The following article was written by an Iranian citizen journalist on the ground inside the country, who writes under a pseudonym to protect her identity.
Every holiday has its own traditional food, in Iran or anywhere else in the world. Iranian Christians, including Armenians, celebrate Christmas and the Christian new year with special dishes, pastries and drinks.
Many Iranians are under the impression that Iranian Armenians, like many other Christians in the world — and especially Americans — celebrate the new year, Christmas and Easter by feasting on turkey. In fact, turkey is as popular among Armenians as it is among other Iranians in general.
So what is an Armenian Christmas dinner like? The Iranian calendar year starts with the spring equinox, on March 20 or 21, and Iranians celebrate with a dish of herb rice and fish. As it happens, this dish is also a staple of the Armenian Christmas dinner in Iran.
But the Armenian Christmas table has other dishes as well. A key part of the meal is vegetable kuku, an Iranian dish consisting of eggs, vegetables, herbs and sometimes nuts and dried berries. If you ask an Armenian where this tradition comes from the answer is more often than not “I don’t know”.
“On their Christmas eve, Iranian Armenians often dine on rice, fish and vegetable kuku,” writes the Iranian Armenian writer and documentary filmmaker Robert Safarian. “Since childhood we thought that this was a Christmas tradition until the borders to Armenia opened and we learned that there is no dish in Armenia called vegetable kuku. It is an Iranian dish that has become an Armenian tradition.”
Armenian Christmas pastries follow a tradition too. The two most well known and popular ones are perok (or pirok) marmalade cake and gata pastry. In the past, these two dishes were only popular among Armenians but now they are among the highest-selling pastries in Tehran confectionaries.
Coins of Fortune
Gata varies in its ingredients, size and in how it is decorated, depending on the region or the cook’s preferences. It consists of layers of dough with alternating layers of butter or margarine. Ingredients include flour, sugar, butter, eggs, yeast, milk and salt. Sometimes rosewater or spices such as cardamom are added, though they are not part of the standard recipe. After about an hour in the oven, the layers rise and the final gata takes shape.
One of the most popular variations of gata is made with nuts, especially walnuts. Sometimes a coin is hidden at the center of the gata and the belief is that fortune will smile on whoever finds the coin in her or his gata.
Gata is generally known as a sweet pastry but a salty version is popular too; many Armenian households prepare them for Christmas or the new year.
Perok, the other favorite holiday pastry, is made from a dough very similar to that used to make pie. Its center consists of marmalade; variations in perok are defined by the type of marmalade used.
The ingredients for perok are: pastry flour, sugar, eggs, baking powder, vanilla, grated orange peel, grated walnut, and marmalade. First you mix the butter and sugar, then add eggs one by one as you continue to mix. Then mix flour, baking powder, vanilla, grated orange peel and walnuts together in a separate bowl. For the third step, pour the contents of the bowl into a mixer. After a short while, turn the mixer off and continue to combine the ingredients by hand. Put about one-fourth of the dough aside and place the rest in a Pyrex dish and cover it with marmalade.
Cut the dough you have put aside into narrow ribbons and place them on the marmalade surface, making an “X” pattern. Put into an oven pre-heated to about 175 degrees centigrade and bake for about 40 minutes, or when the perok is golden.
Like many Christians in the world, cookies and chocolates shaped like Christmas trees, Santa Claus or other symbols of the holiday are popular with Armenians. Families put them under Christmas trees and give them to children as treats and gifts.
You must add coffee and wine to this feast — they have a religious significance for all Christians. Under the Islamic Republic of Iran, trade in alcoholic beverages is forbidden, so the Armenian community makes its own wine and other alcoholic drinks. The law allows religious minorities to make wine for religious purposes.
One last point. The Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6, so after the new year. As to why, well, that is another story, as they say.
By Melody Khachaturian, Citizen Journalist, Isfahan
This article was originally published in December 2014