A Taste of Armenian

I was first introduced to Armenian culture one evening when the man I would eventually marry took me home to meet his parents. I was nervous—sweaty palms, cold fingers and toes—wanting to make a good impression. Matilda, his mother, welcomed me in with a warm smile.

She immediately offered me something to eat.

I found this a bit strange, because the plan was for the four of us to go out to dinner. I looked at my watch. “No, thank you,” I said, noting the approaching time of our reservation. (I later learned that Matilda always had some kind of food ready to offer anyone who entered her home. Always.)

But she was insistent. “Please, have some string cheese,” she said, extending a plate towards me. But the cheese on the plate bore no resemblance to the firm, pale-yellow mozzarella sticks individually sheathed in plastic I knew. The cheese was ivory-white, interrupted with flecks of black. It looked fresh, slightly wet with wavy strands that cascaded across the plate like hair loosened from a braid. I picked up a strand and bit into it. The flecks were bits of peppercorn. The texture was soft and milky smooth. It was by far the best “string cheese” I’d ever tasted. “This is fantastic,” I said.

Matilda beamed. Then she fetched a small bowl from a kitchen cupboard and opened the lid of a pot sitting on the stovetop. Steam rose from the lid as she spooned out something resembling a small, white football, about two and a half inches in length. “Try this,” she said as she added a bit of the cooking broth and handed the bowl to me. “It’s called rice kupa.” (That’s how she pronounced it, although the actual spelling of this traditional Armenian dish is kufte or kofte.)

I cut the steaming oval in half with a spoon to help it cool, revealing a ball of some kind of meat surrounded by a slightly sticky rice coating. I gingerly placed one half in my mouth and was rewarded by the taste of finely ground beef spiced with onions and allspice, balanced by the relatively bland rice surrounding it. A hint of mint from the cooking broth danced on my tongue. The kupa tasted…comforting. I stopped feeling so nervous.

Were it not for our dinner reservations I’m sure Matilda would have continued to ply me with food samples for the rest of that evening. And I would have enjoyed eating every one of them. John said I was the first (and only) girl he brought home his mother actually liked.

Apparently, the best way to capture a future mother-in-law’s heart is by eating her food.

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