Irina Petrosian and David Underwood give an amusing account of the challenges involved in writing Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore. The pair traveled across Armenia, speaking with ethnographers, restaurateurs, historians, and housewives. "Librarians gave us some odd looks as we spent many an afternoon scanning through dusty, aged archives of the Soviet-Armenian satirical magazine Vozni," the authors recall.
The challenges continued when the locals discovered the couple's purpose. "Do we really have a unique cuisine?" they asked. "What is the most Armenian dish?"
A friend promised, "I am tired of arguing with people about what is Armenian and what is not. Please give a list of proven, well-researched, authentic Armenian dishes, and I'll slap it into their faces and say, ‘Here are the genuine originals!'"
Among the foods on Petrosian and Underwood's list is Tolma, the generic Armenian term for stuffed vegetables and greens. There are two categories of tolmas: either filled with a meat-based mixture (served hot), or with a savory rice or lentil stuffing (cooked in olive oil and eaten at room temperature).
Any vegetable that can be stuffed or wrapped around these fillings can be used in tolma, including peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and cabbage. The most popular tolmas in Armenia are kaghambi tolma (cabbage tolma, referred to as sarma across the Balkans, in Serbo/ Croatian, Slovenian, and Macedonian), and tpov tolma (grape-leaf tolma).
The grape leaves for tolma are gathered in early summer and preserved for later use. "Stacked on an oval serving plate decorated with lemon wedges, the little tightly-wrapped tubes of grape-leaf tolma are a feast for the eyes and the palate," write the authors.
"Grape-leaf tolma is often served with yogurt."
Some innovative cooks, they add, offer nettle leaves, instead of grape leaves, stuffed with atchar (spelt).
Armenia also counts a vegan variant called Pasus Tolma, wrapped with cabbage leaves and stuffed with seven different boiled grains: chickpea, bean, lentil, cracked wheat, pea, rice, and maize. The seven grains symbolize God's divine number 7, associated with divine perfection. In Turkish, the dish is dubbed Yallanchee (counterfeit).
In Turkish, too, Tolma is Dolma, a derivative of the verb doldurmak (to fill, or "stuffed"). In Greek, it is Dolmakia. Indeed, an entire family of stuffed vegetable dishes, with grapes or cabbage leaves wrapped around a filling, is common in the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Russia, and Central Asia.
"It's a tough challenge to write about any food without wandering into disputed territory," conclude Petrosian and Underwood. "In the end, we were hard pressed to identify any one dish that we could consider exclusively Armenian, since the cuisine of other nations, more often than not, had an equivalent dish or recipe."
In conclusion, as Petrosian and Underwood suggest: "Any dish that evokes the spirit of a particular Armenian community, or makes the connection to that ancestral world of celebrations, festivals, and feasts, any dish that makes them feel that it is Armenian, is Armenian."