- - Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Since earliest antiquity, bread has been the proverbial staff of life for most of the Earth’s people. But the very universality of our “daily bread” means that it takes thousands of different forms, drawing on an endless variety of grains, flavorings and cooking techniques. One of its oldest — and most widespread — forms is flatbread, still a staple in regions as far-flung as Eurasia, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Because it can be cooked in anything from a modern pizza oven to an ancient clay tandoor, or even on a hot rock, flatbread can be produced almost anywhere, including on the go, as it has been by nomadic herdsmen since time immemorial.

One of the oldest varieties of flatbread has been continuously produced and consumed by one of the world’s smallest populations in the same place, Transcaucasia, for thousands of years. The bread is called “lavash”; the people are called Armenians. In “Lavash: The Bread That Launched 1,000 Meals,” authors Kate Leahy, John Lee and Ara Zada tell the story of both the bread and the people.

Mr. Lee’s inspired photographs of contemporary Armenian food, festivals and folkways also bring to life the modern rebirth of one of the smallest, most threatened but most tenacious nationalities the world has ever known. Armenians had been around for centuries before they appeared in the accounts of ancient Greek historians like Herodotus and Xenophon. They were the first to convert to Christianity as a nation, and they produced warriors, architects and even Byzantine emperors long before Asian hordes including the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks overran Anatolia and conquered Constantinople. 

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A succession of government-orchestrated massacres under the last three Ottoman sultans and the Young Turk military dictatorship before and during World War I, resulted in the death, by murder and starvation, of an estimated 1 million Ottoman Armenians. Scattered survivors of this first modern genocide settled in Syria, Lebanon, Iran and points east — as well as in Europe and America — joining in a diaspora that had seen Armenian merchants following trade routes and establishing ethnic communities as far-flung as France and India over the centuries. 

A short-lived independent Armenian Republic was established in ethnic enclaves around the city of Yerevan that had been wrested from Persian occupation by Czarist Russia. Independence ended abruptly when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin struck a deal with Kemal Ataturk, founder of the new Turkish Republic, that left most traditional Armenian areas of Anatolia in Turkish hands while the Red Army marched into Yerevan and annexed what was left of the Republic of Armenia.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was finally consigned to what Ronald Reagan so rightly described as the ash heap of history, Armenia broke away and, despite the hostility of Turkey and oil-rich Azerbaijan, has begun the long, hard transition to constitutional democracy based on the rule of law, and to competitive free markets. One of the first things to improve was viticulture. Under Soviet central planning, Armenia — the site of some of the archeological sites where wine was first produced — was confined to distilling brandy while neighboring Georgia was given free rein to produce wine. 

The quality of authentic Armenian cuisine has also improved markedly. Delicious home-made soups, stews, salads and sweets that survived even the bungling of Soviet state planners thanks to the ingenuity of small-plot private farmers producing fresh-to-the-market produce and dairy products — and succeeding generations of heroic Armenian grandmothers — are now showcased by a new crop of entrepreneurial Armenian chefs and restaurateurs. 

A cautionary note: As the authors explain, their collection of recipes “represents the dishes we sampled on our travels within Armenia, the ones we came to love and could re-create back home with ingredients that are easy to find, such as fresh herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs, and yogurt. Many of the dishes in this book may be unfamiliar to those who know Armenian food outside of Armenia, and some might wonder why their favorite Armenian-American recipes are missing.”  

In addition, diaspora Armenians like myself, with centuries-old roots in the highly-evolved Ottoman-Armenian cuisine that thrived in cities like Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Smyrma (now Izmir), may lament the absence of many of our favorite pilaus, and olive oil-, seafood- and lamb-based dishes. But the more than 60 recipes included in the text offer an authentic, mouth-watering introduction to a living, vibrant cuisine which, like the people who created it, has survived and even thrived against all odds.

As for lavash, like the Armenians themselves, it is tough but flexible, distinctive but adaptable. And its story never grows stale.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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By Kate Leahy, John Lee and Ara Zada

Chronicle Books, $24.95, 248 pages

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