27 January 2012

The Second Yerevan Shuka

How many countries do we begin with a market?
Walking through narrow aisles of pickles and apricots, we talked about how marketplaces are a window into a country's soul. If it's difficult to get a grip on a place - how friendly a people are, what they like to eat, what they're proud of, how much tradition has been overtaken by convenience - a good place to start is a city's food market. There's always lots to see, more to smell and to wonder about. It's a chance to glimpse real life.
This butcher specialized in hearts. There were some huge beef hearts, and a bowlful of these smaller organs, which we guessed were lamb hearts.
Of the two main covered markets (called shukas) in Yerevan, the more famous one (the Pak Shuka, on Mesrop Mashtots Poghota,) is a tourist mainstay in the central city. Known for its massive cement arches and tightly packed tables, the market was recently sold to Armenia's largest food import conglomerate, and is being fitted with an underground parking lot and more standardized booths - the renovation process has left an empty shell. There is some talk that the market could be closed from three to five years while work is carried out and the place is "sanitized."
That leaves Khorenatsi Shuka, which has none of the soviet, arched bluster of Pak Shuka, but also has far fewer tourists and a charm all its own.
In some parts of the world, the buildings where vendors gather to compete amongst themselves for business can be tiring places - lots of yelling, much pushing, too much attention paid to every passer-by. People in the Caucasus have a much more relaxed attitude toward the commercial process. Maybe they'll offer a sample, usually they just smile. Customers stand and chat, bargaining is done in friendly tones. Pictures are encouraged. The pace is slower.
This woman was almost lost amongst her mountains of pickles.
Khorenatsi Shuka smells different from other markets we've been to. Some of it is the shift toward Turkish and Lebanese spices - cumin, clove, turmeric, paprika, cardamom. Coffee is also in the air, and the scent of roasting chicken.
A group of eight or ten vendors were lined up along one outside street, selling nothing but beef hooves. The hair and keratin had been stripped off, leaving forked, pink clubs that looked almost plastic. Khash soup, made from bovine feet, is a semi-ritualistic breakfast food in Armenia, so there's more demand than in most places.
I was invited right into the butcher shops that line Khorenatsi Poghota opposite the main market building. Armenians love pork, unlike their neighbors, and there were several tons of pig hanging along the avenue. It seems that the animals are parted and then distributed along the row, so that every few windows the displayed meat's corporeal origin changes.
Perhaps the most impressive section of Khorenatsi Shuka was the lavash table; it stretched some sixty feet, and was piled high with hundreds - maybe thousands - of sheets along its length. A mess of floured bundles lay about behind the table, dozens of women sat or stood, waiting for customers.
When the bread was bought, it got wrapped up into neatly folded, compact packages that somehow, miraculously, held their shape until unfurled. It's a kind of origami trick, and was mesmerizing to watch.
After this man showed us his two largest fish, another, older man gestured for us to follow him into his shop. Surrounded by grubby tanks, a large pool lay in the center of his space - in the water, a multitude of fish. They were trout mostly, but a few sturgeon were mixed in. Near the bottom, a large, black sturgeon swam in circles - by far the biggest fish we'd see at the market. The older man got a net and began trying to catch the monster while a small crowd gathered.
It took him a while, and much grunting, but eventually the fishmonger got the big, flopping thing up onto the slimy floor. After we took a few (not very good) pictures, the man slid it back in the water, very satisfied with himself. We were duly impressed.

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