From the savory, mouth-watering sensation of freshly grilled khorovats on a warm summer afternoon to the aromatic, spice-filled blend of ghapama on a crisp autumn night, Armenian food is a world unto itself, a hodgepodge of influences wholly unique and not easily explainable to those unfamiliar with its dishes. But with the release of Lavash the Book, the creative team of Kate Leahy, Ara Zada, and John Lee did just that, offering a window into the unexplored world of Armenian cuisine.
The initial idea to comprehensively capture and document the spirit of Armenian cooking while telling the stories behind its recipes was hatched in a learning lab at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan, where photojournalist John Lee was leading a food photography workshop. Things really kicked into full gear with the addition of Armenian-American chef Ara Zada – who led a cooking course at TUMO Studios in the spring of 2017 – and Kate Leahy, who previously worked with John on a Burmese-themed cookbook. Interestingly enough, Kate, despite years spent focused on other fields, initially began her career exploring a similar topic, with her very first piece of academic writing centered around the role of food in shaping Armenian-American identity. “I never quite forgot about the ties between Armenia, its history, and its food traditions, that drove me to spend a year researching a country that was both very far away but felt strangely familiar.”
Lavash, named after the ubiquitous flatbread found on every table, accompanying everything from tender, piping hot cubes of khorovats to bone-warming khash, is a heart-felt love letter to Armenia’s culinary culture. Casting a light on the underexplored world of Armenian cooking (with Ara quick to point out that Armenian food is NOT Armenian-American food), Lavash thoughtfully unravels the links between food, history, and culture, with the densely tangled fusion of ideas and influences typical of the region producing something wholly unique in the process. “I wanted Lavash to raise the bar on Armenian cookbooks, providing a window into the real, and really old, world of Armenian food,” noted Ara when asked about the project’s objective.
Ultimately, Lavash functions as a deeply moving tribute to a people and its food, with a meticulous collection of recipes stretching back millennia paired with an assortment of stories that flesh out the colorful group of characters in the kitchen, providing context to a richly layered culinary culture. Accompanied with John’s vivid visual depiction of the country (from breathtaking snow-capped peaks and rolling green hills to sun-drenched fields and a capital in the throes of revolution), the sheer breadth and variety on display becomes even more captivating. Yet perhaps what the team behind Lavash captures more than anything else is the power of a home-cooked meal, transporting readers back to the first time they ever experienced a bite of zhingyalov hats or took a thirst-quenching sip of kompot, flooding them with warmth.