For the past 25 years, the small Armenian community in Buenos Aires has been hosting a fundraising dinner to help their children visit the homeland of their ancestors. To do this, they’ve taken over a community centre in the middle of ultra-chic Palermo every Friday night to prepare typical Armenian food for hungry porteños (and anyone else who may want to come). I’m told that Argentina was the first country to recognize Armenia when it gained independence, so there’s a bit of a special bond between the two countries, or at least their Armenian communities. The food is prepared by mothers and grandmothers and is served by the students who attend the Armenian school (and who will be benefiting from the proceeds), so the only cost is the raw materials.
We arrived at the cultural centre a little before our inviter, discovering that we were horribly underdressed – we had been expecting a simple, slap-dash affair, and instead we had landed on many people’s family night out. I was very self-conscious for the entire evening, though I did see more people in casual clothing once we were seated.
Immediately, an eager high school girl appeared at our table, handed out menus, and recommended heading over to the dessert table to choose what we wanted for later (we later found out they run out every week). The quiet, home-made menus boasted a page of cold dishes, and page of warm dishes, and a page of drinks, though they were lost amongst ten times as many pages of advertisements. Well, fundraising is fundraising.
There was a large group of us (this is a great event to go to with a group of friends), so we just ordered a bunch of dishes and a bottle of wine and shared it all. The cold appetizers were visually devoured the moment they arrived, but we had to sit in torture and hunger until the pita bread appeared. However, we did have one small savior in the meantime – haiastan, grilled slices of eggplant wrapped around a mixture of cheese with spices and sprinkled with nuts. We were sharing a plate, so everyone got only a taste, but by the looks of my fellow diners, I think everyone wanted to order another plate of their own.
The pita bread finally arrived (it was a busy night as usual, I’m sure it’s hard to keep on top of 250 people all at once) and we dug in. The hummus was terrific, and with large hunks of garlic included, had lavish attention paid to it by the garlic lovers of the table. We also ordered a yeyej – yogurt with cucumber, mint, and garlic – which I personally enjoyed very much. Very creamy, though the garlic was bordering on the edge of too much – I love a lot of garlic, but it drowned out the other tastes, most notably that of the mint. Lastly, we got a mahmara (a puréed red pepper dip). This was the big surprise of the night – no one knew what to expect, but certainly no one expected it to have a sweet taste. It went over really well and disappeared very quickly.
For our main courses, we ended up ordering the same dish twice as we had a couple of vegetarians at the table (the hot vegetarian offerings are limited, though still very tasty) and myself and one other person were very interested in a certain dish, the ishli keofte. I can best describe these as meat-encased meat. Chris made a version of these in her Syrian cooking class (though the chef made them more like meatwiches, that is, meat bread surrounding meat), and they’re made with ground beef combined with bulgur to make the outside ‘container’ and spiced cooked meat in the middle. Served with a wedge of lemon, they were delicious and filling, though Chris said the ones she had had were better spiced. I still liked these. The other main course was pasha borej, a philo-cheese-green veggie type of pie that, though it looked fairly plain, worked very well, the buttery-ness of the philo, the oiliness of the cheese, and the texture and flavour of the greens all complimenting one another. We also ordered a cheese and philo dish to accompany all of this.
There were lots of dishes that we wanted to try but didn’t, though they had a table laid out with some of the dishes prepared beforehand so that one could get an idea of what something looked like before ordering – a terrific idea.
To finish off, we had ordered giant platters of mixed desserts and a piece of chocolate-fig cake. The cake was an interested mix of flavours – you don’t often get figs and chocolate together. Having had a few dishes with figs lately, I’ve grown to like their flavour and enjoyed this cake, though the chocolate part was, uh, very solid. The mixed desserts were all Armenian (Mediterranean) classics – sweet, made with philo, had nuts – pick one or many and combine them. Of course I enjoyed a healthy sample of baklava, and Chris was especially intrigued by one dessert called galatobouriko which had a delicious, though extremely hard-to-identify flavour, which we never found out (the woman we asked didn’t want to seem to give up the secret ingredient. This recipe uses orange and cinnamon. Who knows?).
Sated, happy, and loosening out belts, we rolled out of the hall at almost one in the morning (seating starts at 21.00, and you can’t just eat and run here) with good memories and a few photos. We ended up splitting the bill, running about 50 pesos a person, which is pretty good considering all the food that we ordered and ate, and you get a warm feeling (outside of the alcohol) that your money is helping something very worthwhile.
Union General Armenia de Beneficiencia
Armenia 1322, Sotano (basement)