Anush Uhllah!: Christmas in Morningside Heights

Growing up in Yorkville in the late 1970’s, nothing thrilled me more than visiting my dear old Tante Angele in Morningside Heights. Manhattan had not been completely gentrified yet, so Yorkville still retained its mostly Hungarian and German flavor, and Morningside Heights might as well have been Tokyo, it seemed so far away: another world entirely. “Get dressed!” my mother would announce with enthusiasm, usually on a late Sunday morning, “or we’ll be late for lunch.” Lunch really meant early evening dinner. In fact we never left the house before two or three p.m.: my mother and I would hold hands as we walked west along 80th Street from Third Avenue to Madison and then wait in front of Gentile’s Market to catch the M4 for what seemed like the interminable bus ride up to 115th and Broadway. At the time, the three-mile trip seemed to drag on for hours. Tante Angele, a stylish woman in her sixties who was really my Godmother and not my aunt, would always greet me at the door with an enormous hug, wearing perfectly-cut dresses in light colors (beige, white, light pink) that she either bought second-hand at thrift shops or made for herself on an old Singer sewing machine that was stationed to one side of her living room. Elegant bracelets purchased in Beirut—one I particularly affectioned was made of equal strips of red, white and yellow gold—dangled from her wrists, and a strategically-tilted hat with a feather in it often framed her beautiful, slightly mannish, distinctly Middle Eastern features. I could barely contain my glee upon seeing her. “Tu es un petit coquin, hein?” she’d announce, also breaking out into smiles.

Like many Armenian Genocide survivors, Tante Angele or Angela as people in her neighborhood called her, had grown up first in an orphanage in Aleppo and later been educated by the Armenian Catholic Sisters in Beirut, so she usually addressed me in French. Whenever she scolded me, which wasn’t often, her language choice switched to Armenian. And on the few occasions I can remember when she was really angry with me, she would rain down a short-lived torrent of abuse in Arabic—a language which she claimed possessed the most expressive curse words on this planet. This usually happened whenever I stomped across her living room, which was sure to anger her downstairs neighbor, an elusive noise-sensitive hypochondriac whom I never once met by the name of Mrs. Rosenberg. (This particular Mrs. Rosenberg twice called the police on me.) But even that was always followed by a hug and a thousand kisses.

Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6th—also known as the Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day—and Armenian Christmas at Tante Angele’s was the most special meal of all. Dinner was always served, no exceptions barred—even on Armenian Christmas—on a small formica table in the kitchen at the back of her spacious apartment, which curved along some fifty feet, long and narrow in the old pre-war style with rooms off to one side and a double living room divided by a glass door and which gave out onto 115th Street. If you craned your neck eastward out of the living room windows, as I often did for no particular reason except to see how long my neck might stretch, you could just make out the Columbia University campus. The building had an old elevator that took a good five minutes to rise from the lobby to the 4th floor and steps so steep that no one dared ever use them, lest their calves ache for hours afterwards. Tante Angele worked as a primitive computer coder of sorts at Columbia, where she spent her days inputting a seemingly endless series of 1’s and 0’s copied from a printout, which formed a secret language of holes on thick, hard punch cards that were then used by the Columbia CS department for God knows what purpose. Before and after work, she lavished her attentions on my Godfather, Georges Sinanian, a smart if dour Istanbul Armenian who played second violin at Carnegie Hall.

The Armenian Christmas meal—like all the others—would always start with a special ritual, namely my godmother solemnly announcing that she had not had the time to prepare anything whatsoever for us. “Je suis desolee, mon enfant, mais je n’ai rien a vous donner,” she would tell me, looking straight into my large sad brown eyes and using the oddly formal vous form. My mom was on to her game, but it took me years to figure it out. After she could bear the disappointment on my face no longer, she would open her fridge and take out a series of small mezze: “Here is all I have, mon petit” she would say, with a flourish of her hand or wrist, and take out hummos, tabouleh, Armenian string cheese with fresh olive oil and pitted black olives to start as she warmed some pita bread in her oven. This was usually followed with some muttabal or muhammara. The hummos was prepared old-style: simply ground chickpeas and tahini with a dash of salt pureed in a blender and then lavished with copious amounts of olive oil—then she sprinkled a hint of paprika on top in a last-minute flourish. Everything she cooked was inflected by small hand movements that I have only seen elsewhere among Lebanese matrons in Beirut or Ainjar: they seemed to turn the simplest dishes into magical concoctions. The tabouleh was finely cut, with loads of parsley and garlic, and generous amounts of lemon which gave the salad a tangier bite than most of the equivalents you find in restaurants today. Her muhammara—my favorite mezza—was a fiery dip of red pepper and walnut, which some Arabs called “false meat” for its look and taste, and it burned the back of the throat. Even the way she opened a jar of small, hard, sweet, braided choreg for dessert seemed like magic: four turns of the lid—I always counted—and then she would tilt it towards me and let me take as many as I wanted. My Swiss-Italian mother (who reveled in the exotic nature of everything she associated with my godmother’s culture) stood watch, appalled as I ate the entire jar one by one, but she was too demure in nature to say anything until afterwards on the bus ride home: “Christophe, don’t eat all her choreg next time,” she would admonish. I would look out the window unconcerned and answer with unimpeachable authority: “Non maman, she wanted me to.”

But it was the soups—three in all—that made Armenian Christmas at Tante Angele’s house truly spectacular: manti, madzoon oo kufteh and anushabour. Manti was the most difficult to prepare and was always served first. These tiny, delicious dumplings had to be rolled the night before and cooked. One inch by two inch patches of dough were laid on a buttered tray and small amounts of chopped lamb meat with cumin and red pepper were dolled onto each. They were then rolled and pinched at each end. While some Armenian mothers used this culinary exercise as the perfect occasion to gather in small groups and gossip while they rolled their manti, Tante Angele was the Queen and sole proprietor in her kitchen, so she accomplished this task alone: “I listen to Khatchadourian or Mozart and I roll the manti, it is my meditation,” she would ceremoniously announce. Once cooked, the manti were then covered with fresh homemade yogurt and sprinkled with black pepper. The taste was finer than Russian pelmeni, small pieces of almost crunchy pasta heaven.

Madzoon oo kufteh—Armenian yogurt soup—followed suit. The kufteh—meat balls made of ground beef and onions—had been peppered with generous amounts of parsley and spices. The dough was cut into pieces and then rolled into balls the size of a small fist and a piece of butter placed at the center of each in order to moisten the meat while it cooked. During this time, a delicate broth was made by first heating plain, fresh chicken broth and then carefully mixing in yogurt so that it didn’t curdle. Each bowl of soup had three or four meatballs in it—the result tasted light and slightly tangy although it contained no lemon, as if the broth had through some mysterious alchemical operation transformed the elements at hand into something wholly different and mysterious.

After the yogurt soup was finished she would prepare strong, dark, almost syrupy Turkish coffee in a small copper jezveh. If you made the unfortunate mistake of actually referring to it as Turkish in front of her, she would suddenly exclaim: “N’emplois jamais ce mot dans ma maison!” Then she would try to control her breathing, but she could not help exclaiming once again: “Never use that word—Toork—in my house, after what they did to my poor parents.” One sunny July day in 1915, her entire family had abruptly been deported, her father shot in front of her and her mother raped and killed by the Turkish gendarmes or policemen. The cutting-edge store they owned in the city of Mersin which sold European goods for newborns was pillaged and the property stolen as well. “Barbarians!” she would exclaim, transformed into some type of monstrous, suffering djinn for a few nanoseconds—and then her flash of anger passed and she returned to her old, adorable self. When the first cups of coffee had been emptied she would turn them over and read the coffee grinds to my mother, inflecting her reading with “oohs” and “ahhs” and French “terribles!” Sometimes she would announce: “Ahh, voila, I see good things for you, Ines,” smiling at my dear mother. Then pretending once again that she had “nothing else for desert,” she would unveil the piece de resistance. In an oval dish about twelve by six inches long and maybe four inches deep, was anushabour—sweet soup. Anushabour is really a pudding rather than a proper soup, composed of cracked bulgur wheat with sultanas, apricots, and dates cooked inside it along with a large amount of heavy cream and topped with cinnamon to taste. Armenian sweet soup is deceptively simple but to this day it is one of the most delicious, satisfying desserts that I have ever tasted—you start eating it in measured spoonfuls and quickly find yourself devouring large amounts of it, even after an otherwise long and satisfying meal.

Such were my Armenian Christmases in Morningside Heights—filled with old-world love, and food to gorge the senses. There were also small presents of course which would be procured from under a miniature Christmas tree in the living room, and stories from the old country as well told with passionate gusto and on special occasions, my uncle’s wonderful violin. But it was the food and the smell of it and the apartment’s fine old rugs and my Tante Angle’s perfume mixed in with her bottomless affection that I remember and long for still. And the memory of my Godmother who, each time we sat down to an amazing feast, would look up at my mother and me and exclaim in Armenian, “Anush Uhllah!” May it be sweet!

***

Recipes in the Story

MEZZE

Tabouleh

Ingredients
1 cup water
1 cup fine cracked bulgur wheat
1 cup fresh parsley leaves, minced
1⁄2 cup fresh mint leaves, minced
1⁄2 cup finely cut onion, yellow or red
3 tomatoes, diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 tablespoons lemon
1 teaspoon sea salt

Directions

  1. Put cracked wheat in a large mixing bowl and pour water over it
  2. Let stand 20 minutes until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is tender
  3. Finely chop vegetables and herbs and mix into the bulgur
  4. In a separate bowl, combine oil, salt and lemon juice. Mix in with bulgur.
  5. Chill.

Serves 4 to 6

Muttabal
(Eggplant Spread)

Ingredients
1 large eggplant
1⁄4 cup finely chopped onion
1⁄4 cup finely chopped tomato
2 tablespoons of tahini
2 tablespoons lemon juice
6-8 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons hung curd
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chili flakes
1 tablespoon coriander
1 teaspoon salt or to taste

Directions

  1. Wash and dry eggplant.
  2. Make a few decent sized incisions in the eggplant and roast in oven until the flesh is soft and the skin blackens.
  3. Remove skin from eggplant.
  4. Add eggplant flesh and other ingredients in recipe in a blender until you get a thick/coarse dip.
  5. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon and serve with pita bread.

Serves 4 to 6

Old Style Hummos

Ingredients
Two cups drained cooked chickpeas (keep liquid separately)
1⁄2 cup tahini
1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves peeled garlic
Sea Salt
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground paprika
2 lemons, juiced
Fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Directions

  1. Mix all the ingredients (except the parsley) in a blender or food processor.
  2. Add chickpea liquid as needed to render a smooth puree.
  3. Serve on plain platter.
  4. Drizzle with olive oil and add some lemon and paprika.
  5. Garnish with parsley leaves.

Serves 4 to 6

Muhammara
(Red Pepper Spread)

Ingredients
1 large red bell pepper, roasted
1⁄2 cup chopped scallions
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 teaspoons pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
6 tablespoons olive oil
3⁄4 cups walnuts, lightly toasted
6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

Directions

  1. Combine bell pepper, cumin, salt, 2 tablespoon pomegranate molasses, scallions, 5 tablespoons olive oil and walnuts , save a few, in a food processor and puree.
  2. Add bread crumbs and combine in food processor.
  3. Season to taste with salt and red pepper flakes.
  4. Spread the resulting spread into a midsized bowl with a spoon—make a space in the middle.
  5. Fill hole in center with 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses and 1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes.
  6. Crush and sprinkle any remaining walnuts on top of spread.

Serves 4 to 6

SOUPS

Manti
(Armenian Dumplings)

Ingredients
2 cups flour
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
2 eggs
1⁄2 teaspoon water
2 onions, peeled
1⁄2 lb ground lamb or beef
Salt and pepper (to taste)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 container plain yogurt, 8 oz

Directions

  1. Combine flour and salt in a mixing bowl, followed by eggs and water.
  2. Mix well with your hands until dough is soft.
  3. Cover and set aside for a half hour.
  4. Shred onions and place them in a colander set over a bowl: drain and discard the juice
  5. Combine onion, ground lamb, salt, and pepper and mix into the meat with a spoon or fork well mixed.
  6. Lightly flour work surface and divide dough into two portions
  7. Keep one piece of dough covered while you roll out the second portion into a rectangle and make dough as thin as possible.
  8. Use a pastry wheel or knife and cut the dough into 2-inch squares.
  9. Place 2 teaspoons of the meat filling in the center of each square.
  10. Seal the dumplings by gathering the edges of the dough and pinching them together at the top.
  11. Transfer the finished dumplings onto to a floured plate, and sprinkle more flour over the manti to prevent sticking.
  12. Repeat with the second piece of dough.
  13. Heat the oil and red pepper flakes in a small skillet over low heat until the pepper flakes start to color the oil.
  14. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
  15. Stir the minced garlic into the yogurt and set aside.
  16. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat, and cook the manti until the filling is no longer pink, and the dough is tender (20 to 25 minutes).
  17. Drain well.
  18. Spoon the yogurt sauce over the dumplings and drizzle hot pepper oil over the dumplings.

Serves 4

Madzoon oo Kufteh
(Armenian Yogurt Soup)

Ingredients

Kufteh Balls

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups cracked wheat
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dry red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 4 oz of salted butter

Yogurt Broth

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 32 oz plain yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons dried mint
  • 1 egg
  • 2 16 oz containers of organic chicken broth

Directions

  1. Mix salt, onion, red pepper, black pepper and egg into the beef. Roll beef into small balls that fit in the palm of your hand. Insert a small dime-size piece of butter inside each kufteh ball.
  2. Crack egg open in yogurt and mint in thoroughly. Heat the two containers of chicken broth; add 2 cups water and yogurt mix and keep stirring so that the soup will not curdle. Add butter and keep stirring until melted.
  3. Wait until broth comes to a light boil and add kufteh balls: heat for ten minutes.

Serves 4-6

Anushabour
(Armenian Sweet Soup)

Ingredients
200 g (1 cup) fine white grained pearl barley
220 g (1 cup) caster sugar
160 g (1 cup) sultanas
1/4 cup dried apricots
1/4 cup dried dates
1 cinnamon quill
3 cloves
Ground cinnamon
Pistachios
Walnuts
Blanched almonds, to serve
Heavy cream, optional

Directions

  1. Rinse barley under cold running water.
  2. Place in a saucepan with sugar, sultanas, apricots, dates, spices and enough water to cover barley
  3. Stir occasionally and bring to a boil
  4. Reduce heat to low and cook for 21⁄2 hours. Add 1⁄2 cup water every 30 minutes or until barley is soft.
  5. Discard cinnamon stick.
  6. Blend with a mixer or hand held blender until it has a porridge-like consistency
  7. Remove from heat and pour pudding into a shallow dish.
  8. Sprinkle with cinnamon, and decorate with pistachios, walnuts and almonds.
  9. Refrigerate until cold before serving.
  10. If desired, pour heavy cream over pudding.

Serves 4-6

Christopher Atamian

What is the significance of this work to you? 

“Anush Uhllah” is particularly important to me because it recounts a time spent with my Godmother at Christmas every year which remains dear to me. I chose to combine the classic essay with, for lack of a better word, the culinary essay and recipes.

What is the significance of the form you chose for this work? 

They mirror the content of the essay. 

What was your process for creating this work? 

I sat at my desk and wrote out my memories, then gave form during edits and finally researched the recipes and re-tro fitted them to how I remembered my Godmother prepared them.

Christopher Atamian is a writer, poet, critic, translator and filmmaker living in New York City. His work has been published in The New York Times Book Review, The Huffington Post, Poetry Scores, The Hye-Phen Magazine and The Armenian Poetry Project.