Whitefish Cakes, Onion and Tomato Salad

This recipe closes my trilogy of “Lake Sevan’s Gifts” (see here and here for the first two parts). Common whitefish, locally called sig, was introduced into Lake Sevan from Lake Ladoga, and has since become the prominent species as far as food goes. Goldfish were also introduced, which is a rather curious choice. Fish are typically introduced for human consumption and / or recreational purposes, and goldfish don’t seem to fit either of those criteria!

Although I don’t remember seeing fishcakes in Armenia (kebabs often being our only option during the whole trip), Armenian cookbooks do mention somewhat similar dishes, such as fish balls. If that’s more to your liking, you can certainly prepare the whitefish mixture as below and shape it into balls; coat the balls with either Wondra flour or breadcrumbs, and deep-fry them until golden-brown.

The tomato and onion salad provides a simple accompaniment, the kind that’s often served everywhere in the Caucasus. I encourage you to get the best heirloom tomatoes you can find.

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Crawfish Lyulya Kebabs

Here’s the second dish in my trilogy of Lake Sevan’s Gifts (the Trout Kutap was my first)! Lyulya kebabs are originally an Azerbaijani dish consisting of a mixture of ground lamb cooked on a skewer. They’re so popular that they spread far beyond the borders of Azerbaijan, and variations are being offered, with other main ingredients such as potato or crawfish.

I actually had crawfish lyulya kebabs at a restaurant on Lake Sevan, but the mixture used way too much egg and barely tasted of crawfish. By contrast, my version is almost 100% critters, and their flavor is highlighted by the shallots and piment d’espelette. Make sure you buy crawfish tails that don’t come from China, as they hardly have any taste — not to mention that I don’t see the point of getting from the other end of the world something that lives in almost any river near you! You don’t have to spend your weekend turning rocks in a nearby stream, either — you’ll find plenty of online stores shipping the goods straight from Louisiana. Or if you live in New York, you can go to The Lobster Place.

This recipe calls for transglutaminase to bind the mixture, but it’s not absolutely necessary. If you substitute an equal amount of flour, the worst that can happen is that your kebabs will break more easily during cooking. Speaking of cooking: a real lyulya kebab should be grilled on a mangal. As it’s been raining every other day since April around here, I took the liberty of using a cast-iron grill instead.

I serve these kebabs with sour cream and plain lavash (top picture) or zhingalov khats (bottom).

Crawfish kebabs
Yields 4 servings

3/4 oz shallot, small dice
1 oz butter
1/2 oz bread, crust removed, small dice
8 oz crawfish tails
1 tsp transglutaminase
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp piment d’espelette
2 tsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

  • Sauté the shallots in half of the butter until soft, and reserve. Sauté the bread in the other half of the butter until golden brown, and reserve, as well.
  • Coarsely chop the crawfish. Process half of the chopped crawfish with the transglutaminase and olive oil in a blender until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, and stir in the rest of the chopped crawfish. Add the shallots and bread, and season with salt, pepper, piment d’espelette and parsley. Shape the mixture into 4 sausages, about 5 1/2″ x 1 1/4″ x 3/4″ (approximately, this is not a math test!). Roll in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
  • Heat a cast-iron grill over medium-high heat. Brush with a little bit of olive oil, and cook the unwrapped kebabs on both sides until you get a nice cross-hatch pattern. All of the ingredients are already cooked, so you just need to get them hot. Serve immediately.

Kutap, Armenian Stuffed Trout

This recipe is the first of my own interpretations of the mythical “Lake Sevan Gifts” that I talked about in my last Armenian Adventures post. It was the perfect thing to do with the trout I just caught on Cayuga Lake!

Kutap is an ancient Armenian dish consisting of a whole, boned trout, stuffed with a mixture of rice and raisins. Now, as with most if not all Armenian recipes, there is controversy about whether it really is Armenian. In Azerbaijan, this could easily pass as a fish dolma… In fact, an Azeri was recently asking me: “If dolma’s an Armenian dish, how do you explain that the word for it isn’t Armenian?” (In fact it comes from the Turkish verb dolmak, “to be stuffed.”)

My version uses pounded fillets instead of the whole fish, making it more akin to a paupiette. The stuffing is very close to the one described in Pokhlebkin’s Cookbook of the Soviet Peoples, except I prepare the rice like a risotto. I served the kutap with a zucchini and basil purée.

Yields 4 servings

1 1/2 oz Arborio rice
1 1/2 oz golden raisins
3/4 oz butter
1/4 tsp grated fresh ginger
Urfa pepper, ground
1 1/2 oz white wine
4 oz chicken stock, warm
2 cleaned (skinned and boned) trout fillets, about 9 oz each (or 4 fillets half that size)
1 1/2 tbsp finely chopped parsley

  • In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook the rice and raisins in the butter for 1 minute. Add the ginger, salt, pepper and white wine, and boil gently until almost dry. Add half of the chicken stock and simmer until fully absorbed, then repeat with the rest of the stock. Remove from heat and let cool.
  • Take off 3 oz of flesh from the fillets and reserve. You can either use the tail ends if the fillets are small, or cut off the thickest part if they’re larger.
  • Place the fillets between sheets of plastic wrap and lightly flatten using a meat pounder. You want to obtain four 4″ x 6″ rectangles, 1/4″ thick — approximately, this is not a math class.
  • Chop the reserved flesh into small dice, and add along with the parsley into the rice mixture, then divide between the four rectangles and roll into cylinders. Tightly wrap the cylinders in plastic film, making sure that the stuffing is tucked in (this happens almost naturally).
  • Steam the fish for 5 minutes, let rest for 1 minute, then remove the plastic wrap. Cut each portion on a bias and serve.

Armenian Adventures, Part 4

Every Armenian, from the taxi driver in Moscow to the shopkeeper in Yerevan, waxes lyrical about Lake Sevan if you give them a chance. “What a place! The beaches! The fish!” They would no doubt prefer being there instead of being stuck in their daily routine. Reading the Lonely Planet guide, I, too, was getting excited: “hectic 10 weeks in summer”, “bustling little town of Sevan”, “Armenian Riviera in the brief hot summers, with bars, beach volleyball, water-skiing and paddleboats”! Sure, I wasn’t expecting a post-Soviet Ibiza, but I had reasons to believe we could enjoy ourselves for a day or two.

The “bustling little town”… “sleepy” came more to mind when we went there at the height of summer. It’s kind of odd to build the main town several miles away from the lake. I understand that the water level fell significantly following artificial draining during the Stalin era, but over 50 years later this remains a rather unique situation compared to other lakes I can think of. It certainly doesn’t encourage tourists to come downtown. Here are pictures of a couple of street vendors:

… and Sevan’s market:

Calling Sevan an Armenian Riviera is a downright joke. Yes, the landscapes around the lake are very nice, except for shores that look like a vast amusement park sponsored by Coca-Cola. But where is the beach?

Here is the largest beach we could find in the two hours we spent paddling along the “Riviera”. Apparently, the government’s recent policy to raise the lake level again has resulted in the beaches going under water!

Now about those hot summers … It was gray, rainy and rather cold on the morning and early afternoon of our arrival. Things got slightly better later on before relapsing the next day, which is why you don’t see that many people in bathing suits in my pictures. In fact, you don’t see that many people at all! The two hotels I checked were empty, and there really aren’t that many hotels around in the first place. Of course there are some other options, like those metal boxes that must have served as temporary dwellings after the earthquake years ago and are now rented by people waving at you from the shoulder of the highway. But most people seem to come only for the day. They start the grill, play cards, eat their khorovats (kebabs), take a swim if they’re brave, turn on the radio to dance to some Armenian pop, and then pack and go home. By 8 pm, we were all alone. By 10 pm, we were closing the hotel bar.

Taking a closer look at the khorovats, I must say they look better than many of the kebabs we were served!

As for the legendary fish from Sevan… The most widespread species is Coregonus Lavaretus, a whitefish locally called sig. However, it isn’t native to Sevan. It was introduced in the 1920’s from Lake Ladoga, with the assumption that it wouldn’t compete with the endemic trout. Of course things didn’t go as planned, and the trout are now nearly extinct. Paradoxically, that same trout species was introduced in the 1970’s into Lake Issyk-Kul (in Kazakhstan), where it survives quite well, ravaging the indigenous species. Today, your options in cafés and restaurants consist of farmed trout, whitefish, or crawfish — another introduced species. The endemic trout was listed on at least one menu for a ridiculous price nearing $100 a head, but I didn’t bother asking if it was actually available.

And indeed, availability isn’t always a given. I remember going to one supposedly excellent restaurant and asking about a dish mysteriously named “Lake Sevan’s Gifts”; after 10 minutes of confused, incomprehensible explanations and a few round-trips to the kitchen, the waiter took the order, only to come back later to tell us the dish wasn’t available! To this day, I don’t know what Lake Sevan’s Gifts consisted of, but I have my own made-up interpretation in the works. I managed to capture a whitefish on skewers below.

Although as I mentioned above, much more than any kind of fish, the specialty on the lake is… meat kebabs.

Speaking of meat kebabs, here are a couple of butcher shops in the area. Now, I understand that in many places in the world, meat is still kept without refrigeration — which then forces people to systematically overcook it, by the way. But can someone explain to me the point of hanging it in the sun above a barbecue???

Next time, onward to controversial Karabakh!