I have been here for over two months and a half now, and have gathered a few thoughts regarding this wonderful and necessary habit called eating. A few days after my arrival in Yerevan, I was sitting in a café with a new friend. She asked me what I was usually eating at home - what kind of Armenian dish my family was preparing, what was my favorite Armenian specialty. I struggled to answer that question as I felt the answer would imply much more than what I like to eat.
As I was later reflecting on this conversation, I started thinking a bit more about how we portray ourselves through what we eat and drink, and how it was connected to Armenian identities.
As a part of my family grew up in Soviet Armenia, the food I am used to is also majorly influenced by Russian flavors. For instance, we never made manti at home, as it is more of a Western Armenian dish. But there was always some pelmeni in the freezer. On the other hand, I know more about French cuisine as a result of several generations being assimilated. French and Armenian cuisines hold different places in my perception. In France, it is not uncommon to speak about food while having dinner. I have witnessed hours-long arguments on the correct ways to cut cheese, or where to find the best oeuf-mayo. I would say that Armenian food implies a much simpler and pragmatic behavior: you eat to live, not the opposite way. And then you have coffee.
There is, when moving somewhere, the necessity to adjust and find ingredients that feel familiar, while also exploring new condiments. The first weeks in Armenia were confusing for me especially when doing grocery shopping. Getting acquainted with products here has been one of the most exciting and difficult aspects of actually settling down. What brand should I buy? How do I explain in my broken Armenian what I want? Where can I find this particular ingredient?
Food is very much seasonal here, which is definitely a component of life that has been forgotten about in most Western industrialized countries. We find it perfectly normal to buy tomatoes in the middle of December, while here I know I cannot buy apricots anymore because the season is over. In that sense, I feel closer to my immediate environment and its natural rhythm which is comforting in a sense. You can find fresh delicious vegetables and fruits at every corner, on every roadside.
Finding continuity and missing things
Eating out is an important component of the culture I was raised in. Born and raised in Paris, the café and restaurant culture is more like a cult than a simple necessity of life. Like most Parisians, I do spend a good amount of time in cafés, alone or with friends, chatting, reading, or simply daydreaming. Coming to Yerevan, there is a sense of familiarity as I am walking on Saryan Street and its outdoor spaces - or terraces as I would call them - watching people doing exactly the same. Finding your go-to café, having a favorite restaurant, does help with restoring a sense of continuity.
While the food culture is expanding itself day after day in Yerevan, dinners are one of the vectors of social life with other Birthrighters. As we all come from different backgrounds, we also come with our food habits and expectations. We sometimes complain about ingredients or specific dishes we cannot find: good peanut butter is a commonly mentioned item in conversations I’ve witnessed. I personally find myself dreaming of ramen and French cheese more often than I would admit. Part of moving somewhere is also leaving behind some aspects of your lifestyle.
In the end, there is shared pleasure in discovering new restaurants or cocktails bars, and surprising ourselves with new places each time. Splitting the check is always a mess of course. But a good meal always brings people closer.