Ms. Victoria Jenanyan Wise, a highly experienced cookbook author from an Armenian family has successfully blended traditional products of the Armenian terroir with modern California style and market to give us a taste of what Armenian cuisine tastes like in our American setting. As this objective is not the same as a faithful evocation of the native Armenian cuisine, it is important you do not buy this book with the intention of faithfully recreating your own Armenian culinary heritage. Ms. Wise is giving us her Armenian culinary heritage, not an anthropological document.
She is delightfully successful in evoking the Jenanyan memory of Armenian cuisine with recreations of Armenian recipes, family interpretations of Armenian recipes, and her own deft experiments with Armenian methods and ingredients as interpreted by what is available in the California marketplace.
Ms Wise scores her first points with me by including a map of the historical Armenia and its surrounding lands which primarily includes Asia Minor (Turkey), the Caucasus, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Armenia today is on the eastern edge of Turkey, with parts of ethnic Armenia being in Azerbaijan. One of the little mysteries of the book is how this terroir can be considered `Mediterranean' since it is a good 500 miles from the Bosporus, where the Black Sea empties into the Mediterranean. Although the author doesn't invoke this justification, she is in good company, as Paula Wolfert has included Georgia, which is north of Armenia and even further from the Mediterranean in a book of Eastern Mediterranean cuisines. Wise rationalizes the importance of Armenian cuisine by pointing out that the Armenian highlands are very fertile, a rich land for growing wheat, and possibly the historical origin of wheat culture.
Armenia shares some major culinary elements with lands bordering the Mediterranean such as yogurt, wheat, lamb, and eggplant. On the other hand, olives and olive oil, the cornerstone of Mediterranean cuisine is less important than butter, especially clarified butter, in Armenian cooking.
Since this is neither genuine Armenian nor purely Mediterranean, what is the attraction of this book. In a word, it is variety. If you are especially fond of the cornerstone Armenian ingredients (yogurt, lamb, eggplant, bulgar and legumes, and you are tired of your Italian, Greek, and Levantine sources, this is the book for you. The chapter subjects are a mix of the traditional and the quintessentially Armenian. These are:
Yogurt - Ms. Wise gives us the whole picture, including a reliable recipe for making homemade yogurt, and yogurt substitutes for staples such as fresh cheese, crème fraiche, and bechamel sauce. She also gives us the important caution that although you can start a yogurt culture from a commercial yogurt, the dry yogurt starter from a health foods store will give you better results. Take that Alton Brown.
Armenian Mazas - The Armenian take on the Greek and Turkish Meze cuisine. The stars here are eggplant, chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, pickling cucumbers, and zucchini. One surprise is in the recipe for string cheese.
Breads and Savory Pastries - The signature product here is `Lavosh', the Armenian Cracker Bread which is dry like matzo, but leavened with yeast like pita, and baked with a covering of sesame seeds. Pita and Armenian `pizzas' are also present, along with several fillo based Greek / Turkish like savory packets.
Salads - Old World style, but New World ingredients are emphasized here. Legumes and spinach are the stars here, along with the old war-horse Taboulleh.
Kufta - One of the most distinctly Armenian dishes in the book. This is less a dish than a whole family of dishes, closely related to the Georgian dish, Kibbeh, described in Paula Wolfert's `The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean'. Part of what makes Wolfert's book great while this volume is merely good is the fact that Wolfert gives detailed, diagrammed instructions on techniques for making Kibbeh while Wise simply gives us many different recipes and a small sidebar of tips. Both Kufta and Kibbeh are a style of cooking which puts all sorts of different ingredients, from meats to barley to bulgar to legumes into a stuffed or not stuffed `meatball'.
Lamb and other Meats - This is how to do Shish Kebab right, and other tales of lamb cookery. An interesting ethnic tidbit here is that while Armenians were Christian, Muslim lands surrounded them, so they had little interest in pork, even if they had no religious inhibitions against it.
Poultry, Game, and Eggs - This is a chapter that will give relief to a tired inventory of poultry recipes.
Fish and Seafood - Another Old World style blended with modern techniques and sensibilities. Focus is on fresh water fish and shellfish.
Vegetables - Eggplant, Eggplant, and more Eggplant. I just wonder how okra got to Armenia from Africa.
Pilafs - Bulgar, rice, lentils and nuts.
Sweets - Baklava is the headliner, even though the author admits it is no more Armenian than Pizza. Filo dough, peaches, apricots, almonds, walnuts, and pistachios star here. Great source of nut nutrition here.
Like many other ethnically oriented cookbooks by skilled culinary authors, this one offers new, nutritious, dishes to Armenians, foodies on the lookout for novelty and vegetarians on the lookout for novelty. This is a very good book that succeeds in its objective, but it is not a great book. The anecdotes of family history are pleasant, but do not have the evocative power of, for example, some of the stories told by Gennaro Contaldo in `Passione'. On the other hand, `Gourmet' magazine has declared Eastern Mediterranean cuisines as one of the next big things in eating. This book is as good a source as many.
Highly recommended for those with an interest in this cuisine and in Eastern Mediterranean food in general. Relatively easy recipe methods. Very good price for the quality of the content.