By Benjamin Kemper
February 27, 2018
A recipe for the Armenian soup called khash, at its most basic, goes something like this: Simmer cows’ hooves overnight. Serve.
Gelatinous beef trotters—flavored tableside with sinus-clearing add-ins like lemon, salt, vinegar and raw garlic—may sound like the last thing you’d reach for when nursing a hangover, but Armenians swear by khash’s panacean powers, particularly in the winter, when it’s customarily eaten. Across the small Caucasus nation, friends gather for morning-after khash feasts complete with ritualistic toasts and—as Anthony Bourdain discovered while shooting a Parts Unknown episode set to air in March—punishing hair-of-the-dog vodka shots.
Offal soups are quintessential hangover fare across many cultures, from Mexican menudo rojo to Albanian paçe to Korean haejangguk, but none, perhaps, is as much of an event as Armenian khash. “Khash parties are all-day affairs,” said Samvel Hovhannisyan, owner of Bureaucrat Café and Bookstore in Yerevan. “After you’ve eaten the soup in the morning and made the accompanying toasts—to the day, to the cooks, and to the guests, in that order—you drink and sing and dance like crazy. When people get hungry again, you might have a barbecue, followed by coffee and tea and sweets.”
Even the soup’s preparation is a production. The hooves must be plucked meticulously of any stray hairs and soaked in water for a day to remove impurities and funky odors. Then comes the cooking, an eight-hour simmer requiring hourly check-ins, lest the pot dry out. Khash-fueled breakfasts start around 9 a.m., which means cooks often literally lose sleep over the dish. “It’s a sacrifice,” said Hovhannisyan. “That’s why the toast to the cook is so important.”
For the broth to remain white and nearly transparent, the mark of a well-made khash, Armenian cooks don’t add salt to the pot during cooking: It’s up to the end user how much salt and other traditional flavorings to mix into the finished soup. Armenians are known to add up to eight cloves’ worth of garlic to each portion. Two types of lavash, or flatbread, always grace the table: dry, for crumbling into the broth, and fresh, for draping over the bowl to seal in the heat. Purists, like Hovhannisyan, insist that fresh lavash—torn and folded for easy scooping—is the only acceptable utensil for eating khash, and that vodka, never wine or beer, is its only worthy sidekick.
Though khash is an ancient dish, mentioned in medieval Armenian texts as early as the 12th century, the ceremonial fanfare surrounding it appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon. “We haven’t found evidence that today’s khash rituals—the vodka drinking, the three toasts, the specific serving elements—were widespread or well-established before the Soviets arrived,” said Ruzanna Tsaturyan, a researcher for Armenia’s National Academy of Sciences at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, adding that the few historical references that do exist characterize khash as wedding food.
That khash culture stems from ancient wedding traditions is one of many theories—and folktales. According to Hovhannisyan, some locals recount that a king popularized the dish after tasting it on a junket through the countryside, while others contend that the poor created khash out of necessity as the better cuts of meat were reserved for the rich.
Traditionally, khash feasting was limited to men, who also presided over the soup’s preparation—a rarity in a region with a female-dominated culinary tradition. The soup’s pungent aromas, and its accompanying troughs of vodka, were once deemed unfit for women. Further, men and women historically ate separately in Armenia, so given khash’s ancient roots, it’s no surprise that the division persisted. But recently the gendered perception of khash has changed. “Ten years ago, it was difficult to imagine groups of women having khash for dinner at a restaurant,” Tsaturyan said. “Today, no one would be surprised at such a scene, though women drinking straight vodka—that’s still fairly rare.”
In current-day Armenia, khash lovers are young and old, rich and poor. But in a country where nearly one-third of the population lives in poverty, it goes without saying that not everyone has the means to throw elaborate feasts. “Khash is more commercialized than ever, and khash parties have an air of prestige to them nowadays that was missing before,” Tsaturyan said. Call it culinary gentrification.
Travelers to the country can try a bowl at Tavern Yerevan, Tsaturyan’s favorite khash spot, which ladles out hefty, steaming portions for approximately $4.15. But for an idyllic khash experience that you can relish almost anywhere, heed Hovhannisyan’s advice: “Find a cabin next to a snowy mountain in the dead of winter, make a big pot of khash, and devour it with your best friends. You can’t go wrong.”
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Samvel Hovhannisyan’s Khash Recipe
Khash can be made ahead through step three and refrigerated for up to four days. To reheat, simmer for 20 minutes.
- 3 cows’ feet (trotters), washed, patted dry, picked over for stray hairs and split in two
- 30 cloves garlic, pounded in a mortar and pestle or minced and placed in a small bowl
- Salt, to taste
- Warmed flatbread, such as soft lavash or pita bread, for serving
- Optional garnishes: Chopped parsley, chopped cilantro, sliced lemons, sliced radishes, sliced pickles, chopped fresh chiles
- On the morning of the day prior to your khash feast, place the trotters in a large bowl and cover with water. Refrigerate at least 10 and up to 48 hours, changing water every two hours or so for the first 10 hours.
- Place trotters in a heavy-bottomed pot and cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to boil over high heat. Regulate heat to maintain a simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 40 minutes.
- Drain water, return trotters to the pot, and cover with 2 inches of fresh water. Bring to boil over high heat, reduce to simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 6 to 8 hours, topping up water every hour or two, until trotters are soft and tender.
- Pour 2 cups of the hot broth into the mortar or small bowl with the garlic and stir to combine.
- Serve the remaining broth and meat immediately, passing salt, garlic mixture (Armenians recommend 4-6 cloves’ worth per person), and optional garnishes.