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How the sweets of Armenia are influenced by Christianity

Armenian sweets are both unique and familiar, with many seen through the prism of Christianity

The Armenian sweet 'gata' imprinted with prayers and good wishes.
The Armenian sweet 'gata' imprinted with prayers and good wishes. (Istockphoto)

Armenia is undoubtedly the oldest Christian country in the world, with the acceptance of Christianity as its national faith in 300 C.E.

Reflections of its strong omnipotence can be seen in almost every aspect of day-to-day life here. From the country’s beautiful (and heavily visited) monasteries like Sevanavank and Khor Virap to its stone carved crucifix art form, called khachkar, that are found erected almost everywhere you look.

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But more importantly for a food writer like me, I saw the intermingling of Christianity with its food and drink. Particularly its vast repertoire of sweets and baked pastries. Take baklava for instance.

While I had always believed the layered, chopped nuts (walnuts, pistachios and almonds) ensconced in flaky phyllo pastry, then baked and doused in a sugary orange blossom-lemon-flavoured syrup to be middle eastern—or at the very least Levantine—in origin, I was happily proven wrong. A long post dinner chat with a restaurant owner in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, shone a new light on the pastry. One that she claimed was as Armenian as she was.

Called pakhlava here, the sweet treat is deeply set in Christianity. To begin with, its name is a portmanteau for pakh the Armenian way of saying Lent and halvah or sweet. Even the number of phyllo pastry layers have a significance. With a version of 40 layers signifying the 40 days of Lent Jesus spent in the desert, while the one with 33 marking his age when he was crucified.

Scripted to perfection

Another matter of national pride for the Armenians is the luxuriously swirled written form of the Armenian alphabet. Developed in 405 A.D. by Mesrop Mashtots, it has since been seen brandished atop a very unique edible art form. And that is a pastry of equally ancient origin called gata.

A flaky, multi-layered biscuit-meets-cake, each layer of a gata is laminated to delicious perfection with melted butter and sugar. Once patted into large disks, and before being baked in an oven, the rounds of gata are imprinted with prayers and other good wish phrases. All in the same aforementioned truly unique Armenian script.

With the grape being a fruit of immense Biblical significance, it is no great surprise that it finds itself used in the most unique way in the Armenian sweets’ repertoire. Also called “Armenian Snickers”, sujuk are garlands of dried walnut halves, that are dipped in a thick grape jam-like syrup and left to harden. The grape jam is made from the must of the grape and coats the walnuts in a tangy and sweet layer that makes sujuk one of my all-time favourite things to eat. Ever.

Bundles of 'sujuk'.
Bundles of 'sujuk'. (Istockphoto)

One of the best places, I found, to try this (and bring back home) was at Yerevan’s GUM Food Market. This landmark is a large, labyrinthine covered market, a little out of the main city centre and a great way to get a taste of other Armenian sweet dishes like the one I had at another small makeshift stall.

As I happened to be there during the Advent season in January, I managed to try a rare seasonal dessert. Called anoush abour or “Armenian Christmas Pudding”, it is made and served on the Armenian Christmas day of January 6. Unlike any other Christmas pudding I’ve ever eaten, this one is made with gorgod (a type of wheat), water and sugar. Quite similar to an Indian broken wheat lapsi, I found. Once ready to serve, it is sprinkled with chopped nuts and pomegranate seeds and drizzled with orange blossom or rose water for the perfect floral finish.

Armenia truly showed me how something as basic as sweets can be nothing short of a religious experience. One that calls for reverence and yes, a bit of abstinence, too, every now and then.

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Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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