In the few years I have spent in Armenia, my memory has aggregated a plethora of inspiring accounts of outstanding Armenian women from across the social stratum. My firm belief is that strong women are the rule rather than the exception in this Caucasian country.
Instead of relaying a collage of accounts here, I will focus on one true story—a story that mirrors those of other women.
Gayane is a retired professional, a mother of two accomplished grownups and the grandma of two grandkids. She generously opened her house and heart to share her story with me over an unforgettably lavish Armenian dinner.
Gayane was born in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, which was a Soviet state from 1922 to 1991. According to her, back then every citizen in Armenia and in the USSR had access to an excellent education: “I had a strong passion for mathematics, so I joined the Polytechnic University in Yerevan. Right after graduation, I landed a job in the IT department at the Ministry of Health” Gayane explaines.
Soon after, Gayane was married and had her two kids but that never hindered her pursuit of a career. “Armenian women are unmatched multitaskers,” she notes. Edward, Gayane’s husband is an engineer who worked for years at a Soviet military facility based in the Armenian capital. He had a prestigious, classified job.
“Life was smooth sailing, until an unpredictable political earthquake rattled our existence” Gayane remembers. The Soviet Union, (Armenia was one of its indispensable pillars) abruptly collapsed, unleashing an unanticipated chaos on all aspects of life.
Her husband lost his job, but she was lucky to keep hers. Her salary decreased though. Their income was much less than the expenses of a family with two little kids.
Complaining was a luxury that they couldn’t afford. “We saw the writing on the wall. Ditching our titles was a must to survive. We embraced the harsh reality and bravely embarked on our good fight” She says. Besides her day job, she started a cake catering service from home, while her husband became an on-demand technician who repaired household electric appliances.
He worked as hard as he could to generate income, but in many cases he just couldn’t charge some of his clients. “They were too poor to ask for any money,” she explained.
Right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yerevan drowned in darkness, as power outages lasted most days and nights. Armenian citizens had access to power for no more than a couple hours daily to accomplish their routine tasks. Playing piano, guitar or violin was our sole mean of entertainment to distract kids from boredom and despair.
Strinkingly, Gayane recalls these days with a fair amount of nostalgia. “In face of the unknown, we Armenians bonded together. We never again experienced such unique proximity and warmth among extended family, friends, and neighbors. The darkness brought out the best in us. We treasure those love-brightened days’” she says with a smile on her face.
In these tumultuous times, many Armenian families chose to escape the brutal reality. They left to wealthier, promising destinations such as the US and Europe. Yet, Gayane and Edward didn’t have that option, as they only speak Armenian and Russian. This is exactly when they realized that their kids should master English at any cost.
They hired a private tutor of English language for their kids. “We worked around the clock, borrowed money and tightened our belts in order to afford it” she recalls. Music was the second skill that Gayane was determined to teach her kids. She dedicated, amid my hectic routine, a couple of hours each day to teach her daughter piano and her son violin. The Armenian couple wanted to equip their children with every tool of success. “Luckily, our kids were appreciative, grateful, hard working, and they always exceeded our expectations” she emotionally says.
The investment in their children’s education and skills started to pay off tremendously. Thanks to their excellent command of English, both Gayane’s son and daughter worked as tour guides during college summer breaks. They used all their summer savings to surprise her with a washing machine, as I had never had one before” She says with tears in her eyes.
Both her children are recipients of U.S. fellowships. In high school, the daughter won the FLEX (Future Leaders’ Exchange) fellowship. She spent one year with an Italian-American immigrant family in the US, and got to visit several landmark cities including New York. There she perfected her American accent, familiarized herself with U.S values, and lived a whole new experience that rounded up her personality.
As for the son, he received a summer fellowship: Work and Travel. Instead of having one job, he had two as a waiter. He came back home with terribly sore feet and a decent amount of money. “Instead of indulging on himself, he chose to remodel our old house,” she notes proudly.
After completing their post graduate degrees, both children landed prestigious and rewarding jobs in the private sector. When I asked whether her children were ever tempted to immigrate, she answered “My children embraced early on the priceless value of family. They thrive where their roots are, and their roots are here in Armenia.” Both Gayane’s son and daughter are currently married with kids and live in Yerevan.
Gayane and Edward are now both retirees. They get to see their children often. If they are not babysitting their grandchildren, they would probably be making Basturma, an Armenian authentic appetizer. Gayane smiles and says, “Homemade Basturma might be our new project and small business. We were always a busy and productive couple, and we are determined to remain the same.”
Basturma is a spiced log of cured beef. Armenians believe that it dates back to medieval ages, when fighters relied on those highly seasoned logs as a protein source. The war survival food evolved into an appetizer delicacy, and one of the highlights of the country’s repertoire.
Basturma is either served thinly sliced on a platter or used as a powerful ingredient to perk up mundane dishes. Wrapped in an uncompromised blanket of fenugreek paste ( known as chemen), Basturma delivers an arsenal of robust aroma and flavor notes capable of shaking up any bland dish (see notes for pairing suggestions). The easiest and most common combo is eggs and basturma. In case you are tempted to try it, you should easily find it in Middle Eastern or Armenian grocery stores across the globe.
Below is Gayane and Edward home-cured and family recipe of Basturma. They were generous enough to offer me a log, which didn’t last long in my fridge.
Gayane and Edgar’s Basturma
Serves 10 – 12
- 5 kg lean beef either topside or eye of round
- 625 g coarse salt (125 gram to every 1 kg of meat)
For Chemen (Fenugreek paste)
- 250 g of garlic, crushed
- 250 g paprika
- 250 Fenugreek
- 1.5 L water
Poke the beef log from all sides with the tip of a knife. Sprinkle enough salt on the entire log and rub it thoroughly into the meat.
Lay the meat in an angle over a deep dish for two to three days in the fridge to discharge its liquid. Discard frequently the dripping liquid.
Rinse the log with running water and lay it over a colander in the fridge for 48 hours to dry out any moisture in the meat. Flip it occasionally.
When the beef log is fully dry wrap it with a tight plastic net to protect the beef log from flies and hang it in a dry and well ventilated place. Make sure the net is not made of fabric, because it will stick to the meat.
When the meat becomes dry and stiff, place a heavy weight like a cast iron skillet or bottles of water over the meat for 48 hrs.
To make the Chemen (the fenugreek paste), mix the spices, garlic and water to form a thick paste.
Remove the weight from the meat and start applying the chemen paste on the log. Leave it to dry for 24 to 48 hours.
- Serve the Basturma thinly sliced along with some lavash bread. Alternatively, mix it with scrambled or sunny side up eggs.
- Avoid exposing the Bastruma during the curing process to extreme or direct heat.
- Experiment with mixing Basturma with bland type of veggies like Brussel sprouts or zucchini and you will be pleasantly surprise.