An invention out of the pantry: Armenian khapama

“Khapama reminds me of how people suffered hardships, poverty and famine for centuries, but they didn't give up the struggle.”

Although it depends on soil and climate, harvest of pumpkins usually begins in the beginning of October. And pumpkins are the main theme of numerous harvest festivals around the world, of Fall season is general as well as Halloween, which is a festival celebrated with great fanfare in the Western world.

In Turkey, pumpkins are mostly used for a dessert dish and for jams. They come in different colors and shapes and create a visual feast both in the fields and after they are harvested.

When you live in big cities, waiting for seasonal vegetables and fruits and longing to see them in the markets loses its meaning. Not only is the meaning lost, but also smells, tastes and even the true colors are lost as well. Nevertheless, there are still people who make preparations at home for winter by storing tomato paste, canned vegetable, jam, tarhana, noodles, pickles, sausage/bacon, churchkhela, dried fruit and many other foods. I am one of them, as far as life and time allow.

Since ancient times, many products can be enjoyed outside the growing season thanks to domestic food preservation methods. Nowadays, traditional methods of food preservation have given way to industrial technologies, but in many cities, especially in Anatolia, women still use traditional methods of food preservation to prepare for winter, need and hardship.

Even in the cities people still make jams and jellies, syrups and compotes. Seasonal vegetables and fruits are stored in the freezer for the winter. Some of us do this because we believe it is healthier and tastier. Another point that comes to mind is maintaining traditions and remembering the elders.

Armenians are among the peoples who have been "stocking up" since time immemorial. Besides roasted meat, sujuk and pastirma, which are common delicacies in these lands, Armenians capture the attention of historians with their centuries-long grain and oil storage techniques that they developed to keep them from spoiling.

In Armenian culture, khapma/ğapama (Ղափամա) is an extravagant feast, banquet, and at times wedding dish made of pumpkin rubbed with honey and butter and then stuffed with rice, apricots, black plums, dried apples, and raisins. Although it is an Armenian dish, Ğapama's name is undoubtedly derived from the Turkish verb "kapatmak" which is "to close". In this sense, therefore, this delicious pumpkin is rather Anatolian.

Although it symbolizes abundance and fertility, all of its ingredients are actually types of food that are stored and preserved for "scarcity" or "misfortune". When I learned a few years ago that this convivial meal, about which songs were written, was actually an invention out of the pantry as a savior in bad times, I began to see the ğapama at the table differently.

Anthony Bourdain, the celebrated American chef, author and traveler, had visited Armenia in 2018 for his highly talked about CNN show Parts Unknown, shortly before his suicide.

In a program full of history, politics and food, he did not shy away from getting involved in politics and visited many cities in Armenia as well as the autonomous Republic of Karabakh.

"I will refer to the horrific events of 1915 as the Armenian Genocide, not a catastrophe as the average American or our political discourse does," he said before arriving, and he did. At that point, the official U.S. position on the genocide had not changed, and the law had not yet been passed by the House.

Bourdain had traveled extensively in Armenia, which he called "a Christian country stuck in the middle, surrounded by three non-Christian neighbors". He thought he would need a friend who could tell him about the unknowns of Armenia and Serge Tankian, the lead singer of the famous rock band System of a Down, was his companion on this journey.

Tankian told Bourdain how it was like being born in Beirut, growing up in Los Angeles and becoming passionate about Armenia, about the land and the people, and took him to see many cities.

In Yerevan, Bourdain ate a delicious trout wrapped in lavash, garnished with onions and greens. He also enjoyed the mezes and soups served with the trout in the house/restaurant "Gayane's Place". At the "Dolmama" restaurant, he tried buckwheat pilaf, veggie ravioli and roasted lamb shank, which he described as "this is what my soul needed."

Bourdain also had his fill of meat and offal in Armenia. Sampling tripe, trotters, head, liver, heart and whatnot, the chef especially enjoyed the khorvats (barbecued pork chops).

And most importantly, at the home of a family friend of Tankian, he had eaten ğapama from the grandmother's hand, listened to its story, and was moved by it. Shortly before his tragic death, Bourdain introduced ğapama to culinary enthusiasts around the world.

In the last few years, every time I prepare ğapama, I think back not only to the old days when pumpkin was considered a measure of scarcity, but also to Bourdain.

I also remember that when Bourdain returned to Yerevan from Karabakh, he learned that he had been declared persona non grata by Azerbaijan and cracked a smile.

That was the truest thing he could do in considering the brevity of life: smile.

Gapama reminds me of how people suffered hardships, poverty and famine for centuries, but they didn't give up the struggle, they continued to live life to the fullest, that no matter what happens, life is worth living and you can't give up.

How to make Ğapama?

Carve a medium round pumpkin, after making sure it will fit both width and length in your oven, into a small pot by cutting off a neat lid, and scrape the inside well clean. Dry the seeds of the pumpkin, in case you want to "crack" them.

Soak a dozen plums, another dozen apricots and half a cup of raisins in warm water for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, dry, and slice the dried fruit into squares the size of the raisins or larger. Rinse 2 to 3 cups of rice, drain, bring to a boil in enough water to cover the rice, and drain again. Put half a tablespoon of butter in a frying pan, stir-fry the dried fruit in the butter, add the rice and continue to fry.

In the Goris region, they also add onions to this pilaf. If you like onions, feel free to add them. I, on the other hand, may add a touch of "Armenian Istanbul" in the form of pine nuts, which are not included in the original recipe. There are also regions that use walnuts, the choice is up to you.

Rub about 2 tablespoons of room-warm butter into the inside of the pumpkin with your hands. Coat the inside of the pumpkin in the same way with 2 tablespoons of honey. Fill the pumpkin with the rice mixture, add 1 cup of water, a little extra honey, some cinnamon and a pinch of salt, and put it in the oven preheated to 180 degrees. It is not necessary to add much water, the rice will cook with the juices released by the pumpkin. 45-60 minutes should be enough, check with a knife if the pumpkin is cooked. Once it comes out of the oven, you can cut it into slices and serve it with some rice and stuffing, in addition to pumpkin.

Bon appetit!

*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the Arti Media.

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