Category Archives: Recipes

The Best Choreg Recipe Ever!

Well, maybe not. But these days such headlines always grab the attention of new recipe seekers out there—me included.

I’ve been making choreg now for five years, usually at Easter time. Choreg is a symbol of my childhood, and it has a special significance to my culinary identity. It was always around when I was growing up—both my grandmothers made it, using their own recipes. And my mother experimented with it, as well as gata, and various Armenian cookies, including simit, which is a hard, sweet braided cookie covered in sesame seeds.

The choreg recipe that my mom gave me several years ago was one that apparently was given to my grandmother, probably by her fellow churchgoers who were from Aintab (she was born in Kharpert province).  But I always found it strange that my choreg never came out as dense as my grandmother’s. Hers was a harder roll, delicious of course but not flaky inside, more bread-like, something that was toaster friendly (she would split the choreg horizontally, like a hamburger bun. The bottoms were golden brown or dark, but not burned. This has led me to believe that she didn’t actually follow this recipe and had made changes to suit her own palate. Or else she just used a different recipe altogether. For Easter she would make a large braided loaf and wrap the dough around a boiled onion skin-dyed egg—unpeeled.

In any case, several years ago I wrote about my very first experiment with choreg. I was absolutely clueless at the time, at one point adding flour a heaping tablespoon at a time until the dough thickened properly. I made some of my own changes over the years and finally came up with a recipe that makes a lightly sweet choreg. The aroma is intensified by the percentage of nutty mahleb (which is ground cherry pit) to nigella seeds for the proper balance of flavors (too many nigella seeds can overpowering—my grandmother from Urfa used to load her choreg with them and I remember picking out most of them when I was really young). I also use some high-quality honey to bring out the sweetness of the mahleb. Butter quality is also very important—I’ve found that unsalted French President butter is ideal. Since I’m in Yerevan I either use high-quality Russian flour or else my first choice–T45 all-purpose French flour that’s sold in Carrefour supermarkets. It sells out sometimes so I revert back to a particular Russian brand in a white and yellow paper bag (it just creatively says “flour” in Russian), which is the most expensive at around $1.25 per kilogram.

After all these years I finally learned how to properly knead the dough. You have to knead for a good 10-12 minutes (I do it by hand) or until the dough is workable. How do you know when it’s ready? Well, you can perform the “windowpane test” that’s in vogue these days by flattening out the dough and pulling it apart in front of the light using three fingers on each hand to check for proper elasticity. Or you can just break off an egg-sized clump of dough and roll it out thin to see if it’s workable, meaning there’s some elasticity but the dough doesn’t break when you roll it out and attempt to make a knot by bringing both ends together and looping one end through the circle that’s formed. Then I place the dough in a stainless steel bowl, cover it with a plastic bag, and prove it in a cold oven for 8 hours straight. It doubles in size during that time, which creates the layered, brioche-like texture.

Proper caramelization on the bottom

You can use egg-shaped pieces of dough for knots or you can be creative with braiding by using three strands of dough, joining one end of each strand together, and then go about lacing the left and right strands across the middle strand, as if you’re lacing a pair of sneakers and the middle strand is the sneaker (I know I’m going deep here with the imagery). 

The dough will yield about 12 large egg-shaped pieces. If you just want knotted rolls arrange six rolls on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. You want to bake for 25-30 minutes at 350 F/180 C degrees, or until the bottom of the roll is caramelized. If you’re impatient wait about 5-10 minutes before you tear them apart and eat them warm—I like to smear butter over the steamy, flaky dough before cramming it in my mouth.

If you’re super lazy you can just bake the choreg in a bread loaf pan. One time I brushed the bottom of a Bundt pan with egg wash, sprinkled sesame seeds on the egg, then dropped the dough in and baked it for around an hour. The sesame seeds were caramelized by all the butter in the choreg. I devoured it within a few days.

This recipe will give the choreg a brioche-like texture—you should not have a dense, bready roll if properly baked.

Here’s the recipe:

5 cups all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached

1/4 cup sugar (I use caster sugar)

1 packet (1/4 oz., or 2-1/4 tsp) of active dry yeast  (I had Fleishchmann’s on hand)

1 cup (225 g) high-quality unsalted butter, melted (I used Lurpak; French butter like President is even better)

1 cup milk, full-fat

2 tablespoons high-quality honey (I had Armenian linden blossom honey, and I used an actual stainless steel tablespoon to scoop it out of the jar)

3 eggs at room temperature, plus one for glazing

2 tsp mahleb

1 tsp nigella seeds

2 tsp fine salt (I only use sea salt)

2-3 tsp sesame seeds for sprinkling


  1. Cut the butter—cold (not frozen) or at room temperature—into pieces and place in a small saucepan. Melt the butter on the lowest stove setting/flame—do not let it start simmering.
  2. Once the butter is melted add the honey and stir a few times until it’s dissolved. Then add the milk. Stir again a few times, then take the saucepan off the heat and set aside. The liquid should be warm—do not bring it to a boil.
  3. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Then add the sugar, salt, mahleb, and nigella seeds and stir well until combined.
  4. Add the liquid mixture to a separate large bowl. Add the yeast to it and whisk until it’s dissolved. Then add the eggs. Whisk again until fully combined.
  5. Slowly add the dry ingredient mix to the bowl containing the liquid, about a quarter of it at a time, and stir until just combined before adding more (I use a big, old-school wooden spoon). Make sure you scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and stir in every bit of flour, again until just combined. Do not over mix.
  6. Turn out the dough onto a clean, lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Then roll out a chunk of dough with your fingers into a strand to test for proper elasticity. If the dough bounces back a bit but doesn’t break apart when you make the strand and try to tie it into a knot then you’re done kneading. If it breaks then knead a bit more.
  7. Place the dough back into the bowl, cover the bowl with a plastic bag or film, and put the bowl in a cool oven. The dough should prove for a full 8 hours. It will double at least in size after rising. Then take the bowl out of the oven and set aside.
  8. Preheat the oven to 350 F / 180 C. Line two baking pans with parchment paper.
  9. Turn out the dough onto a clean surface. You want to divide the dough into 12 pieces to make 12 knotted rolls or else make the pieces bigger or smaller if you want to braid the dough, depending on the size you want the choreg to be. You can make a challah type-braid if you’d like. 
  10. To make knotted rolls, roll out each piece of dough with your fingers until you have a strand that is thin enough to work with, around a 1/2 inch or 1 cm in diameter. Do not make the strands too thin. Bring the two ends of each strand together then loop one end through the circular shape that’s formed to make a simple knot. You shouldn’t have a hole in the center.
    OR If you’re going to braid then the strands should be as think or thick as necessary, depending on the size of the elongated roll or loaf. Use three strands for braiding. There are plenty of videos online to guide you with the braiding process.
  11. Arrange the knots or braids on the baking pans—six knots per pan. Whisk an egg in a small bowl until fully combined. Glaze all the rolls with the egg wash using a brush, enough to cover the top of each roll completely. Then sprinkle enough sesame seeds to cover the top of each roll. Use more or less sesame seeds according to taste, it’s up to you. 
  12. If you’re going to place one tray of knotted rolls in the oven at a time bake for 25-30 minutes or until the tops and sides are golden brown and the bottom of the roll or braid is caramelized when you lift it slightly off the pan using a spatula or your oven mitt. If you’re making a large loaf then the baking time may be longer. If you’re going to place two pans in the oven, one on top of the other on separate racks, remember that the top pan will bake faster than the bottom pan, meaning that the bottom pan may have to bake longer than 25-30 minutes (although this may only be applicable to electric ovens; gas or convention ovens may produce different results).
  13. When you feel that the choreg is properly baked remove from the oven. Let the choreg cool completely, or if you’re impatient and want to eat one or two warm like I do then wait around 5-10 minutes before you tear into them.

To store, arrange them on a plate and cover with plastic wrap. You can also refrigerate or freeze them after placing them into a plastic zipper storage bag. A choreg roll can be cut horizontally and toasted. 

Serve the choreg as is or with generously smeared butter or your favorite cheese–feta, Munster, brie, or mozzarella are great. Kalamata olives and sliced sujukh or another cured, hard sausage also go well with choreg. Serve your favorite coffee or tea. Enjoy!

‘Za’atar Should be Green’

Guest Contributor

Green Za'atar
CC Sjschen (own work)

Armies come and go, rulers and regimes rise and fall, occupations end and others begin, but, like the sun that nourishes it, za’atar is eternal: a piece of bread, olive oil, and a dip.

For those who do not know the delights of za’atar, the world is an impoverished place, bereft of za’atar’s taste, texture, and, most of all, its fragrance that can drive the most sane person delirious, mad with intoxication. Call it an herb, and you don’t do justice to it; call it by its English-language names—hyssop, savory, oregano, thyme—and you turn it into some silly little thing that grows in manicured gardens. For za’atar is all of these things, but more, much more; its beauty is wild, its allure unassuming, its memories vivid.

For the non-za’atarites of the world, let me say with a dull voice that za’atar is the generic name for an herb whose ancestry goes all the way back to Biblical times and includes most of the herbs mentioned above, in different variations according to where it grows and is mixed. It is often mixed with sesame seeds or sumac or both. But, really, the method of preparation is not important because, for all intents and purposes, you cannot make za’atar yourself unless you live in parts of the world where za’atar grows under the generous, searing sun of the Middle East, often in semi-arid conditions. Even then, za’atar is a child of the hills where it grows and the streets and alleys where it is sold. It is the mother of all vernacular foods. Several years ago, on a visit to Palestine, I was in al-Khalil (Hebron), in the old market (the souk). We were walking in the narrow alleyway; the entire place it seemed enveloped in the pungent, distinctive fragrance of the divine herb. Then, my eyes caught a few sacks right there on the cobblestones as we turned a corner. The za’atar had no sumac, very little sesame seeds. It was pure za’atar—verdant, slightly oily, and very pungent. That’s the best za’atar I had ever tasted.

In such places as al-Khalil, za’atar is the native stuff of everyday life, growing on hills, in abundance, requiring only the sun and little water. But Za’atar cuts across national boundaries in the Middle East; class divisions; forms of social conduct.  It is the original and enduring fruit of the good earth—generous, beautiful, tasty, and inexpensive. Everyone—poor and rich, young and old—eats za’atar which is sold in high-end stores catering to the foodies as well as grimy little shops for the rest of the population. For all these qualities, za’atar is one of the most loved of all food staples there. And because it is so simple, it resists any sort of commercial messing around with, as has happened to yogurt, for instance, on its non-native shores. Nowadays, you can turn yogurt into ice cream made from a powder. Not so with za’atar, for za’atar is autonomous, with a distinctly native attitude.

Za'atar Bread
Za’atar bread, also known as manaeesh. © N. Saum,

For those who have grown up in the Middle East region, za’atar is the food of their childhood and adolescence. In fact, one of the most pleasant memories of my years as a young girl has to do with za’atar.  We lived in Amman, the capital of Jordan. I would rush home after school, scamper to the kitchen, and make myself and my brother a za’atar sandwich in flat Arabic bread, with the divine herb and olive oil, topped with ripe tomatoes sliced. We would consume this snack (the word does no justice to the sensory overdose of the thing!) in a state of near-euphoria, with the za’atar-olive oil mixture dripping down our chins, the sandwich malleable in our hungry hands.  Then, at dinner, we would have za’atar again, no problem, this time with labneh (strained yogurt) and vegetables and tea.

Since those days, I have made it my life’s mission to seek the very best za’atar in the world. I have wavered between its various versions—the Syrian, the Lebanese (which the Lebanese think is the best!), the Jordanian, and the Palestinian, and concluded that the Jordanian and Palestinian za’atars are by far the better ones. I cannot choose between these two varieties because like the two countries and their populations, Jordanian and Palestinian za’atar are really part of the same weave.

Green Jordanian za’atar which, according to what the author tells me, is the one to have, hence the title of this piece. It is indeed extraordinary and hard to find outside of Jordan apparently. -GG

In Palestine, I have bought za’atar in al-Nasrah (Nazareth), in al-Khalil and of course in Jerusalem. In their cookbook, Jerusalem, Ottolenghi and Tamimi write: “If there is one smell to match the emblematic image of the Old City of Jerusalem, one odor that encapsulates the soul of this ancient city nestling in the Judean Mountains, it is the smell of za’atar.”

Outside Palestine, one of the best places to buy these superior kinds of za’atar is Azhiman, in the Sweifieh section of Amman. The shop itself is worth a trip to Jordan. For me, a stop at Azhiman is an obligation, a ritual almost. I leave it to the last day of my stay, devote an entire afternoon to the pleasures it offers. Other similar stores have sprung up in Amman, now that the city has become a refuge for all those fleeing the wars in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Gulf state citizens seeking a stable place for their summer vacations. In fact, in the past ten years, Amman has become a culinary paradise, built out of the violence engulfing the entire region.

What is known as Aleppo blend za’atar, which leans a bit heavy on the sumac if you ask me. -GG

Azhiman is an older store that has moved with the times but kept its old charm and lack of pretentiousness. It caters to all classes of the population not just the foodies and the rich. At this compact, well-organized store, you will find half a dozen variations of za’atar—with and without salt, with and without sumac, with and without sesame seeds, and on and on. (The store has an equally varied, enticing selection of grains, spices, local soaps, chocolates, herb teas, and so on.)

That’s the za’atar that sits on my kitchen counter now, that beckons me in the morning and ends my day in the evening, that transports me to that grimy old kitchen of ours of decades past. My brother, eight years younger than I, would wait patiently for his sandwich. I would work fast, and before I was finished he would snatch his share. We would sit together at the dinner table, begin eating, our mouths circled by a shiny greenish film of oil and za’atar.

Lebanese blend za’atar, which was what I grew up with. One whiff of this stuff transports me to days when my mother would make fresh manaeesh, which made us drool in anticipation as we smelled it baking. -GG

Take a piece of flat Arabic bread, dip it in olive oil, then in the za’atar. That’s all. That’s the za’atar scene. The taste is other worldly—the aftertaste subtle and invigorating.   When the world weighs heavy like this, za’atar is a zap, a reminder that there is nothing more satisfying than the simplest, the most ancient of foods, nothing more wholesome than a piece of bread, olive oil, and this ancient herb. When the world is full of joy and possibility, za’atar’s ancient roots are calming, instructive, a reminder that the world may turn upside down in the blink of an eye but za’atar is eternal.

How to make (and not make) Choereg


Growing up at the start of every spring I would look forward to savoring my grandmother’s choereg. She would prepare the faintly sweet, buttery rolls in huge batches and give us a dozen or so to take home. Usually my mother would slice each roll in half horizontally and toast it for a few minutes so that they would slightly caramelize, and then she would slather butter all over each half. I would take delight in watching the butter melt, slowly oozing into the pores of the roll. My grandmother taught me to eat choereg in the morning with briny feta cheese and Kalamata olives. Usually her homemade sujukh, the spicy beef sausage that she would let dry flat in cloth bags instead of intestines, would be served sliced in 1/8 inch thick slabs. My mother also learned how to bake choereg. But one year after our chocolate lab wolfed down the dough while our backs were turned she shied away from baking it in later years. The dog couldn’t digest all that yeasty buttery goodness and left little steaming rising packages for us all over the hallway. Needless to say it was gross, but  hilarious nevertheless.

Choereg is predominantly found in Western Armenian cuisine. I have never seen authentic choereg in Yerevan grocery stores, aside from a mushy impostor in a braided loaf available at one supermarket chain. You can find gata (nazouk), but that’s more of a flakey pastry than a bread roll. I never noticed choereg served in Istanbul cafés, either, not that I expected to, although boureg abound.

For easter I decided to take the plunge and make choereg for myself. It was high time I took a stab at it. I’m not much of a baker–dinner featuring plenty of roasted meat and assorted salads is more my thing. I’ve only baked chocolate chip cookies with huge success. Despite my choice Cuisinart non-stick cookware the brownies I once made from scratch came out horribly wrong, burned to a crisp on the edges and semi-raw in the middle. But this year I decided to be bold, thinking “screw it, worse comes to worse I toss the choereg and some poor scruffy stray dog nabs it from the trash bins.”

Some recipes are available online of course posted by Armenian culinary gurus and I do have an “Armenian-American” cookbook at home, but I was going to make choereg the only way possible–à la Clara, my grandmother. My mother sent me the recipe:

2 1/2 cups flour [see important note at the end]
1/3 cups sugar
3 eggs (plus one more for glazing)
2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 yeast cake
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup melted butter

The first problem I noticed was the yeast cake. This recipe must have been jotted down 60 years ago when these things were all you could find on store shelves. Active yeast, which requires no water at all, is now commonly used for baking. An Internet search instantly revealed that 1 old-fashioned yeast cake (which I have never seen in my life) equals 2 1/4 teaspoons of active yeast. Luckily my grocery store had some in stock, made in Iran using Austrian technology, whatever the hell that means.

Her recipe doesn’t include mahleb–which is finely ground cherry pit–but I know she uses it. So I visited my Syrian-Armenian grocer in Yerevan’s GUM produce market, located a couple miles down the street. He advised that I use two teaspoons, which I did. Nigella seeds are optional–I tossed in two teaspoons, then regretted it thinking I used too much. But that amount was just fine, after all.

So I followed the recipe to a tee: “Warm the milk and add butter. Beat the eggs and add to the liquid mixture. Dissolve the yeast in warm water and add to liquid mixture. Mix sugar, flour and salt together and add slowly into the liquid mixture, mix with a wooden spoon until thick. Then knead it to make a soft dough.” I did everything proper. I even broke in a brand new wooden spoon I had brought back from my last trip home during the holidays.

But in the confusion of the mixing process I didn’t know what to do with the warm water for the yeast cake I didn’t of course have, so I simply added it to the mixture. Seemed like the logical thing to do in the moment. That proved to be an unwise decision. The dough, or what was shaping out to be something resembling it anyway, turned into a batter. I kept stirring for 10 minutes anyway hoping it would magically solidify from the kinetic force generated. Then I started adding flour, a tablespoon at a time, mixing like crazy after each addition.

Disaster! Disaster!

Eight tablespoons later I had a very sticky dough-like mass between my hands.  I was supposed to be kneading it on the table top but instead I ended up pulling and squeezing it in the air. It seemed more effective than just pounding away on the counter for minutes at a time. Needless to say I had no clue what I was doing or whether anything edible would pan out after baking. After the kneading session was over the dough went into a greased roasting pan, over which I placed two paper towel sheets and let it sit overnight. The plan was to bake the choereg early Saturday morning. It was already close to 2 am.

I am generally terrible with getting up in the mornings, and that Saturday was no exception. A minute after rising from bed I checked on the dough’s resurrection. It had doubled in size, which was what Clara expected of me. A strange hard crust developed, which dissolved after I mixed the dough a bit. Then it was time to make the familiar knot-like choereg shapes. I took egg-sized pieces of the dough as Clara described and rolled them out with the palms of my hands on my cutting mat. But the dough kept sticking to my fingers, and it would only stretch out thin in the middle of each rope-like mass but not at the ends, which remained rather thick. So I’d pick it up and try to tie it into a knot. I felt like I was playing Cat’s Cradle. Each roll looked fairly ugly and they actually varied in size. I was contemplating throwing the dough in a bread pan and wiping my hands clean of the stuff once and for all, but that would have been cheating. I was determined to replicate Clara’s choereg or else die trying (no, not really). The batch produced 11 choeregs. I think it should have amounted to 12 but as I said, I can’t roll that stuff out.

Then there’s the gas oven. I have an old Soviet monstrosity  here in my kitchen that the landlord refuses to replace. It doesn’t have an auto ignite switch–I have to manually light the pilots, that’s how old it is. Buying a new oven is problematic since the trend these days is to go electric, and there’s no electrical outlet in that corner of the kitchen. But I’ve found used, relatively recent European all-gas models on a local want ad site called and I may finally replace it (unless a reader wants to buy one for the Garbanzo). Controlling the temperature on this thing is very problematic. Thanks to an oven thermometer I purchased (thank you, Marshalls) I can more or less gauge how hot the oven is likely to get depending on how far I turn the knob, since there are no temperature indicators to be found. The oven had to be preheated to 400 degrees F. The needle seemed to be on the 450 mark at baking time so I turned it down a bit and threw in the first batch after coating the buns with egg and sesame seeds and lined them up on parchment paper (a baker’s dear friend). Twenty minutes later the damn choereg was still raw–the temperature had fallen to 300 degrees. So I cranked the knob and got the oven nice and hot again. Ten minutes later they were out of the oven, all golden and puffy, and the next batch was in.


I was disappointed that the choereg didn’t have the sheen that Clara’s always seemed to have. But the flavor was indeed very similar. It certainly wasn’t sweet because I put practically no sugar in the mix–instead of a 1/3 of a cup I mistakingly used 1 teaspoon (no idea), but substituted the sugar with crystalized honey (which resembles a very light brown sugar). But it actually was faintly sweet due likely to all the French butter — I didn’t measure out an exact cup of course and I likely overdid it. But that’s the magic of baking, I suppose. You can only hope you’ll get something exactly as you intend it to come out. And yet, who really does?

NOTE (rev. 3/18): Clara’s original recipe calls for 5 cups of flour per batch, not 2 1/2 cups. Upon reflection I estimate that I used around 4 cups in the ordeal described above. I used around this same amount, probably closer to 5, in my near-catastrophic 2017 batch as well.

Melissa’s Plum-Good Roast Chicken


Chicken is my thing. I’ve always been a chicken maniac of sorts. Linda raised my brother and me on chicken wings, back in the days when they couldn’t give the stuff away–this was before the buffalo wing phenomenon that still, somehow, endures. Lemon, garlic, salt and pepper, in the oven for a half hour. Crispy, garlicky, greasy, salty and peppery. It was one of my favorite dinners, I used to anticipate Linda’s wings, a longing refusing to be assuaged.

Chicken can be wonderfully prepared in all sorts of ways, using an infinite array of ingredients. You have to be a real idiot to screw up chicken (no comment). It’s such a diverse meat, so much can be done with it.

So I am always looking for new fowl-minded explorations, in my neverending quest to wander and peck my way through life. I was surprised to see Melissa Clark’s chicken and plums recipe, which was published just in time for Rosh Hashanah. You don’t ordinarily make a connection between meat and plums. The Georgians make ketchup-like sauces out of plums, actually. The only one I ever tried was nasty to say the least and I remember having to down some beer or apricot vodka or whatever the hell I was drinking to clean out my mouth. It took a few swirls of alchohol to do the trick. Those Georgians contributed two notable things to Caucasian cuisine–the khingali and khachaburi, both of which are actually not all that original if you ask me (a giant, boiled manti and oversized flakey beureg). But that’s a different story. We’re talking about chicken, damn it!

Some of my past dinner guests have undoubtedly tried my Roast Tarragon Chicken recipe. Been making it for years. As the name suggests, the dish involves lots of fresh tarragon. And I mean, the bird is covered in tarragon leaves. This plum chicken recipe calls for a whopping kilo of plums for two chickens. Melissa invited the reader to use one chicken and cut all the ingredients by half. Screw that!  She knows what she’s talking about, we’re doing it her way.

This time of year is plum season in Armenia. And this summer has been a bountiful year for fruit. I don’t remember seeing so much fruit on the market in years. In the villages across the Ararat valley watermelons were piled up to resemble miniature mountains. They were selling the stuff for 50 dram, or about 15 cents, a kilo. Ridiculously low prices on summer fruits and vegetables here. For this recipe I decided to use both red and black plums, which are oblong and not round, like what you would see in a Boston suburban supermarket for instance (Market Basket, anyone?). Don’t ask me why the hell they’re oval shaped. Might be an Armenian thing. But they are succulent and they taste amazingly sweet. For some reason there was a whopping 2 cent difference in price between red and black, but screw it. Might as well do it right.

Another major ingredient of this recipe is sumac for the marinade–two tablespoons! I believe sumac is some sort of plant-like material. I am too lazy to look it up as I write this, but I’ve had it as a condiment in foods most of my life. I know Iranians love it in their cuisine. It has a wonderful tangy flavor to it, sort of lemony, but without the pulp and effort needed to extract the juices, then the clean up, the annoying stickiness and the aggravating scrubbing and scraping involved after it dries out, when it’s all over the counters and floor and your fingers and your bald head … wait I’m digressing again.  The sumac that I had on the shelf packed by the Santa Anna company (do not buy any of their spices!) sold in many grocery stores in Yerevan was looking a little on the brown side. From my experience quality sumac should have a warm, maroon hue. So I made a trip to this new spice store that opened up on the corner of Deryan and Sayat Nova called JL Spice. Gorgeous store, all sorts of wonderful spices to be had, everything enclosed in plexiglass containers. It’s the only place in Yerevan where I’ve seen saffron being sold by the kilo. They also sell narghile and e-cigarettes for some odd reason. Their sumac looks gorgeous and it smells amazing–you can actually sense that tartness in your nostrils with a strong whiff.  Wonderful stuff. I bought 100 grams of it for a buck (450 dram).

This is what real ground sumac looks like

The chickens, the chickens… I just go to Nor Zovk on my street. I buy my boneless chicken breasts there, too for the gourmet chow I make for my chihuahua, who is my occasional food taster. The beef and pork are hit or miss, but that’s a story for another post. I asked for 2 chickens on the big side. They are all the same size for the most part and not oven stuffers by any means, but they’re pretty tasty.

The first thing Melissa requires is to zest two lemons. One of the most indispensable tools in the kitchen, besides a sturdy, high quality chef’s or Santoku knife  (have two), is a top-notch hand-held grater. The Microplane is a miracle of culinary science. It’s well worth paying $15 bucks for one at a home goods or kitchen store (like BB&B). It’s especially great for parmesan cheese and also garlic. I am an amateur zester, so it took me about five minutes per lemon to grate the rind. I hope to shave a minute off my zesting time soon. The zest is combined with sumac, garlic, olive oil, some cinnamon and allspice (special thanks to Effendi), then set aside to be smeared all over the chickens once the ladies are washed out with warm salt water.

For the garlic use a good crusher or else a grater. By all means, chop if you like. But to get that annoying peel off, first slam your chef’s knife onto the garlic cloves. Actually, doing that will probably launch the garlic all over the kitchen. Press down firmly with the knife and you’ll see that the skin flakes right off.

The plums are washed then cut in half and pitted. Use a high-quality honey–still have the stuff from Meghri on hand, which has a faintly rosewater-like aroma. The honey does not and probably should not be transparent and smooth– the cloudier and lumpier the better in my experience. Shallots as far as I know do not exist in Armenia. You have scallions, red onions, white onions, garlic. Never seen a shallot in 11 years here. Substitute a medium-sized onion, no one is going to know the difference (what the hell does a shallot taste like, anyway?). I omitted the bay leaf because I’m out of them. Add a half ounce more allspice to compensate if you feel guilty about it.

Note to the wise–these days I am usually sticking with sea salt, which tends to be stronger than regular store-bought salt. So if something calls for a teaspoon, you can probably get away with half. If it’s not salty enough to everyone’s liking, put a salt shaker on the table. The less added salt in recipes the better. Armenians use way, way too much salt in their food. Do not bother with going out and buying kosher salt for this recipe, unless you or your guests are Jewish or something. Sea salt is perfectly fine.

So I smeared the ladies all over with the sumac-garlic-lemon zest goodness. I found some old dried springs of thyme so I inserted some of those into the cavities (my guests were asking what the twigs were). I don’t have a roasting rack (shame on me) so the girls rested on 4 potatoes each in the roasting pan, along with the plum and honey mixture. I did exactly what Melissa said to do–baked those babies for a half hour then took them out and poured lemon juice and olive oil all over them before throwing them back into the oven. The chicken was tangy, garlicky and juicy. The plums were so ripe that a thick, extraordinary gravy was actually formed at the bottom of the pan.


Serve with garlic mashed potatoes, broccoli, a simple salad (tomato, cucumber, oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh ground black pepper, sea salt). Or choose your favorite side dish. It’s chicken, everything goes with it!

Beautiful birds. Fantastic recipe. Merci Melissa!


Linda’s Imam Bayildi


I have always been an eggplant lover. When it’s on the table I can’t get enough of it. Armenians have a tendency to overcook italian eggplants, especially when roasting them on a skewer (or rather a set of two, with one going through each end, around four are lined up). Optionally they insert raw pork fat inside to add some high-octane cholesterol. If you are not careful the flesh within will turn into a disturbing squid-like mass of crap that is unappetizing. The fat does not help matters, believe me.

My grandmother Clara invented a clever, rather irresistable eggplant dish that I have had my entire life. She took the fat-ass eggplants that are sold in US supermarkets, sliced them a half inch or so thick, sliced onion, tomato and green bell pepper. It would all be piled up in mounds, the eggplant slices on top and bottom, all held together by a flat toothpick. It would look like a sort of club sandwich in the end. She would saute ground beef with spices and parsley, then layer the mixture between the onion and tomato. Topped with a smear of tomato paste and another small onion slice, which resembled a cap. This would all rest in a Pyrex glass baking pan and cook for I believe a half-hour or so. I grew up with this dish, it was the ultimate comfort food to me. I have not attempted to replicate the dish, probably because it’s sacrilege. I know it will never come out the same.

Her dish was basically a variation of  imam bayildi–also known as “the priest fainted” (it actually wasn’t  an imam contrary to popular belief–GG).  Rumor has it that a priest after sitting down to dinner had a forkful and passed out from the savory goodness of the dish. The apostolic priesthood has been reeling from the trauma ever since.

Imam bayildi is prepared in all sorts of ways apparently, aside from the boat-like dish where an Italian eggplant is sliced vertically after frying or roasting and filled with a veggie mixture consisting of garlic, tomatoes and onions and other assorted spices or greens before being baked. Most recipes seem to be a major pain in the ass to prepare, with lots of prepping, sautéing and roasting for seemingly hours on end involved.

In comes Linda to set it all straight. Linda, who is originally of the Russian clan, has managed to perfect the simplest Armenian and Anatolian dishes throughout her 45 year experience in the kitchen. Quite simply, she is an expert–sarma, dolma, sini kufta, kheyma/chi kufta, tahini bread, simit cookies, choreg, you name it.  Back in the day she introduced manti–little toasted meat wontons that simmer in chicken broth and are served topped with garlic-infused yoghurt and ground sumac–to a family of Kharpertsis who never heard of the stuff. She’s always managed to perform wonders with a handful of ingredients on hand and a little magic that she is finally relaying to me.

My mother’s version of imam bayildi is straight and simple. After all the prep work–which consists simply of washing and chopping vegetables–it takes about a half hour or so to cook.

First off is the eggplant. I used about six italian eggplants and cut them in half to three-quarter inch slices then set them aside.


Next come the onions, about four-six small ones or a few large ones, and about six small, very ripe tomatoes–get it all out of the way first. No need to be precisely geometric with the onions, dears. Cut them fast before your sinuses empty out onto the chopping board.

The eggplant is fried in plain “light” olive oil—non-virgin since extra virgin olive oil has a low heat threshold and starts smoking in no time. Use only olive oil, no canola, corn, sunflower or whatever else. I recommend a deep, non-stick pot. I use the higher-end Cuisinart super-durable anodized nonstick cookware, not the flimsy teflon crap.


Once the eggplant becomes soft but not very mushy add “a shitload” of coarsely chopped garlic, which comes out to be about a small head or so, and continue sautéing. When the eggplants have browned and softened quite nicely add the tomatoes and onions. For the last batch I also threw in a single chopped red bell pepper just for the hell of it. Here’s my twist–add a heaping teaspoon of capers and sprinkle some Herbes de Provence in there, too. In my experience eggplant is divine with capers due to the miracles of culinary science. Don’t forget some fine sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Mix it all up with a good spatula or your favorite stirring utensil then cover and simmer for 20 or so minutes until it’s all nice and soft, but not squishy by any means. Serve at room temperature, and optionally garnish with pignoli.