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 July 18 , 2003 




Tradition in a Jar: "Zakat" is a tasty, but hard and hot ritual


The season starts with fresh produce and a long-handled spoon.

The burning heat of July is made hotter throughout Armenia, as the time of preserving foods has arrived.

All across the country men build fires and women stir hot pots, turning summer's harvest into next winter's tasty rewards.

"Zakat" (preserving) season arrives on big, long-handled spoons in the hands of housekeepers with flower-print aprons, stirring family care into pots of boiling fruits and vegetables.

The goods vary, depending on preferences, availability of products and the mastery of the housekeeper. And the ingredients in the pots change from month to month.

June and July are months for jams and for apricot juice, as the national fruit comes into season. It is also the time when grape leaves are preserved for preparation of dolma in days distant from these.

In villages, towns, and even in the urban neighborhood yards of the capital, pots are fired and "zakat" season comes and goes as surely as summer.

"Preserving is very important for our family," says Manifa Galstyan from Yerevan. In winter one can find an array of summer goods shining from her pantry shelves. And for her and others, the hot and hard work goes much deeper than merely carrying on a centuries-old tradition.

"My husband and son have seasonal jobs," Manifa says. "They work during summer, while none of us work in winter, which is why we try to preserve everything in summer in order to survive winter. If I had more choices I wouldn't undergo such torment."

Preserving has its regional peculiarities in Armenia. In Syunik and Vayots Dzor regions, as well as Lori and other mountain regions housekeepers are more skilled in doing pickles, canning wild plants and berries. In Ararat valley fruits and vegetables are the main preserving products; in addition to apricots, white cherries, quinces, pears, apples and other fruits.

The whole process of preserving takes on drama because of the fire. Of course the work gets done inside on gas and electric ovens, but in many yards of Armenia, open fires turn the work into a social gathering. And, significantly, many find it more economical to cook over outside fires.

"The fire imparts some specific relish to the egg-plant caviar and other canned vegetables," says Maro Galstyan. "The outer side of a cauldron is covered with dirt in order to make it easy-cleaning afterwards and the collective work starts. Often neighbors and children come to help. The first spoon of the winter food is being tasted outside. Besides, using fire helps to save electricity."

Fruit today, fruit juice tomorrow.

Though not peculiar to Armenia, the culinary art of preserving is a matter of national pride for housewives. And it is a tradition that follows them across borders.

"Many Americans are astonished with some our practices," says Jessica Aivazian from Glendale, "and one of them is preserving. But this is our custom, and we cannot get away from it. But, for instance, in America it changes a little. I make some traditional canned food: tomatoes, red pepper. But in contrast to Armenia, I keep them in a refrigerator and use all year long, but not preserve it as in Armenia."

If for some, preserving is a matter of economics, for others it is a science driven by finicky appetite: the home-made product simply tastes better than store-bought.

"Of course social conditions matter, but the preserving practice has deeper roots than mere poverty," says Marieta Khachatrian from Sochi, Russia. "I myself preserve red pepper, tomatoes, and jams in Russia regardless of my housing conditions. This is a part of Armenian cuisine, which is being used by almost all Armenians in different countries of the world."

And in its original country, the republic's Ministry of Healthcare is always concerned about the possibility of illness resulting from faulty preserving practices.

"Every year we address a message to the population asking to be very careful and if possible to avoid canned food," says Deputy Head of the Epidemic Control and Hygiene Department of the Ministry of Healthcare Marieta Basilisyan.

If this is a typical year, sometime months from now the Ministry will get dozens of reports of botulism.

But during "zakak" season, such thoughts are boiled away.

"All this has such deep roots that our work becomes even more complicated," Basilisyan says.


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