Smithsonian. Get to know khorovats, Armenia’s favorite grilling pastime

Smithsonian. Get to know khorovats, Armenia’s favorite grilling pastime

PanARMENIAN.Net - The co-authors of an upcoming cookbook, "Lavash", Ara Zada, a Los Angeles-based chef; John Lee, a San Francisco-based photographer; and Kate Leahy, a San Francisco-based cookbook writer, teamed up with Christine Goroyan, a translator from Yerevan, and Raffi Youredjian, a childhood friend of Zada to pay a visit to haghpat in Armenia.

There, the group met Armen Qefilyan, who was crowned champion in a national khorovats competition in 2009. After years of running a restaurant in the nearby copper mining town of Alaverdi, the chef’s newfound accolades allowed him to set his sights higher—straight up the mountain, Leahy says in an article, published by Smithsonian magazine.

"While grilling meat on skewers is common around the world, in Armenia the act is taken on with rare passion," she says.

"Part of the reason has to do with scarcity: obtaining enough good-quality meat to grill was never guaranteed during Soviet times. It then became a rarity during the post-Soviet period of the 1990s, when even bread was scarce. These days, inviting people over for khorovats sends out the signal that life is good.

"The celebratory nature of khorovats was on full display on May 8 when Nikol Pashinyan was elected prime minister. Traffic stopped in Yerevan to make room for one big street party. And the food that fueled the celebration? Khorovats. Partiers dragged their charcoal-fueled mangals into the streets and danced with skewers of meat in their hands.

"That’s what makes khorovats easy to like: the equipment is low-tech, the preparation simple, and the char-grilled results a dependable way to soak up all that celebratory vodka."

There is a big gap between dragging a mangal into the street and cooking meat on it and becoming a khorovats champion.

Like barbecue enthusiasts across America, khorovats competitors take their technique seriously. Monitoring heat is crucial. While it’s not quite the low-and-slow technique favored in American barbecue, Qefilyan stressed the importance of a gentle fire. He said he holds his hand over the mangal and counts to twelve—if the fire is too hot for his hand, it’s too hot for the meat.

We asked Qefilyan what he prepared for the competition. While pork is the most common meat for khorovats in Armenia (an influence carried over from Soviet times), he chose lamb, simply seasoning the chunks of meat with salt, paprika, black pepper, and thyme and threading a little lamb fat on the skewers between the meat for richness.

For nearly forty minutes, he cooked the meat, turning it frequently to cook evenly. To perfume the smoke, he went untraditional, spearing quince halves seasoned with allspice and clove onto rose hip branches. As the quince juice dripped into the coals, he explained, the smoke seasoned the meat.

When it came to presentation, he stuck with tradition, laying out a sheet of lavash and arranging the meat on top, then decorating with pomegranate seeds. It wasn’t the decoration that won him the top prize, though—it was the flavor.

By then, platters of khorovats had started to arrive at our table, and we turned our attention to the chunks of pork mixed with sliced onion, the sides of salads and cheese, and the basket of lavash. It was time to dig in—after we toasted our champion host.

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