16 July 2013, 12:40
2144 |

Cloven-hoofed course

Closer to wintertime Yerevan markets are filled with all kinds of small things, which at first sight seem to be just an application to something big, something basic. And if you have ever participated in a khash ceremony at least once, you will never pass indifferently by the “epilated” cow feet or legs sticking out from a bucket; moreover, you will linger over radish, garlic and basilica sold at greengrocers’ – а mandatory supplement for a skillful khash festive.

In the year of nineteen and…something – the exact date is lost somewhere in Petersburg suburbs – I, who had no habit of having breakfast in restaurants, was strangely attracted to a place with a suspicious signboard reading “Akhtamar Restaurant”. Nevertheless, the place happened to be rather presentable from its inside. As a rule, waiters of those years lacked for capitalistic discipline, thus, a nice-looking and quite ingenuous girl decided to suggest me trying a very nourishing and healthy dish called khash. As she might not have identified that I was a fellow-countryman of the restaurant owner, she explained to me - an incompetent person in this area – what khash is. “Very tasty hoof-soup!” – she said, and this announcement could not leave me indifferent.

I must say that it was the first and the last time in my life when I had khash alone, with no company. There may be amateurs who prefer enjoying khash by themselves, but as for me the whole attraction of the process will lose its lion's share if you are not surrounded by respected and skilled khash table companions. Thus we come to the one of the most important truths about khash: it is no way simple eating, it is a feast!  

An unwritten rule says that khash must be eaten during the months with “r” in their names, which means from September till April included; the rest of the year is too hot for it, if are not on Mount Aragats, of course. But this will come later, as for now … For now I asked some competent people to introduce me to somebody who would guide me through all the stages of khash cooking and the feast itself. I was introduced to two reputable specialists of this field, Armen and Petros. It was close to the New Year’s Eve, and Armen, who volunteered to help me, offered to postpone the ceremony till the end of January for our stomachs to come over the holiday “trials”. I started to worry at the beginning of February as there was no sign from Armen. Soon he called me clarifying the starting date of our activity. “If we decide on Saturday, the preparation must be started on Wednesday”, he said.      

And the next Wednesday the three of us headed to the one of the central Yerevan markets. The buying process started with the khash “accessories” – mainly radish and pickles. Greens and vodka can be bought right before the ceremony. The two Virgils of mine were rather captious, and when it was time to choose cheese, the process turned to a gustatory research. Finally, it was decided to buy cheese of two sorts: white salty one and crumbly one with dried greens inside of it. The latter is not intended for all tastes and if you are not familiar with it, the specific odor of the cheese can scare you away.         

However the real performance began at the butchers’ stalls. Petros – a man of a decent histrionic talent – was walking back and forth by the aisles with such an expression on his face as if he had never seen such “outcast khash legs” in his life! He was watching over and over, and finally he seemed to find what he needed. He addressed the seller to ask about the price and after learning it immediately turned to another stall. The seller, who was gesticulating eagerly, called to the legs quality and lowered the price. The abatement of the price was purely symbolic, but it didn’t matter at all; the thing was that the bargain had a delightful outcome for both sides. Soon I held two packages with two pairs of front veal legs which were rather slim and heavy.  


A small Intro 

In order to cook khash you will need ingredients remaining after butchering, i.e. hooves, preferably those of calves, however, cow’s legs can be used as well, and offal. It has been a tradition yet from pagan times that after an animal was sacrificed to the gods and eaten up by the priests, the hooves and offal were given to the poor. Armen introduced this brief historical excursus to us, simultaneously ranging the four legs on the kitchen table and intently looking at them as if trying to find something. 

As a rule, this main khash ingredient has a rather unpresentable look when sold on the market. Butchers do not actually bother themselves to give the legs a salable look, knowing that the front ones will be sold in any case. However, the thing is that khash experts do not often take back legs because of their particularly persistent odor, to say the least. You can get rid of it by washing the legs out under the running water and keeping them likewise for days. But considering today’s water counter, this kind of deodorization will make overhead costs. Not everyone has got a private house like Armen, and not everyone has running water in the yard – so called artesian water that can be used with no limitation. Armen does. And the water in his garden runs all year round due to which we washed up “our” legs via keeping them under the water for twenty-four hours. So, today is Friday and the legs are washed up and singed… Now we have two options. “All depends on what kind of khash you prefer”, Petros explains weighing a hatchet in his hand, “fatty or normal”. If you prefer a normal one, you don’t need a hatchet. You just cut the hoof along its joint and put it into the water to cook.   But as it turned out, we like it fatty – the look in Petros’ eyes accepts no objection. Thus I agree – what else am I supposed to do?  

Merrily, Petros cuts the hooves lengthwise and once more puts them under the running water. They have to stay like this till the evening, until the time to cook them comes.

So our khash started to boil. Armen and Petros poured out the first broth in order to level their own possible flaws during the treatment process of the main ingredients. Now the offal, also washed up and scraped, cooked separately from the legs, and cut into small pieces, can be added to the common pot. Then, after pouring fresh water to the main khash broth, my expert cooks put the khash on the lowest fire for further boiling during the whole night. Its readiness will be defined at the time of the first gleam of dawn using the brilliantly simply method. Their fingers will sink into the broth (not boiling, of course). The more difficult you find to split your fingers the more qualitative khash you will get.    


From Dusk Till Dawn

At night, while khash is cooked, you can do whatever you want, but it is better to have some sleep, as the trial you will have to undergo next morning is not an easy one. At dawn “it” (the khash itself) is placed in the middle of the table in the same pot in which it has been boiled during the night, and is studded all around with plates of cheese, greens, mashed garlic and a big tray with dried lavash. Soft lavash is also served; moreover, there are special gourmets who prefer eating khash with their heads covered with a big list of lavash, like a bedsheet, closely bent over the plate. This particular khash inhalation is performed by those who don’t want to miss even a single granum of khash flavor. The unwritten rule of eating khash is to wrap it in a piece of soft lavash, using it as a scoop. Eating khash with a spoon is for dilettantes and foreigners only.      

The first five minutes are concentrated on tasting the khash, after which to light comes a misted bottle of vodka. In fact no other alcoholic drink can be drunk with khash. You can try to combine khash with tequila or whiskey if you don’t feel sorry for yourself. Yet khash & vodka alliance is almost proven to serve a medical purpose. Khash is difficult to digest even for a healthy organism and in this case vodka is used for absorbency. Like Armen says, if alcohol harms you, so will khash. And vice versa. Besides, vodka is drunk in rather moderately. Even toasts are said in a special khash order – a “Good morning” toast, a toast to the khash-master, to parents, and then to children and each other…      

Of course, you can get drunk, but it will have nothing to do with khash feast and why on earth this gourmet meal should be spoilt? Besides, khash is believed one of the best hangover means.

Next comes the question why khash is eaten at dawn. Very simple. There is no better time for your organism to digest heavy food. And after khash, according to the classical scenario, around noon a siesta begins. You can either go to sleep and do nothing about it, or you can play backgammon for a while and then have your forty winks.        

And what comes after a siesta time? You may think that this is the end, so you call a taxi and set off home (it is not recommended to use public transport proceeding from the love of mankind. Your vigorous odor woven of garlic and alcohol is not for everyone’s endurance). No such luck! Khash is just the prelude to the main course. Armen says that after khash a normal man wakes up close to the evening with an immense sense of hunger and at that time he is given a good chance to choose among barbeques, kebab, khashlama, or whatever he wants. In the morning, when I was told all this, I actually doubted in my own normality, but somewhere about 7 p.m. everything came to order: the three of us tucked away an impressive amount of khashlama which was accompanied with mineral water exclusively. And for the second time in twenty-four hours I felt I was full up like never in my life!

During the siesta – the right time to have a chat – I remembered that very St. Petersburg case with the hoof-soup. Suddenly Petros became interested. “Akhatamar Restaurant?” he asked, “The one on Bukharetskaya Street?” I smiled with a knowing look meaning “I see, you have been there, too”. Then Petros told us that he did not only eat khash there, but also cooked! “It was my brother’s restaurant. And it still exists in St. Petersburg, and khash is still served there, only the address is different”.            


Summer P.S.

Two seagulls were flying over the lake; and two ice floes were swimming in the lake. The most mischievous ice floes clustered at the shore, pushing each other away in order to grab a huge green watermelon. The watermelon must have been very hot; otherwise, what was the reason of cooling it, especially being ankle-deep in snow in order to get to the lake? Meanwhile, the date on the calendar showed July 28, 2011. In Yerevan temperature reaches almost 40°C heat. And, tell me please, who on earth would eat khash at the time when even coffee is preferable with a lot of ice? Nevertheless, every good thing, even an extreme one, will someday find the right person to do it. In this case the only thing you need is to take an hour drive to get to the station of Yerevan Physics Institute located on the slopes of Mount Aragats, next to which, on the bank of a mountain lake, you will find that very special place, where khash is served in summer. You can stay inside of course, but who would refuse a table by the water! What an exotics! You are shivering from frosty wind that is blowing with confidence; a waitress with a tray is maneuvering between the snowdrifts; slightly lower, in a narrow gully, scarlet poppies are raving; and a bit further, southward from the poppies – though you can’t see it from your table – the asphalt is melting.
So you bend over a huge plate of khash, sometimes get distracted from it in order to reach a bottle of vodka that sticks out of the nearest tiny snowdrift, and then put it back to the place where it must belong on Aragats. The time needed to satisfy the first hunger totally depends on the individual characteristics of your body, but as soon as you are able to look around, you can have fun watching foreign tourists who walk nearby, and usually do not eat khash. In summertime these poor things, half-melted in the Yerevan sun, are unloaded on the mountain from buses every fifteen minutes. They walk around until they get frozen and instead of watching all the surrounding beauty, they keep their eyes on khash-eaters. What does an honourable couple, let us say, from well-bred and sedate Switzerland see? Well, they see a number of men, exposed to the coldest wind, rarely accompanied by a representative of the fair sex, sitting at the table and heartily eating something unknown with ambiguous smell. Moreover, the leading compound of the odor here categorically belongs to garlic. They instantly surround their guide with questions what are these Herr-s and, in rare cases, Frau-s eating. The subject of their interest can be identified at once – due to the direction their eyes move and their heads nod. Very few of them nod and gaze at Ararat or the lake, at least at the beginning of their arrival. Apparently, guides are well-informed on this issue and they have standard templates of answers, like those given by the museum guides. We carefully rose from the table when one more tourist group started gathering at the entrance of the khash-restaurant and one more guide started giving them his own gastronomical comments. We stood up and – acting on the basis of political correctness – did our best to avoid breathing in their direction.

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