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Armenian continues Arianne & Armenia project within the framework of which Arianne Caoili tells about numerous trips across Armenia and shares her impressions and experience of living in Armenia.

How to make good khash


As we have all settled back down to our work troughs, I can bear to confront the topic that has permeated the holidays from their very start and has lingered on even now that they are firmly over. The issue, of course, is the Armenian winter's War and Peace-style length and severity. There is the ridiculous business of constantly taking off and piling on multiple layers to try and win the un-winnable war against the wind and hellish freeze that has enveloped the country since early December, like an undesirable but inevitable dose of chicken pox that has endured beyond its usual expiry date.

Now, imagine that there was a way to escape this polar purgatory. The solution lies in the genius of slaves during the Roman Empire. Roman masters would discard unwanted cows' feet to slaves who often boiled the scraps all night to soften the meaty skeletal remains, thereby making it slightly more appealing to the appetite than a dry (but crunchy) Platonov novel. Trust the Armenians, of course, to liven it up a little by smothering the clot-like stew of fat and bone with stale lavash - creating the tantalising breakfast dish known today as khash.

Due to its somewhat dubious and heart-attack-inducing mixture, the popularity of khash didn't quite capture the palette of the masses until the Soviets began eating it with their own ingenious invention, the apt digestiv for a bowl of khash - vodka. This sublime combination is the one sure bet to warm and satisfy our viscera this very long winter.

Having attended quite a few khash meals (or ceremonies, if the more sophisticated among you insist), I cannot stress enough the importance of doing it right. These days there are far too many shortcuts taken. Just as the preparation of khorovats holds its hallowed place in the Armenian Cook Book, with strict laws such as the requirement of different wood for different meat and marinade preferences (some insist on a simple splattering of salt, pepper and onion, while others add their regional touch of wine or various herbs), khash also deserves its own set of rituals.

Readers may deem the author slightly pompous for engaging in such a topic as ordinary as slave soup, however if George Orwell can write an article on the making of a decent cup of tea (he designed his very own 11 "golden" rules in A Nice Cup of Tea), then khash - a national staple dish - deserves some attention, particularly in these overstaying winter months.

Preparation denotes intelligence. For scrupulous khash-makers the process starts about four days prior to the cooking. Firstly, a precise calculation of the meat to guest ratio is in order. One beef leg per four people is the norm, and best to make it a non-fatty calf: fresh and young, like Australian culture. Always buy the bones, knees, and miscellaneous parts separately. When choosing the innards, the thicker and bigger the better - and ensure to keep them in water, entirely separate from the rest of the preparation process.

Let the legs and the bones sit in cold water for a few days, carefully changing the water every 6 hours. The purpose of this fiddly process is to soften the meat for hair removal. Great care is required to clean out each follicle - each time a hair is removed, new hairs surface as the skin swells from soaking. Grasp only this, and you hold the bones of the matter. Because this is one issue I remain insistent upon: hairlessness. Hairy meat is a turn-off, and I am not alone on this one. Levon's father takes this very seriously. Being the expert laser physicist that he is, he is known to don his eye mask and conduct laser hair removal on given cow or pig.

 Once your chosen device has removed all visible hair, the night prior to the long-awaited day, fill the main cauldron with the bones and meat, and cold water. A low but constant (and necessarily overnight) heat should gradually soften the meat away from the bones. At this point we must note a grandmother's trick that will separate the khash experts from the beginners: refrain from adding fresh water and do not under any circumstance cover the main pot, otherwise the broth turns cloudy rather than a preferred clear and juicy. It's not quite over yet. On the morning of the big day, carefully dispose of the water in which the innards have been soaking and introduce the soft guts to their new home in the khash cauldron.

 The serving method is just as pertinent as preparation: the khash is poured into deep bowls, 2 parts broth, one fourth of a foot and some belly. On the table is plenty of dry lavash, of course, and fresh lavash, radish, and the usual greens. Some extra broth with freshly minced garlic can also be found on the tables of traditionalists. There is one last potent, compliment-inducing accompaniment: vodka (since it is a law in Armenia that friends don't pay each other compliments unless around a table doused in alcohol).

 As it is a rather messy feast, utensils must be fashioned precisely and with purpose: besides the deep soup bowls for each eater, add a cloth plate (to hold the wet cloth used to wipe off the stickiness from grubby hands) and a small meat plate (the professionals separate the meaty bits onto this, season it with some salt and then cover it with fresh lavash, 'to be saved for later' after devouring the main bowl which is stuffed with dry lavash for saturation in the fatty broth).

 Guests usually eat as many bowls as physically possible. In cases where guests are skinny runts or foreigners, the sacred cow fat makes a divine left-over. After the gorging subsides, coffee follows and the males of the group sit back rubbing the outer limits of their outstretched bellies over a game of nardi. The women, now fully exhausted after being alert for over 24 hours, sit and conspire about life in general.

 A dear friend of mine, Vazgen, believes that khash is simply a meal. Unlike me, he resists any attempt to sentimentalise the stew. He does, however, cling to the logic of eating khash only in months that end with the letter 'r' (a rule of thumb to ensure consumption only in the winter months). But with the weather the way it is, we can't rely on the alphabet to determine a prime eating period.

 Unlike Vazgen, many Armenians attach a well-deserved affection to the dish. Some have personalised khash bowls engraved with their names. Then there are the professional eaters who arrive fully prepared in short sleeves (or rolled up long sleeves), gracing the table with their no-nonsense approach. Like silent assassins, they focus on crushing the stale lavash into the bowls until their experienced touch determines that the consistency is 'gluey' enough. The more demure among us sip it like soup, carefully taking in the warmth of the moment.

 Khash heats you from the inside like a hot metal rod warming the middle of barbecued meat. But to achieve the most desirable result, I warn against using the shortcuts afforded by pre-made, frozen packages available in supermarkets. Whether you adhere to any notion of khash sentimentalism or not, one thing is clear: a good khash maker is an important person for his friends in the winter months.

Arianne Caoili

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