“A Love Letter to Vospov Kofte: How My Mother and I Quashed Our Beef and Swapped it With Lentils.”

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This essay, recipe and photos are reprinted with permission from Cooks Without Borders. It was featured at: https://cookswithoutborders.com/new-story/2021/3/23/vospov-kofte

Varty Yahjian first wrote about this mouthwatering dish at Cooks Without Borders on March 24, 2021. Armenian cuisine features many delicious vegetarian and vegan dishes. Vospov kofte is a traditional (and beloved) vegan dish prepared in Armenian and Middle Eastern households at Lent (or any time of year) as part of a light lunch, dinner, or mezze. It’s not only easy to make, but fresh and delicious especially when topped with colorful chopped salad.

Cooks Without Borders editor-in-chief Leslie Brenner was inspired by a recipe given to her by Varty, with ideas culled from others, including <https://slowfoodbeirut.com/armenian-lentil-kibbeh-vospov-kofte/> Kamal Mouzawak,* Lebanon’s Celebrated Restaurateur-Hotelier-Humanitarian, and founder of <http://www.soukeltayeb.com/> Souk el Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmers market. Varty and her mother Gayane Yahjian prepared this recipe in their kitchen and gave it their stamp of approval. The recipe incorporates healthy red lentils, their flavor is mild, earthy and slightly sweet (compared to the stronger, earthier flavor of green and black lentils).

Here’s an essay by Varty Yahjian:

My mother and I see eye to eye on exactly three things: inappropriate humor, dangly earrings and eating with our hands. (Vehement approval!) Oh, and we both sleep in on the weekends and cancel plans before noon.

Aside from these, it’s hard to find common ground between us, and we widen that distance in the kitchen. There, we disagree about it all. She doesn’t salt food while it cooks, while I think it’s a mistake to wait till the end; I like caramelizing onions, while she thinks it is a waste of time. We do, however, have a common food heritage, one that spans the 36 years between us: We both grew up eating food native to the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.

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Our family tree is ethnically Armenian, but for the three generations preceding me, we have had Bulgarian nationality. In the early twentieth century, my paternal great-grandparents escaped ethnic cleansing in Anatolia and settled in Sofia, Bulgaria —where my father was born, and where my parents would eventually meet in the 1970s. My mother’s great-great-grandparents left Anatolia for the same reason even earlier, sticking to the Black Sea’s coast following their voyages as refugees. The result of these migrations is our family’s tradition, a fabulous mix of Armenian, Bulgarian, and now with me, American sensibilities.

Gayane (left) and Varty Yahjian make vospov kofte. Photo courtesy of Varty Yahjian

As with most immigrant families, my mother is the sovereign of the stove. To her it’s an indisputable reign, making for a tumultuous dinnertime environment because over the years, I’ve relied less on her recipes as I create my own. For instance, I use stewed tomatoes and a lot of dill in our flu-season chicken soup in lieu of her usual celery and bell peppers. Like a true monarch, she loathes these types of rebellions, announcing “I’m sorry, but no, this is not how you do it!” before storming off.

When we were all younger, my mother fed the whole family, of course. I don’t know how she did it, because after working a ten-hour workday and pulling dinner together, she had to deal with my ruthlessly picky palate. Until I was in middle school, I rarely ate anything that wasn’t potatoes, rice or macaroni. Mushrooms were smelly and pretended to be meat; buckwheat tasted like aluminum foil (yes, I said that exactly); and romaine lettuce, my final boss of hated foods, was unbearably bitter.

Regardless of protest, my mom always made sure my plate left the table clean; if not, “mekhké” — it’s a shame, as she would say — because those last few bites were my good luck charms. Thankfully my taste buds evolved in tweendom. Perhaps it was the feeling of unsupervised freedom after being dropped off at the mall that led me towards the food court’s salmon nigiri and fried chicken with waffles.

Or maybe my budding womanhood began to recognize how incredible it was that my mother managed to feed us every single night. I owed it to her to honor her food, especially because at this point, she was also working on the weekends. Looking back, I see that my mother’s cooking was a love-language, and I understand now why she’d get so upset when I brought back full Tupperware of food from school.

But part of my coming around could also just be that at some point, I saw how unbelievably lame it was to be so stubborn about food.

In seventh grade I started watching Food Network, and my mother took note. Encouraging my growing curiosity, she bought me a copy of Cooking Rocks!: Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals for Kids, and in her typical compliment-and-command delivery, inscribed on the first page, “To my cute Varty to cook some meals!”

And cook some meals I did, starting with Ray’s Tomato, Basil and Cheese Baked Pasta recipe, which I’ve since memorized and still make, with some grown-up additions. My parents loved it, and I was immediately validated – a powerful feeling for anyone, and especially a Green Day-listening, greasy-haired thirteen-year-old. In high school, armed with my new driver’s license in our family’s Volvo wagon, I began tearing through Los Angeles’ incredible culinary jungle – thrilled by the star anise and coriander at our local pho shop and tacos de lengua in Cypress Park.

At home, I started carefully watching my mother because those smells of toasted butter, tomato sauce, and allspice had begun to signal more than just “dinner’s ready.” They were re-introducing me to flavors of my heritage – a connection to my great-grandparents I now feel so grateful for. I slowly learned the basics of our household standards: pilaf with vermicelli noodles, Bulgarian meatball soup, moussaka and dolma. I mostly observed and tried not to intervene because the few times I did, I slowed my mom down and got in the way. I watched how she used her hands to scoop roughly chopped onions into a pool of olive oil with a slice of butter for taste, and then liberally season them with paprika and chubritsa, a dried herb and one of the most widely used and the oldest spices in Bulgarian cuisine. Forward to 2021, and we’re back in the same kitchen. My mother and I don’t really cook together; typically, it’s only one of us preparing dinner for the family at a time.

Except this time we’ve decided to collaborate — on a popular Western Armenian dish, vospov kofte, red lentil “meatballs.”

Neither word necessarily explains where the dish originates from. Lest we forget, the majority of the Middle East and all of Anatolia — where my great-grandparents are from — were under Ottoman rule for centuries. Present-day Armenia and Turkey share a border, and given their history, attributing food to either one is fertile ground for an argument in the comments section.

Typically the dish is served as part of the cold mezze on Western Armenian dining tables. It’s popular during Lent, when animal products are shunned in observation of Jesus Christ’s forty days resisting the devil’s temptation. As such, many Armenians during Lent have become very creative over the last two thousand years in reworking dishes to meet the orthodoxy’s expectations. Vospov kofte is one of these remixes, where beef or lamb is swapped with red lentils and bulgur to make for a lighter, all-vegan version that pleases God and mortals alike. It’s so delicious that in our family, we enjoy this recipe year-round.

Basically, red or yellow lentils are cooked until they’re a thick paste, then bulgur wheat, onions, parsley and spices are added – which is accomplished by kneading it all together with your hands, as the mixture is too thick to stir; ideally it’s about as thick as Tollhouse cookie dough. The mixture is cooled and then rolled into either elongated thumb-shaped forms, or balls, then garnished and eaten without further cooking (they’re not fried or baked after that).

You will want to cook the lentils in a saucepan that’s larger than you might think you’d need, as they’ll bubble up and splatter, and a too-small-pot means they’ll be all over the stove. There’s ground cumin in both the kofte and the accompanying salad. You can use purchased ground cumin or grind raw cumin seeds, but if you toast the seeds in a dry skillet first for a minute or two, until they’re fragrant, then grind them, they express themselves more aromatically in the finished dish.

For the parsley, if you start with one bunch – about 7 ounces – you can use a little more than half for the kofte (chopping that finely), then divide the rest in half – leave the leaves whole for the salad, and chop the rest finely to scatter over the finished kofte.

Given our foundational cooking disagreements, the idea of my mom and I preparing these vospov koftes together is a big deal. We begin by bickering over which saucepan to use, a common pre-cooking ritual for us. I prefer to use a smaller pot, but my mother insists (and I’ll now admit rightfully so) that we’ll need the larger one to contain the lava-like bubbles red lentils make when they simmer into a thick paste.

After enough shuffling around one another in near-silence, the tension finally breaks as we laugh about how the measuring cup could have disappeared into thin air. We measure out and soak bulgur, which will get stirred into the thick lentil paste along with parsley, spices, scallions and sautéed onions, discuss the supremacy of Italian parsley over curly-leaf as we chop, and compare the ways we’ve failed at trying to cut onions without crying. We learn that neither of us is the timer-setting type, and our bulgur probably spends a bit too long soaking. Not a big deal, though.

We hand-knead everything together with great conviction, and slowly it turns into an aromatic paste, sticking to our fingers. After scraping as much of it off our palms into the bowl as we can, we set aside a little bowl of water, dip our fingers in, and start shaping the kofte into its characteristic, oval shape, lengthened on the ends and slightly flattened in the middle.

We arrange our koftes in a wreath design, decorate it with chopped parsley, and then finally face the truth: It is extremely rare to find us in the kitchen together. Why is that? “Because you always tell me what to do for no reason,” I say with a touch of shade. My mom pauses, and for a millisecond drops eye contact before returning with the smile of someone who’s seen me spit out celery and start fights over cilantro: “You have a great taste, and everything you make is very yummy. Let’s cook together more.”

And because she wouldn’t be my mother without giving me a task, she hugs me and says, “Just you need to do clean up after you cook.”

I’ll heed her words, because she’s right: The countertop is a cacophony of utensils, parsley stems and spilled cumin. But for once, this mother and daughter are totally, deliciously, in sync.

Vospov Kofte (Armenian Lentil Meatballs)

Ingredients:

1 cup red lentils, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup fine bulgur

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped (5 ounces/140 g)

2 scallions, finely chopped (white and green parts)

4 ounces Italian parsley, finely chopped (a little more than half a medium bunch)

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon paprika

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

 

Salad Garnish:

2 Persian cucumbers, cut into 1/4-inch dice (or 1 English cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, watery seeds scooped out with a spoon and cut into 1/4-inch dice)

1 small green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 scallions, sliced (green and white parts)

2/3 cup diced tomato (1 medium tomato, about 5 ounces)

Leaves from 1/4 bunch parsley (about 1 1/2 ounces before stems are removed)

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons sumac

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Marash or Aleppo pepper to taste (optional)

 

To Finish:

Finely chopped parsley

Preparation:

Place the lentils in a medium-large saucepan with 2 cups of water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer. Skim the surface to remove any scum, and continue simmering for 30 minutes – stirring vigorously between occasionally and frequently to encourage the lentils to break down and to prevent the mixture from sticking to the pan and scorching on the bottom. The mixture should be a thick paste. If it isn’t yet, simmer up to ten minutes more, stirring in a splash of water if necessary to keep it stirrable. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool a bit.

While the lentils are cooking, place the bulgur in a small bowl, cover with 1 cup hot water and soak 10 minutes. Don’t over-soak, or the bulgur will get mushy; you want a bit of texture. Drain well and set aside.

Also while the lentils are cooking, heat the oil in a medium sauté pan or skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the chopped red onion, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook them just past the soft-and-translucent stage, until they’re starting to turn golden on the edges. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Scrape the cooked lentils into a large mixing bowl. Add bulgur, red onions, scallions, parsley, cumin, salt, paprika and cayenne and use your hands to combine the ingredients thoroughly. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt and/or cayenne as you like. Set the mixture aside while you prepare the salad garnish.

For the salad garnish, combine the cucumber, bell pepper, sliced scallions, diced tomato, parsley leaves, lemon juice, salt, sumac and cumin in a medium bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt, lemon juice, and/or cumin as desired.

Form kofte: Check the lentil-bulgur mixture for consistency: You want it to be stiff enough to be moldable, but not dry or crumbly. It should be about as thick as Tollhouse cookie dough. If it’s too dry, you can add a little water (knead in well to combine). If it’s too sticky, let it sit a few more minutes to dry out. Wet your hands, and form the mixture either into balls (about 1 ounce/28 g each, about the size of ping-pong balls) or into long, thumb-shaped forms. Arrange them on a platter with the salad garnish in a small bowl in the center. Scatter chopped parsley over kofte and either serve immediately or later at room temperature.

Varty Yahjian lives, works and cooks in La Cañada, California. She also writes at the Occidental Weekly at: https://muckrack.com/varty-yahjian/articles. This is her first story for Cooks Without Borders. Connect with her at: v.yahjian@gmail.com

About Cooks Without Borders

Cooks Without Borders’ mission is to make your life more delightful and delicious by exploring food and food culture from around the world — and bringing you the best of it. The site, which consists of stories, recipes, cookbook reviews, video interviews with fascinating people in the food world and more, was founded in 2016 by Leslie Brenner, Cooks Without Borders’ editor in chief: “What interests us is the story behind the dish, or the ingredient, or the technique. We mine origins and dive into traditions, and then use what we learn to find or develop the best possible expression of the dishes that captivate us. As a result, and because our recipe testing and development is so rigorous, you can be sure that the recipes you’ll find at Cooks Without Borders are outstanding – and that they work brilliantly.”

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*Kamal Mouzawak didn’t set out to transform Lebanon’s culinary scene. But
with the creation of the country’s first farmers market, as well as several
restaurants that promote and preserve regional food traditions, an organic
produce shop and traditional guest homes, he has protected the diversity of
Lebanese culinary heritage and united its people in the process. He was
honored with the
https://www.theworlds50best.com/mena/en/awards/icon-award.html Foodics
Icon Award for   Middle East and North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022.  Souk El Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmers market, was created by Mouzawak in 2004, soon followed by many other projects aimed at promoting sustainable agriculture, supporting rural
producers, preserving the country’s rich and diverse culinary culture and,
most of all, uniting people around gastronomy. Today, he oversees a small
empire of ventures, taking in everything from restaurants to guest homes,
product shops to regional food festivals, educational programmes and
community kitchens.

For more information:

https://cookswithoutborders.com
https://www.instagram.com/kamalmouzawak/?hl=en
https://www.synergos.org/our-network/bio/kamal-mouzawak
https://www.bonappetit.com/story/kamal-mouzawak
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/travel/kamal-mouzawak-food-lebanon.html
https://www.theworlds50best.com/stories/News/mena-restaurants-icon-award.htm
https://slowfoodbeirut.com/team/kamal-mouzawak/#:~:text=Kamal%20Mouzawak%20i
s%20the%20founder,land%20fruits%20at%20their%20source
.
https://www.finedininglovers.com/article/kamal-mouzawak-50-best-icon-award-2
022
https://www.finedininglovers.com/article/beirut-after-the-blast
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/may/21/the-kitchen-has-no-reli
gion-kamal-mouzawak-lebanese-activist

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