For Armenians, bread is a fundamental part of every meal. It’s so essential to the Armenian diet that even saying “let’s eat” in Armenian (hats untenk) translates to, “let’s eat bread.” But there’s not simply one form of bread in Armenia; in fact, it comes in all different shapes, sizes, textures, and flavors, from bubbly strips of lavash to crisped-up flatbread, folded into squat hats and stuffed with greens.
That’s certainly evident in “Lavash,” a new cookbook from Kate Leahy, John Lee, and Ara Zada. The three friends have traveled extensively throughout Armenia, delving into the cultural intricacies of lavash, the country’s beloved bread, as well as a slew of other yeasted and non-yeasted items.
Lavash has long been the most well-known bread of the bunch: a forgiving dough (formed out of water, oil, salt, and flour) gently stretched into lengthy ribbons and griddled in a tandoor oven until marbled with big, round, brown spots. The warm lavash is wrapped around kebabs or jammed with a blend of herbs and cheese, and is often used to mop up any remnants of dinner. Whatever’s not immediately used turns dry and brittle, but that’s no matter: It can be stored for a long time, and is merely rehydrated with a splash of water.
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But there are other Armenian breads worth exploring, too. Matnakash is one, translated as “drawn by fingers,” which makes sense: The long, ovular bread is puffed up, golden brown, and distinctly marked by lines on top, as if four fingers had gracefully been dragged across the surface. Thicker yet more airy than focaccia, matnakash is brought whole to the table, then sliced into strips—eaten plain or ideally prepped for dipping.
So in the interest of fueling your inevitable love of bread, take a trip to Armenia with a story and recipe for matnakash—soon, you too will be chanting, “let’s eat bread.”
Lavash Cookbook, $18.25 on Amazon
Reprinted from “Lavash” by Ara Zada and Kate Leahy with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019
The Lavash Bakers
Are we in the right place? We pull over in front of what’s supposed to be Anna Tatosyan’s bakery in the village of Argel. There’s no sign, and all we see is an open garage door. But then we get out of the car and smell the wood smoke. Wearing a long dress covered with an apron and a pair of slippers, Anna pops out of the bakery to greet us, her round, rosy cheeks shining as she guides us inside, where a deep hole in the floor is filled with crackling logs. Made of clay, this is the bakery’s tonir, a type of subterranean oven that Armenians have used for centuries for baking bread and heating homes. When the logs burn down to embers, four women with their hair tied back in bandanas get to work around the tonir, wielding balls of dough like professional baseball players warming up before a game. These are Anna’s lavash bakers.
Lusine Abrahamyan lobs a piece of dough to Aida Beyboutyan, who flattens it into a smooth sheet with a rolling pin before passing it to Liana Grigoryan. With a sturdy brown apron covering her sweatpants, Liana is the team’s no-nonsense slugger. She frowns, spins the dough in the air, stretching it paper-thin before draping it over what looks like an uncomfortably firm pillow. It actually isn’t a pillow at all but a straw-filled pad called a batat, which gives traditional lavash its long, oval shape. With one decisive swoop, Liana strikes the batat against the wall of the tonir. The dough sticks on contact and begins to puff and blister. After a minute, Hasmik Khachatryan fishes out the lavash with a hook, turns it over to quickly sear the other side, and then stacks it beside her. Flecked with blisters, this is classic tonir lavash, and it’s stunning to behold.
It’s only after the bakers take a coffee break that Liana’s frown relaxes and we start to look around the bakery, taking in the stone walls blackened with ash and lined with bags of flour, the cherry-red, Soviet-era scale, and the abacus used by store manager Nara Ivanyan to make change for purchases. Then we begin asking questions: How much salt is in the dough? Do you add yeast? How long does the dough rest before you bake it?
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Before we can query any more, Liana retreats to the kitchen, returning with a pot of just-boiled potatoes, pickled beets, and pickled green peppers. She tears off a piece of lavash, wraps it around a potato, sprinkles salt on top, and hands it to us.
We look at each other—potatoes wrapped in bread with nothing else? Our California minds scan the room for hot sauce. Yet the yellow, waxy potatoes taste as if they were basted in butter and the lavash is still warm, with a crisp-soft crust. These potato wraps are improbable home runs, confirming that traveling across countless time zones to eat lavash in Armenia has been well worth it.
Women (and it’s nearly always women) bake lavash all over Armenia much like the bakers we met in Argel, a village about twenty minutes away from Yerevan, the country’s capital. By making this traditional flatbread, which is eaten daily at almost every meal in the country, they’re also preserving history. Lavash is so important to Armenia that UNESCO added it to its intangible cultural heritage list in 2014.
The journey that brought the three of us—John Lee, Ara Zada, and me, Kate Leahy—to Anna’s bakery, and into homes, markets, and restaurants across Armenia, started in 2015. That summer, John, a photographer from San Francisco, taught a food photography course in Yerevan at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, an organization providing free after-school workshops for Armenian students on subjects ranging from art and animation to robotics. It was on that trip that he discovered lavash—earth-shattering lavash, he called it. Back home, he told everyone about it.
I was one of those people. While working together on a different project, John filled me in on his trip, flipping through images he took with the students. Years earlier, I had studied the link between food and Armenian-American identity for a college thesis, mining for stories in self-published cookbooks, Armenian church bazaars, and the California State Archives. But after John finished his informal slideshow, I realized that I didn’t recognize any of the dishes from those beloved Armenian-American church bazaars or community cookbooks. Instead, I saw mulberries collected on a bedsheet in an orchard, trout strung up to dry on the shores of Lake Sevan, and outdoor tables covered with plates of roasted vegetables bathed in dappled sunlight. It felt new and familiar all at once, a foundational way of eating that cultures around the world have adapted and made their own. I also knew that I had never eaten the kind of lavash that John was talking about.
Through TUMO’s global network, we met Ara Zada, a chef in Southern California. In 2016, he taught a culinary workshop for TUMO, working new techniques into Armenian dishes. Ara grew up in an Armenian-Egyptian household in Los Angeles, attending Armenian school through seventh grade. But the food he encountered in Yerevan was different—Armenian, sure, but not what he had at home. As a kid, he ate more pita bread than lavash, and he had never heard of Panrkhash, a layered lavash bake that has more in common with mac and cheese than anything from Alice Bezjian’s The Complete Armenian Cookbook—the book that his mom (and every other Armenian mom in Southern California) used. He wanted to learn more about the food of Hayastan, what Armenians call their country.
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The three of us cobbled together a culinary recon mission that involved traveling to Armenia and documenting how to make this bread—and other forms of hats (Armenian for “bread”)—as well as what to eat with it. We met a mix of experts: chefs from establishments such as Tufenkian Old Dilijan Complex in Dilijan and Old Armenia in Gyumri, as well as home cooks throughout Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh. And every time we found a bakery, we walked in, introduced ourselves, and chatted with the bakers. A skeptical reader might wonder why anyone was willing to share trade secrets with three outsiders like us, but while traveling in Armenia and corresponding from California, we encountered extreme generosity and patience, meeting people who wanted to share their recipes merely because we asked.
The stories in this book are not only about food but also about Armenia, a tiny republic in the South Caucasus that today sits at a crossroads between its Soviet past and an uncertain (but promising) future. Rather than a definitive guide, this book is a collection of dispatches from the road, of the flavors and foods that stayed with us after traveling in this immensely hospitable country. These stories are tributes to a nation of makers, of adaptable people who have lived through times where the only way to guarantee a stable source of food was to produce it yourself.
In this context, lavash fits perfectly with that adaptability. Need a soup spoon? Shape a piece of lavash into a scoop to help slurp up broth. Need to keep your soup hot? Cover it with a piece of lavash. Need a takeout container for your khorovats (grilled meats and vegetables)? Bundle the grilled goods in one big sheet of lavash. Need a break from lavash? Dry it out and store it for later, then spritz it with water to bring it back to life. But in all honesty, we have yet to find a need to take a break from lavash.
“If people can fly to space, making matnakash is not so difficult.” That was the answer we got when we asked Ghegham Grigor yan, a baker in Gyumri, if it was hard to replicate the shape of this Armenian bread. Did we mention that the Gyumretsi (people of Gyumri) are famous for their wisecracking ways?
In a small bakery on Gorki Street marked with a sign out front that said Dak Hats (“hot bread”), we watched Ghegham and co-worker Hasmik Bughdaryan make matnakash. Slightly thicker and lighter than focaccia, with lines running across the surface, matnakash translates to “drawn by fingers,” and it’s often served alongside lavash as a thicker, breadier option.
To create the signature shape, use your hands to press a grid into the center of the dough and then stretch the bread into an oval before loading it in the oven. In between the shaping steps, the bakers let the dough rest in a thick layer of wheat bran for several minutes, which keeps the base from sticking to the counter. “Take me to America and I’ll teach you everything you need to know about matnakash,” Ghegham said as we left the shop.
- 1 cup lukewarm water
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- To make the old dough, using your hands or a rubber spatula, squish together the flour, water, and yeast in a bowl until it forms a soft ball. Scrape the paste into a small, lightly oiled container, cover, and let it sit out for about 2 hours, or refrigerate overnight and bring to room temperature for at least 2 hours before using. When ready, the ball will have doubled in volume.
- To make the dough, in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the old dough and water. Squish the old dough with your hands to break it up in the water.
- Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and add the yeast and a third of the flour. Mix on low speed until the dough looks like pancake batter. Add the remaining flour and mix on low speed until fully incorporated. Remove the paddle attachment, pulling off any dough stuck to it. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, and let it sit for 20 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate.
- (To make by hand, combine the old dough and water in a large bowl and mix together, squishing the old dough into the water with your hands. Stir in the yeast and flour with your fingers until a crumbly dough forms and then knead it a few times in the bowl by folding the dough over itself and pressing it down into the bowl. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let the dough rest for 20 minutes.)
- Remove the towel and attach the dough hook to the mixer. Sprinkle the salt on top. Mix the dough on medium speed until it releases from the sides of the bowl without sticking, about 4 minutes. (It may seem sticky at first, but the salt will help the dough firm up.) It’s okay if it sticks to the base of the bowl as long as it lifts cleanly off the sides.
- (To knead by hand, dust the counter lightly with flour and place the dough on top. Sprinkle the top of the dough with the salt and knead, stretching and folding the dough over itself until it is smooth to the touch, 5 to 7 minutes.)
- Lightly oil an 8 cup glass Pyrex or large glass bowl and place the dough inside. Cover the bowl with a lid, plate, or plastic wrap and let it rest for 3 hours, or until doubled in volume.
- To portion the matnakash, dust the counter lightly with flour and place the dough on top. Gently pat it into an oval. With a bench scraper or knife, cut the dough into two even pieces, about 1 lb each. Using the sides of your palm, tuck the edges of the dough under to shape each portion into a round.
- Dust a half-sheet pan with flour and place each round on top. Cover with a kitchen towel and let it rest for 1 hour, or until the dough is slightly puffy and springs back lightly when pressed.
- To shape and bake, place a baking stone or baking steel in the bottom rack of the oven and remove the middle rack. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Alternatively, use an overturned half-sheet pan in place of a baking stone.
- Dust the counter with flour and place the dough portions on top. Coat the same sheet pan that held the proofing dough with the wheat bran. In a bowl, mix together the ½ cup all-purpose flour and the water.
- Dip your hands into the water-flour mixture to coat thoroughly. For each portion of dough, you will make a ring on top with a tic-tac-toe pattern in the center of the ring. Start by cupping your hands and hold them perpendicular above the edges of the dough, as if you were gauging the size. Move your hands about 1 inch in from the edges and press down firmly with the sides of your palms. This creates a ring inside the dough. Next, make the tic-tac-toe pattern. Wet your hands again and, using the sides of one palm, make three lines within the circle. Wet your hand again and make three more lines in a grid pattern. Lift the dough onto the wheat bran– covered sheet pan and repeat with the second portion. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel for 25 to 30 minutes to allow the dough to rest.
- Use some of the wheat bran to dust a pizza peel or an overturned sheet pan. Pick up one of the portions of dough with both hands, supporting the bottom, and gently stretch the dough into an oval so it’s about 13 inches long. Place the dough on top of the prepared pizza peel. If this step sounds tricky, put the dough on the dusted pizza peel and stretch it into an oval without picking it up. Open the oven and, with a quick jerk, transfer the dough onto the pizza stone.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the bread is a deep golden brown. Repeat with the remaining portion. Let cool completely. Dust off excess wheat bran from the bottom if necessary.
- Slice the matnakash to serve at the table. Alternatively, the bread keeps in a zip-top plastic bag on the counter for 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.
Header image courtesy of John Lee