My unmatched Citizens – Happy MLK Day if you’re based in the United States! Dr. King worked tirelessly to ensure that African-Americans received equal rights and that the depredations of the past were never forgotten (I only wish that his new memorial in Boston looked less…obscene and was instead the dignified icon he deserved). In the spirit of remembering Dr. King and his tireless efforts against prejudice, I wish to share an Armenian recipe for khorvatz (shish kebab) and to remember the genocide that killed more than a million innocents in the early 20th century.
Specifically, the Armenian genocide represented the systematic destruction of the Armenian people and their cultural identity in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Spearheaded by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), it was implemented primarily through the mass murder of approximately one million Armenians during death marches to the Syrian Desert and the forced Islamization of Armenian women and children. This was a genocidal tragedy on a scale rarely seen, but sadly all too familiar to students of history – both recent and ancient alike.
Before World War I, Armenians Christians occupied a protected, but subordinate, place in Ottoman society as “dhimi” (second-class citizens to Muslims, but still recognized as citizens of the empire), although large-scale massacres of Armenians did occur in the 1890s and again in 1909. The Ottoman Empire suffered a series of military defeats and territory losses during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, leading to CUP leaders fearing that the Armenians, whose homeland in the eastern provinces was viewed as the heartland of the Turkish nation, would seek independence.
During their invasion of Russian and Persian territory in 1914, Ottoman paramilitaries massacred local Armenians. Ottoman leaders took isolated indications of Armenian resistance as incontrovertible evidence of a widespread rebellion, though no such rebellion existed. The mass deportation of loyal Ottoman citizens was intended to permanently forestall the possibility of Armenian autonomy or independence and it began shortly thereafter – in earnest.
On 24 April 1915, the Ottoman authorities arrested and deported hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and leaders from Constantinople. At the orders of Talaat Pasha, an estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million Armenians were further sent on death marches to the Syrian Desert in 1915 and 1916. Driven forward by paramilitary escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to robbery, rape, and massacres. In the Syrian Desert, the survivors were dispersed into concentration camps.
In 1916, another wave of massacres was ordered, leaving about 200,000 deportees alive by the end of the year. Between 100,000 to 200,000 Armenian women and children were forcibly converted to Islam and integrated into Muslim households. Massacres and ethnic cleansing of Armenian survivors were again carried out by the Turkish nationalist movement during the Turkish War of Independence after World War I.
This genocide put an end to more than two thousand years of Christian Armenian civilization in the Turkish diaspora and in fact eliminated virtually all Christian culture in the country with the further mass murder and expulsion of other Syriac and Greek Orthodox Christians. The Turkish government to this day maintains that the deportation of Armenians was a legitimate action that cannot be described as genocide – as of 2022, 33 countries have in fact recognized the events as genocide, which is also the academic consensus.
The massacre is a very difficult topic for modern Turks to come to grips with, and the modern state of Turkey has no blood on its hands related to this Ottoman-specific mass murder – but until there is an official apology, there will never be positive relations between Armenians and Turks. I hope and pray that relations can be re-established and the sins of the past can be forgiven by the descendants of those killed – I may see this in My lifetime, and that will be a day of rejoicing indeed!
On to a happier subject – the mighty khorvatz, or Armenian shish kebab!
Khorovatz (also anglicized as Khorvats in English) is an Armenian barbecue. The meat may be marinated before grilling, but it does not have to be and is typically made with lamb, pork, beef, chicken, fish, or even veal. This is generally a dish reserved for “festive occasions”.
The word “խորոված” khorovatz means “grilled” in Armenian and comes from the verb “խորովել” khorovel (to grill). A typical khorovatz is made of chunks of meat grilled on a shampoor (շամփուր) or skewer, although steaks or chops grilled without skewers may be also used (I am focusing on the skewered version here).
The 2006 book “Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore” gives three tips for making good khorovatz:
- The distance between the fire and the skewers should be approximately 12 to 15 centimeters (about 6 inches)
- The largest pieces of meat should always go in the middle, where there is more heat for the fire
- Shampoors (skewers) should be placed close together to concentrate the heat from the cooking fire
In Armenia itself, khorovatz is often made with the bone still in the meat (as lamb or pork chops). Proshian Street in Yerevan has been dubbed “Barbecue Street” by foreigners, because many khorovatz restaurants are located on the street. In his The Travels of Sir John Chardin in Persia and the Orient 17th-century French traveler Jean Chardin wrote:
The Armenians have a way of roasting the mutton and lamb in their own skin upon the coals, as they do chestnuts. When the mutton is dressed, they put the skin again upon it and sew it up well, and then they put it on the coals and cover it: the mutton is all night adoing, and it is not over and above good when it is done.
In a scene from the 1976 Soviet film “When September Comes”, prominent Armenian actor Armen Dzhigarkhanyan (Levon) makes khorovatz with his grandson on the balcony of his daughter’s Moscow apartment. His neighbors see smoke coming out of the balcony and call the firemen, but when a fireman arrives, everything settles down and all the neighbors gather at Levon’s house to enjoy the dish. Since 2009, an annual Khorovatz festival has been held in northern Armenia. In 2012, John A. Heffern, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, was among 15,000 guests of the festival.
Armenian cuisine makes exceptional use of both herbs and spices. The Eastern Anatolia region, where many Armenians lived prior to the Armenian genocide, is blessed with an immensely rich plant biodiversity with over 3,000 vascular plant taxa—of these almost 800 are endemic species and many of which are edible and sustained people through many a famine. The inhabitants of this region often lived in inaccessible area and were dependent on local cultivated and wild flora for their diets and this is still true to this very day.
Commonly-used Armenian spices include black pepper, sumac, cumin, and cinnamon – but to Me, the true flavor of Armenia is found in fenugreek, a spice that flavors many Armenian recipes including the ancestor of pastrami – basturma. Common herbs that were dried and used to season cooking include mint, summer savory and basil. Red pepper pulp was dried in the sun. Sprigs of terebinth were dried and infused in a mixture of water, olive oil and brine, then toasted and ground. The ground terebinth was added as a seasoning for tabouleh and baked breads.
Armenians eat various meats like mutton, beef and goat but the most popular meat in Armenian cuisine is actually pork. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Armenian writers in Ottoman Anatolia considered eating pork an important marker of Christian identity. An Armenian priest writing in the sixteenth century concluded, “If we didn’t eat the meat of the pig, then we wouldn’t be Christian.
Roasted piglet, called gochi, is a traditional holiday meal prepared for New Year’s celebrations. Roasted pork chops (chalagach) are a favored item for barbeques. Khorovatz is traditionally made with pork or lamb as the most common meats – I’ve chosen to use lamb in My recipe.
I have used a classic Armenian spice blend, known as chaimen, as a key flavor component of My version of the classic grill – it’s heavy on the fenugreek, and it is absolutely DELICIOUS! It’s in both the marinade and the spice flourish at the end – it truly makes the dish! I combine two classic Armenian marinade ingredients – red wine and pomegranate juice – in the marinade and a goodly hit of Aleppo pepper flakes as well – you can buy them from here.
I also call for basting with a “scallion brush” – they are easy to make! Just cut off the tops of the scallion green, make a bunch of very fine cuts lengthwise ⅓ of the way down the length of the scallion, put the stalk in some ice water and watch the ends curl up! Do this so you have one scallion brush per diner, they’ll be grilled over the coals after you use them for basting and will lightly cook – take them off once they are starting to look cooked/wilted, let them cool down and chop them up as part of the garnish! This is My own unique touch for the recipe, BTW!
These are My choice for the metal skewers you will need, and you can purchase my recommended charcoal here – if you make this ANY other way except over charcoal, you are dead to Me, Citizen! You want to get as close to the coals as you possibly can when making these, and this tip from the gourmands at Serious Eats is My go-to to ensure the maximum heat and grilling opportunities – God bless them there! Lastly, I call for wild cumin as that is the choice in Armenia – mercifully, it is easy to buy here from this quality spice purveyor.
My Citizens – this is one of My favorite lamb recipes and is guaranteed to help you get your grill on – also try this chicken shish kebab recipe from Turkmenistan and this complex ribeye version from Iran for more options!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
The Hirshon Armenian Khorvatz Shish Kebab – Խորոված
- 1/2 leg of lamb, about 2 lbs., trimmed of excess external fat, silver skin, and tough sinew, and cut into 1-inch wide by 1/2- to 1-inch-thick pieces
- Chaimen spice blend – use 1/2 in marinade and reseve 1/2 for use as garnish, made from:
- 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 4 Tbsp. sweet or smoked paprika, TFD prefers smoked, but the original recipe calls for sweet
- 2 Tbsp. chaimen (ground fenugreek)
- 2 tsp. freshly-ground allspice
- 1 tsp. freshly-ground wild cumin (regular cumin can be substituted)
- 1/4 tsp. freshly-ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp. freshly-ground cloves
- 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
- 3 cloves peeled garlic
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 3 Tbsp. freshly-ground coriander seed
- 1/2 chaimen spice blend recipe
- 2 1/2 Tbsp. Aleppo pepper
- 1/4 cup pomegranate juice
- 1 3/4 cups dry red wine
- 1 cup olive oil, blitzed in a food processor with the leaves from one sprig fresh oregano, the leaves from one sprig fresh thyme, 3 garlic cloves and 4 basil leaves (Basil, garlic, thyme and oregano are all highly-optional TFD additions and can be omitted), reserve 1/2 the mixture for tableside dipping, use the other 1/2 for grilling only
- Metal skewers
- 2 fireproof bricks and charcoal if using a charcoal grill (and you should be!)
- “Scallion brushes” for grilling
- Maldon sea salt to taste as garnish
- 1/2 chaimen spice blend as garnish
- Pita for garnishing
- Grilled vegetables of your choice
- Put the lamb cubes in a large mixing bowl.
- Combine all solid marinade ingredients in a food processor. Process to a chopped state, then combine with the liquid. Put the marinade into a Ziploc bag and add lamb. Combine thoriughly, cover and refrigerate overnight, mixing again at least once.
- Thread lamb on skewers and set up the grill for skewers, making sure to adjust the distance between two fire-proof bricks set on a grate to the length of your skewers.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly in the channel between the bricks. Alternatively set burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 15 minutes. Clean and oil cooking grate.
- Place skewers on grill (directly over coals if using charcoal, balancing them on top of the bricks, with the handles overhanging the bricks closest to you, and the tips balancing on the farther wall of bricks).
- Cook (covered if using gas, you HEATHEN!), turning and basting with the marinade and using the “scallion brush” frequently, until meat is lightly charred and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the thickest piece registers between 135°F and 145°F (57 to 60°C), 6 to 9 minutes for charcoal and 8 to 12 minutes for gas; if flare-ups occur, move the skewers around as needed to avoid scorching.
- Sprinkle on sea salt and chaimen when done and serve immediately with remaining, unused olive oil for dipping, plus grilled vegetables, the grilled scallion brushes (chopped into pieces) and pita bread.
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