops; the pizza is so popular.

Visitors line up early at the festivals to get plates of lamb shish kebab, losh kebab (hamburger), chicken shish or the favorite kheyma. Church volunteers prepare all week and grills are going non-stop to keep the meats flowing. Kheyma, a specialty, is finely ground raw beef with bulger cracked wheat topped with onion and fresh parsley. It is known to the Lebanese as kibbeh.

All items are served with pita bread, salad, and a generous helping of rice pilaf. Armenian pilaf is made with chicken broth, vermicelli browned in butter, and rice. Take out is popular and people stand in long lines to get some of these special meals to go. One need not be Armenian to enjoy this wonderful food.

Music is another tradition. Musi­cians play the oud, a lute-like in­strument which has a round “bel­ly,” clarinet, guitar, and the dumbeg, a drum which is shaped to sit between the knees and played a bit like bongos. Visitors to the food festivals are often found dancing Armenian circle dances. The Ko­chari is a traditional dance with many variations, but all are characterized by participants holding hands or linking pinky fingers to form a large circle, often coiling around the room as more and more people join.

Armenia today is a tiny country, having been invaded through the centuries by surrounding nations and decimated by genocide. It is bordered by Georgia, Turkey, Azer­baijan and Iran and was among the first countries to adopt Chris­tianity.

Armenian cuisine is similar to Lebanese, Greek and other cultures of the region, each with adaptations unique to their own country. It is not surprising given the similar resource base of meat, vegetables, and flours, and the many crossing of borders and invasions, that similar dishes emerged.

Plan to attend an Armenian festival this fall and enjoy a plate of nourishing food while absorbing the friendliness and pride of a fine culture.

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