I bought a ticket to Yerevan, Armenia from Dubai randomly one night in hopes to meet Vardanush Petrosyan and the Kardashians…. ok the latter is part not true, but the former is so true. Vardanush is Armenia’s famed dietitian and owner of Ingredient Cafe. Lucky for me she not only agreed to meet me, this random American girl booking last minute flights, she decided the best way for me to taste the Armenian culture was to bring me home for dinner. I like to call moments like these “beautiful un-expectations,” when things are better than you had ever imagined.
12 years and going. Vardanush has been a dietitian-gastroenterologist at The Scientific Research Institute of Spa Treatment Physical Medicine for 12 years now providing consultant services on a case-by-case basis. If this doesn’t sound impressive enough for an intro she can take full responsibility for Yerevan’s first and only dietitian owned and operated Cafe, Ingredient.
“Gluten-free what? What is this gluten?” they ask. In a food culture that is quite the opposite of what is observed in America the people of Armenia are not generally one to seek out the no added sugar, gluten free muffin. However, as times are changing- people have more sedentary jobs, and the westernization of food is creeping up on many countries, even some Blue Zones, Vardanush has built an environment that is supportive of protecting the Armenian food culture. One that fights back against these cultural shifts and the lifestyle-related disease that may come with them.
Honestly, what better way for a dietitian to work with clients than to sit and eat with them… to ENJOY food with them, and finally to offer them options that fit their needs? As a cafe-culture nerd I just had to meet this woman who was doing something that disrupts the norm in order to better it. Her work is also much needed to prevent the spread of western diet-related diseases. She provides a place where her clients can feel at home and not feel as though they are under the magnifying glass at a clinical office. I knew that I could learn from her; we all can learn from her.
Ingredient opened its doors in March of 2016. Before the cafe opened there was a healthy food delivery program Vardanush began, which is still going strong 8 years running. Vardanush was before her time especially in a country such as Armenia where the word “diet” was foreign to the locals. Nevertheless, she persisted as she could see first hand that there were people in her country that did benefit from foods with a therapeutic effect, such as gluten-free, and we can all benefit from food that do not have a lot of added sugar. She also noticed that people were transitioning to a work environment that involved more sitting vs. standing/moving, and that this may contribute to rise in obesity risk.
When I arrived at Ingredient I was not jet-lagged, yet I was deliriously tired from early mornings and late nights doing the side-hustle. First order of business was coffee. Lucky for me Armenians are crazy for coffee. A matter of fact if you talk to anyone from Armenia they will claim that coffee came from Armenia and what we know as “Turkish coffee” or “Greek coffee” is indeed Armenian coffee. The claim comes with a smirk and a nod of pride.
Which makes me wonder? What else is Armenia known for? What is different about Armenian food culture from other countries and what can others learn from them?
So in my efforts to learn more about Armenia and this special woman who was doing so much in terms of keeping the traditional Armenia food alive while being creative with her approach into how to integrate “diet specific foods” into the culture I found myself sitting around a table singing old songs in the Russian language (or rather humming them) and really getting a taste, pun intended, for the culture.
Family. That was the first thing she said when I asked her about the Armenian food culture. It was big for families to eat together at the dinner table. Something you see disappearing or sometimes at risk of extinction in America and other countries where the desk replaces the dinner table and eating a lobster dinner while walking down the street is becoming accepted as the “norm.” (I once saw a man eating a Subway sandwich while walking down West 4th Street in Manhattan…so a lobster dinner is not a total exaggeration of the imagination you see).
Herbs, was her second answer. Herbs instead of oil. Herbs used in tea such as thyme and mountain herbs. Lots of herbs to flavor a meal that there is no need to deep fry or drown items in a lot of oil and salt. Pretty much herbs are to Armenia what spice is to India (oh, and by the way, ghee is frequently used in Armenian households for cooking- one thing these two countries have in food culture common).
Yogurt was the last, but not least, answer. This is not just any yogurt- “matsoon” is the local name for it (AKA matzoon, matsoni, or Caspian Sea yogurt). Matsoon with cucumbers, matsoon in the morning, matsoon for skincare- this stuff is a staple in the Armenian diet.
The most profound things that was said to me during my quest to learn more about Vardanush and her home country’s food culture came from her intern, who was Armenian but studying in America. She said to me, “she’s just so easy gong about it NOT working out. I do not think it would of worked if she did not have such an easy going attitude.” This was referring to the Ingredient Cafe of course. Anyone in the restaurant business knows that it is not an easy venture. Vardanush’s attitude towards giving it a go and taking the risk is one of a true entrepreneur…. what we like to call “nutripreneuer.”
Update: In Februrary of 2018 Vardanush opened up her second cafe called Gouroo. It has the same healthy food concept and principals as such as no added sugar and no fried foods as Ingredient does, but with a bit of an upgrade for evening gatherings.
If you are thinking of where to travel next consider flying into Yerevan. You will be greeted with a huge statue of a wine bottle placed right outside the airport. I am unsure any other airport has anything more welcoming than an abominable sized bottle of red.
I will end this with the words of one kind local who helped me one evening when I got lost in the city of Yerevan:
“Brave destiny helps.”