Fifty-five year-old Ayda Sergsyan sang out a series of verses in praise of a traditional Armenian dish, pumpkin stuffed with rice, apple, apricot, almonds and other nuts – on a recent afternoon, as she prepared lunch for her family of six. The song pays tribute to the dish for its aroma and taste, but also highlights the importance of cuisine in Armenia’s culture.
Pride in national cuisine is common across the Caucasian countries of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. But “gastronationalism” has caused quite a stir among these neighbours, who vie for the recognition of certain dishes as their own. The issue is increasing tensions between nations that share a troubled past.
That sunny afternoon, Sergsyan prepared her favourite dish, tolma, in her modest kitchen in Areni, a village in southern Armenia. She meticulously filled some vine leaves with rice and beef. “I’m preparing two kinds of tolma today – vegetarian and a meat variant,” she said, as her grandchildren eagerly awaited their meal.
Meanwhile, a pot of harissa – chicken and wheat stew, boiled on the gas stove. “Harissa is our national dish. We all love it. It takes a lot of time for preparation, so we began making it last night,” she said. An hour later, as lunch was served, the Sergsyan family gathered around their large dining table and cheered with their homemade wine to the glory of Armenian cuisine.
Bone of contention
Pardon relights Azerbaijan and Armenia enmity
But what the Sergsyans, and thousands of other Armenians, proudly consider to be their national food is a bone of contention in the surrounding region.
The National Cuisine Centre of Azerbaijan has gone further, accusing Armenia of “plagiarising” its national food.
Tahir Amiraslanov, who heads the organisation, said: “Armenians claim Azerbaijani and other dishes as their own… We’ve accused Armenia many times of plagiarising Azeri dishes. We tried to have a scientific argument to determine [the food’s] origin, but they aren’t willing to cooperate.”
The fight doesn’t stop there. Earlier this year, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security produced a documentary film called “Three Points” about the issue. The movie emphasises the importance of food in the conflict between the two countries, which went to war in the late 1980s and early 1990s over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict left more than 30,000 dead and a million displaced from both sides. In 1994 a ceasefire was declared, but both sides accuse each other of violating the peace accord.
Armenia has refuted the allegations of food plagiarism. As a show of defiance, the Preservation and Development of Armenian Culinary Traditions, an organisation that works to preserve Armenian cuisine, set up an annual tolma festival in which chefs from across the country are invited to participate in a tolma-making competition.
Sedrak Mamulyan, a celebrity chef, culinary expert and organiser of the festival, said: “If they [other countries] want to make these dishes, let them. We don’t have a problem, but why do they claim it as their own? We don’t do that – we don’t claim other countries’ dishes as our own.”
The organisation has also been contesting UNESCO’s decision to add keshkek – a dish made of chicken and wheat stew – to its list of Turkey’s intangible cultural heritage. According to Mamulyan, the dish called harissa in Armenia has been proven to be theirs. “The word ‘keshkek’ has Armenian roots. ‘Kashi’ means ‘to pull’ and ‘ka’ means ‘to take out’. Once harissa is cooked you take it out of the oven. Ask the representatives of other nations about this dish and see if they can give you a similar explanation.”
Meanwhile, Armenians have been questioning claims by neighbouring Georgia that khash, a soup made from cow feet, is its own.
Michaela DeSoucey, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, has researched gastronationalism and argues that such disputes are not just about nationalism. “It is much more than that … What often seems to be nationalism and pride is more of a struggle for markets. Jobs and livelihoods among the producers of the ingredients can be influenced by these disputes.”
Arguments over which country “owns” a type of food are not intended to end in agreement, Desoucey believes. “[The disputes] help to raise awareness, but also help grow the markets by making people want to try the products,” she explained.
Breaking bread together
And gastronationalism is by no means limited to the Caucasus region. DeSoucey cites disputes over the origin of feta cheese between Greece, France and Denmark, and a feud over who “invented” hummus between Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. “By creating symbolic boundaries, food is being used to keep people apart,” she said.
At the same time, though, food and peacemaking have been connected historically, noted DeSoucey: “The main way alliances were brokered, how conflicts were resolved, was over food and feasting together.”
The disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh illustrates how there may be some room for reconciliation. Despite decades of conflict with Azerbaijan, the people of the region reportedly love Azeri food. Although there isn’t any direct contact between the two sides, Karabakhis have found a way around closed borders. The Azeri tea they are so fond of reaches them through relatives living in Russia. Azeris in Baku procure their bottles of Armenian cognac in a similar fashion.
In 2007, the Helsinki Initiative, an NGO that works towards promoting peace in the conflict-ridden region, organised a unique event called “Azeri Kitchen Day” in Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city, Stepanakert, in which Azeri dishes were cooked and served.
Karen Ohanjanyan, who heads the Helsinki Initiative, stressed the need for such exchanges. “It is very difficult to establish peace on the grassroots level,” she said.
“In order to achieve real change you have to start from the grassroots. You have to organise such things as the Azeri Kitchen Day and other events, in order to move towards peace.”