Harissa: Tradition and Resistance

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

Food plays an important part in shaping identities, culture and society as a whole. In Armenia, everything has a legend or story attached to it, imparting a deeper meaning: our mountains, rivers and lakes, apricots and pomegranates, grapes and wine, and bread. All those legends and traditions come to define us as a nation and our perception of the world. In all this, food holds a special place. 

Hospitality is a value that Armenians hold dear. It is an ancient custom that, if a stranger knocks on your door, you have to let them in and share your food with them. We love eating and sharing food; it brings us together. Sharing food with someone or breaking bread signifies a special bond.

The origins of many traditional Armenian foods lie in old rituals, often from pre-Christian times, which were later adopted by the Church. As Armenians did not have statehood for much of their history, it was the mission of the Church to preserve the national identity. Hence, many religious traditions and holidays played an important role in bringing the community together, and continue to do so.

A distinct feature of the Armenian nation and its culture is that it was divided between the spheres of influence to its east and the west: Persian and Greek, Parthian and Roman, Arab and Crusader, Russian and Ottoman. As a result, what we call traditional Armenian cuisine may vary from Armenian community to community, even family to family, encompassing the circumstances and history under which it evolved. For example, in the Republic of Armenia, the cuisine has been influenced by that of Russia, Georgia and other Soviet republics, while these later additions are mostly absent from the cuisines of Iranian Armenians or Armenians of the Middle East, most of of whom trace their ancestry to the Ottoman side of the 19th century divide. Even after generations in the diaspora, traditional Armenian cuisine has been preserved and served as one form of holding on to national identity.

Armenians love to eat and drink, especially with company. Nowadays, many dishes like harissa create an occasion for the family to gather, as it is usually prepared in large quantities usually by the older women in the family, but also by many of the men, who like to gather everyone for a big family meal.


The Origin of Harissa

Many traditional Armenian dishes are based on wheat. In fact, “eating bread” [hats utel] in Armenian is the general term for eating any meal, which demonstrates the importance of bread in Armenian culture. According to Sedrak Mamulyan, President of Armenian Cookery Traditions Development and Protection NGO, wheat is an endemic crop to the Armenian Highlands, and its nutrients are perfectly suited for Armenians; that is why it plays a central role in Armenian cuisine. Many staple Armenian foods are based on wheat, such as the lavash (Armenian flatbread), aghandz (roasted grains of wheat used during holidays), atsik (malt, which is used to prepare sweets), gata (sweet bread like pastry) and harissa.

Harissa is a thick porridge with meat (chicken or lamb), which has been stirred and cooked for hours, through which it acquires its unique creamy texture. The meat is almost invisible in the dish, as it dissolves during the long hours of cooking. The Armenian word harissa comes from “stir this” [harir sa]. It is constantly stirred while it cooks, so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.

Mamulyan notes that harissa was served during almost all Armenian holidays. It was also the main dish for Navasard,[1] the pre-Christian Armenian New Year. In some parts of Armenia, a slight variation known as keshken or keshkek harissa is prepared. According to tradition, keshkek harissa is especially associated with Navarsard. While regular harissa was cooked and stirred constantly, for the keshkek variety, the wheat, water and meat were put in a clay pot, which was put in a tonir (traditional Armenian oven built into the ground) and was left to cook overnight, during which it was not stirred. This was done on New Year’s Eve and it was believed that not stirring keshkek brought good luck for the coming year. In the morning, it was taken out of the tonir. “Keshkek” derives from the phrase kashir ga, which means “pull it out.”

Christian Armenian lore traces the origins of harissa to Gregory the Illuminator, who converted King Tiridates III to Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century. Legend has it that Gregory arranged for lamb to be cooked in big pots as a sacrifice which was to be distributed to the poor. When it became apparent that there were too many people for the meat to be enough for everyone, he ordered wheat to be added with the meat and stirred in.

Harissa is also the main dish served during the Khatchverats[1] religious holiday (the Exaltation of the Holy Cross), especially for the Armenians of Musa Ler (or Musa Dagh), an Armenian community which lived near Mount Musa on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Musa Ler Armenians would arrange pilgrimages to a nearby monastery during Khachverats. There, they prepared harissa, which was considered to be a sacred dish. The meat that was used was brought to the monastery as a sacrifice and the Khatchverats harissa in general was considered to be a form of sacrifice. The process of making harissa was accompanied by drumming, singing and dancing.

According to Sedrak Mamulyan, harissa was prepared and eaten throughout the Armenian Highland and was thus preserved in both eastern and western Armenian communities.


The Harissa Festival

Harissa has acquired a special meaning for the descendants of Armenians from Musa Ler. It came to represent their struggle against the Ottoman Turks, but also their will and their resolution not to give up and to continue to resist. When Armenians were being exiled into the deserts of the Ottoman Empire and massacred during World War I as part of the Armenian Genocide, Armenians from seven villages near Musa Ler (Musa Dagh) decided to climb up the mountain and resist the Turks. The Musa Ler Armenians fought for over 40 days against Turkish troops from July to September 1915. They were eventually rescued by French warships that had seen the red cross signs and their banners that read “Christians in danger”.

During their struggle, the Musa Ler Armenians had only wheat and lamb with them, so the only meal they could prepare to feed over 5,000 people was harissa. For the surviving Musa Ler Armenians and their descendents, harissa came to represent their struggle and victory over their oppressors.

The Musa Ler Armenians were taken to Lebanon by the French. Some stayed there, especially in the village of Anjar, but many left for different parts of the world. In the 1940s, the Soviet Government decided to organize a repatriation of Armenians to Soviet Armenia, called the Great Repatriation [Mets Hayrenadardzutyun]․ Many Musa Ler Armenians took the opportunity to repatriate to Soviet Armenia and some of them settled in modern-day Armavir region, near Etchmiadzin, in a new village they also called Musaler. The Musaler Armenians started to prepare harissa for the entire community every year in September, commemorating their struggle and redemption. In 1976, the Soviet authorities allowed a monument dedicated to the Musa Ler resistance to be placed in the village. The resistance of Musa Ler is still celebrated during the harissa festival, which takes place in mid-September.

During the festival, the community starts preparing harissa in the evening, and it cooks until the next morning. Much like their ancestors did, the villagers of Musaler also engage in singing and dancing while the fire crackles under the pots. Most of the people who organize the festival are the descendents of survivors of the Armenian Genocide and Musa Ler Resistance. Diasporan Armenians and foreigners also visit to participate in the festivities.

One of the main distinctive features of the Musaler harissa is that it is always prepared with lamb. Another is that it is still prepared on a wood fire, rather than on an electric or gas stovetop. It is closer to the way that the original Musa Ler Armenians would have prepared it and the local connoisseurs can taste the difference.

Musa Ler Armenians from all over the world visit Armenia during the festival. The Musaler harissa is also considered to be a sacrificial offering [madagh] for the memory of those who survived the Genocide, and those who fell during the struggle.

Today, harissa is strongly associated with the Musa Ler Resistance. It is also eaten in many Armenian households across the world as a hearty dish. It brings families and friends together to engage in lively conversations around the dinner table, remembering the past, discussing the present and drinking for the future to come.

[1] Mkrtchyan, S., Festivals, Folk Armenian Rituals, Customs, Beliefs (Tradition and Modernity) (2nd ed.). IAE Press, 2020.
Tastes and Memory
Magazine Issue N12

Food is a repository of our most cherished memories. It connects us through time and space and memory unlocking the keys to our heritage. It carries us back to our childhood. To large family dinners, of tables overflowing at Christmas, Easter, birthdays. It binds us to the lands that we are no longer the masters of. Recipes carried across cities and deserts and continents, handed down from one generation to another are vessels of a family’s traditions and customs even when they are altered, adapted and molded to new realities. This month’s issue entitled “Tastes and Memory” is not simply about food or recipes, it’s about identity and the stories that are woven into the fabric of our collective memory.