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Armenia’s Greatest Vegetarian Dish

By Andrew Janjigian Published

Vospov kofte—a red lentil–bulgur mixture seasoned with warm spices and served with loads of fresh herbs and soft, stretchy flatbread—is meatless cooking at its best.

We Armenians are serious about our meat eating. No holiday is complete without a centerpiece of something skewered and grilled over charcoal, long-simmered into a stew, or minced and eaten raw. But those dishes are generally reserved for feasts and other times of celebration. Armenia and the Armenian parts of Turkey (where my family is from) are rugged, landlocked regions that have endured poverty and scarcity for much of their existence, so we’ve historically relied on more humble fare.

That’s why we are equally serious about our meatless dishes, which reflect a thriftiness born out of that deep-rooted poverty. They’re also a matter of piety: Historically, the Armenian Apostolic Church restricted meat consumption on many days throughout the year. Though only the most devout among us still regularly abstain, the community’s appreciation for meat-free cooking persists. (For more information, see “How Faith Drives Food Traditions.”) Consequently, we have elevated vegetarian cooking to something of an art form.

Andrew Janjigian (left) prepares his take on the vospov kofte he learned to make from his grandmother, Lousaper (Lucy) Sarmanian, and mother, JoAnn Janjigian (right).

Take vospov kofte. It’s the vegetarian analog of canonical, relatively costly chi kofte, which consists of a mixture of minced raw beef or lamb, bulgur, tomato paste, and spices that is formed into logs or balls, served with a mixture of chopped herbs, and eaten inside a shroud of pita or lavash. Vospov kofte—perhaps the ultimate expression of tensions between scarcity and abundance, restriction and freedom—trades the meat for inexpensive red lentils and bulgur and a good amount of butter or olive oil to mimic its richness (the tomato paste is usually left out), resulting in a dish that is light but satisfying and beloved by Armenians the world over.

On the Grind

My grandmother Lucy’s recipe is a classic formula that goes something like this: Cook red lentils in an abundance of water until they break down into a smooth paste, stir in an equal amount of fine-grind bulgur, and let it sit while the bulgur hydrates. Meanwhile, soften chopped onions in butter or olive oil with Aleppo pepper, and then fold the seasonings into the lentil-bulgur mixture along with chopped parsley. Let the paste cool until it stiffens into a malleable, mashed potato–like consistency, and then mold it into logs or balls. Serve the kofte at room temperature, sprinkled with chopped parsley and onion and with swaths of bread.

DIY Fine-Grind Bulgur

  • Fine-grind (#1) bulgur is a must in vospov kofte, where the small particles seamlessly bind up the red lentil mixture. The finely ground stuff (which, according to the Encyclopedia of Food and Health [2015], measures between 0.5 and 1.6 mm—roughly the size of semolina) can be hard to come by unless you’re shopping at a Middle Eastern market or online, but it’s easy to replicate by briefly grinding any-size bulgur in a blender.

Everyone in my family makes this dish, but I daresay we’ve all tinkered with my grandmother’s version over the years. Most of my tweaks are subtle, since I’ve learned that the most fundamental part of vospov kofte—the ratio of water to lentils to bulgur (3:1:1)—can’t change. Drier mixtures result in starchy kofte that tend to crack and fall apart when you mold them, while wetter mixtures produce pasty kofte that are too soft to hold their shape.

There’s just one concession that I’ve made about the bulgur, and it’s merely a shopping point: The fine‑grind bulgur (usually labeled “#1”) that most vospov kofte recipes call for can be hard to come by outside of Armenian and Middle Eastern groceries, and in my experience the medium-grind bulgur (#2) that is widely sold in the United States tends to give kofte a perceptible and unpleasant graininess. So when I can’t get my hands on the fine-grind stuff, I simply blitz whatever-size bulgur I have on hand in the blender for a couple minutes. The only trick is to start with a bit less volume, since the grains will pack more densely once they’re ground. (For more information about bulgur, see “Sizing Up Bulgur” on page 29.)

’Tis the Season

My other adjustments are flavor-based, starting with the fat. Many recipes (including my grandma’s) incorporate olive oil, but I’ve always viewed the fat component as an opportunity to incorporate some depth—even faint meatiness—that recalls the original intention of the dish. So I split the difference and use both oil and butter, the latter of which gives the kofte a nutty boost.

Next, Aleppo pepper: The moderately spicy, fruity dried red pepper is used extensively in Armenian cooking and is the only spice my grandmother considered essential in her vospov kofte. (Much of Aleppo pepper has been sourced from spice traders outside of Syria—particularly Turkey—since the Syrian civil war began.) I like to use a generous teaspoonful and amplify its warmth and complexity with cumin, black pepper, and allspice.

How Faith Drives Food Traditions

  • Dietary regulations are common across religious faiths—and are responsible for a number of treasured food traditions. Jewish abstinence from leavened foods during Passover spawned matzo and a slew of dishes based on the cracker-y flatbread. Sabudana khichdi, a tapioca‑based pilaf, is popular during the fasting season of Navaratri, when many Hindus adopt a sattvic diet. Within Christianity, many denominations prohibit meat consumption during all or part of Lent. The Armenian Apostolic Church follows those parameters, and devout members historically observe a number of fasting days as well—approximately 160 scattered throughout the year, including every Wednesday and Friday, and 10 additional weeklong fasts.

     

    It’s thanks in large part to these restrictions that Armenians have a “general liking for whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, bread, cheese, yogurt, olives, vegetables, and fruits,” as Alice Antreassian and Mariam Jebejian note in their book, Classic Armenian Recipes: Cooking Without Meat (1981), and that the cuisine is rich with hearty, nutritious meatless dishes such as vospov kofte. –Elizabeth Bomze

I also amp up the herb topping, which Grandma kept to simply chopped parsley and onion, since mild-mannered kofte benefit from the contrast of bright flavors. What I’ve ended up with is essentially a salad—a verdant mixture of parsley, scallions, and mint lightly glossed with olive oil and seasoned with lemon juice, more Aleppo pepper, sumac, and salt—that would make a fitting accompaniment to any dish that needs brightening. And given Armenians’ love for chopped salads, I’m certain that Grandma Lucy would approve.

Recipe Vospov Kofte (Red Lentil Kofte)

Vospov kofte—a red lentil–bulgur mixture seasoned with warm spices and served with loads of fresh herbs and soft, stretchy flatbread—is meatless cooking at its best.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.