Meet the Meat of Echmiadzin: A visit to `Kyufta' street
For 45-year-old Lusik Manukyan the busy working week begins on Thursday and lasts till Saturday. On the other days of the week she sells the product she prepares on these days: kyufta.
The knives sharpened in advance are waiting for the order of the lady of the house. The apron hanging at one corner of the kitchen supplements what is missing, when Mrs. Lusik ties it around her waist with special ceremony.
Kyufta is a poached whipped beef with brandy or vodka, onion and spices, it is very soft and juicy. Along with barbeque, kyufta is loved by Armenians who are fond of meat meals. `I have been cooking kyufta for 23 years. I learned this job from my mother-in-law, Laura. The whole of Echmiadzin and Yerevan knew her. Many came to taste the kyufta made by her. Till now, we arrange hospitality parties at our house and well-known artists, political figures come specially to eat Echmiadzin's kyufta. We've had guests from Germany, the United States, Holland, Argentina,' says Lusik with pride.
She lives in the famous street of `Kyuftachiner' (Kyufta cooks) of Echmiadzin. It is situated near the town's market. If you want to get a `really delicious' kyufta in Echmiadzin, then new and old residents of the town will direct you to the renowned street. `In the `kyuftachineri neighborhood' there are no billboards. They don't need advertising.
`There is no one in the street that wouldn't be engaged in this business. And you know they do not hinder each other. Each has his own customers. In one word, we always have work,' Lusik explains.
Her son, Mher, says that it is interesting to live in the district of `kyuftachineri'. Journalists come from different countries of the world, shoot the whole process of kyufta preparation. He points at their neighbor's house and says that actor Khoren Abrahamyan used to buy kyufta from there and showman Ashot Ghazaryan buys from the house next to it. He doesn't forget to mention with pride that years ago one famous Brazilian soap opera actresses came to try their kyufta.
In the 1950s only two families ran this business in the street. And one of the families was Lusik's.
`The market place is near. They bought fresh meat, processed it and started to sell kyufta. At that time kyufta was chopped on a flat basalt stone with the aid of a special stick called `tak'. In the 1980s the whole process got mechanized,' she says.
`Echmiadzin' and `Kyavar' kyufta are well known in Armenia. Lusik says laughing: `It is a very knotty story, we say ours is good, they say theirs.'
Generally, kyufta was brought here by Western Armenians when they emigrated to Eastern Armenia in 1915. The recipe was authored by the Armenians of the Taron province some of whom settled down near Lake Sevan and others in the Ararat Valley (in and around Echmiadzin).
Lusik says that kyufta meat must be fresh. After slaughtering the cattle, butchers first deliver the meat to kyufta cooks. They use a young calf's thigh, forelegs and neck.
She skillfully shows how first the meat is separated from bones, then from sinews. The knife accustomed to Lusik's hands dances on the cutting board. From that dance the meat pieces become so small that they are put in a special machine from where they go out already as a homogenous mass.
Lusik is assisted by 47-year-old Ruzan. She is happy to have a job. After the machine has done its job, the women continue the same process by hand, adding salt and water. `It's cold, but my hands are not freezing, because they are in motion. It is important that you feel the meat play in your hands,' says Ruzan.
Then there comes the most ceremonial part. Lusik puts kyufta balls seasoned with onion and flour into water that is not yet boiling. She says that if you do this with heart, the end product is sure to be tasty. While kyufta is boiling, she finds time to complain about the abundance of kyufta cooks nowadays.
`There are many of them, and they've discredited the name of a kyufta cook. You can find kyufta for as little as 1,300 drams, but we work for quality. We buy meat for 1,500 drams, sell for 1,600 drams a kilo, on the New Year it sells for 1,700 drams. By the way, we sold 570 kilograms during those days. There is a house in the street that sold 2 tons,' she says.
Lusik says that despite people's bad social and economic conditions, they still continue to buy kyufta. Over recent years they even more began to appreciate this dish. During wedding parties and other family occasions kyufta is served to guests, of course after khorovats.
`One kilogram is meant for four people. It is a light meal and is eaten with pleasure. During grand wedding parties 50 kilograms of kyufta are ordered. And today in the morning I had an order for 5 kilograms of kyufta. They said they would take it with them to Canada,' she says. Lusik loves her job and says that it is a quite lucrative business. Besides, she always has ready meat for dolma and cutlets. The family members, thank God, have not yet grown tired of eating meat. The kyufta mistress is glad that she can employ a few people.
`When I have too many orders and can barely attend to all of them alone, I take 7 or 8 workers from my surroundings.
Imagine that people are waiting impatiently for such busy days. Besides money I give them some ready kyufta meat.'
Lusik's daughter, Laura, puts oval-shaped `ishli kyufta' in another pan near the kyufta boiling on the gas stove and no less professionally than her mother explains that `ishli kyufta' is a traditional dish of Musa Ler folks. It is prepared from the remaining fat meat pieces (when fatty parts and sinews are separated).
`Ground cereals are mixed with kyufta, then separately boiled cores consisting of fat meat and a lot of spices are put into them,' the girl says.
Finally kyufta is ready to be served. Lusik takes it out of the pan with great ceremony and cuts into pieces.
`It is important that kyufta should crunch while being cut, and then its `eyes'- small holes on it, should by all means be seen open. If there is all this, then the right thing has been done. Now you'll try it and see for yourself,' says Lusik.
Butter or oil is served on the table along with kyufta, and `ishli kyufta' is eaten with lemon. Around the table Lusik continues to praise the result of her work. ArmeniaNow's reporter, not so keen on eating kyufta, tries some and understands that Lusik's kyufta has a really amazing taste.
Lusik raises a glass of vodka and drinks for her children to continue the traditional and rewarding business handed down to them from their grandfathers.
Copyright 2005, ArmeniaNow. Used with permission.
- Alternate transliterations of words on this page: Ejmiatsin, Echmiadzin, Etchmiadzin, kufte, kufteh