Zerzevetov Pilav: The autumn dish of Musa Ler

Vegetable and bulgur rice made with fresh, local vegetables

by Maria Titizian

Published: Friday September 04, 2009 in Food

Vegetable Rice or Zerzevetov Pilav.

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Zerzevetov Pilav: The autumn dish of Musa Ler

Toronto - Armenian women born in Musa Ler, my two paternal aunts included, are among the most resourceful, resilient, and fearless women I know. While one of my aunts stayed behind in Lebanon, the other, Armenuhi Tossounian, immigrated in the 60s to Canada, where she raised three children, ran a family-owned restaurant, and fiercely held on to the traditions passed down to her from her mother.

Horkur has been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember. Along with her husband Panos, they were among the first people to open a restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine in a very Anglo-Saxon part of Toronto. Falafel, tabuleh, and hommus weren't the familiar vegetarian dishes they currently are, and selling them at first was no easy job. They were successful thanks to their tenacity and hard work. Most importantly, thanks to the fact that Armenuhi can obviously cook.

Whenever I am in Toronto, Horkur invites me to her place where I'm sure to get a great meal, great conversation, and a lot of laughs. Don't get me wrong, she's no pushover; she speaks her mind, especially to those she loves best. She's also very generous. When her father, my grandfather, passed away in 1980, she went to Lebanon and returned with priceless family mementos. One of them was my grandfather's 1923 university diploma from France, which she graciously passed on to me. I remember her telling me at the time that he was one of the first young men from Musa Ler ever to get a university degree from France.

Many years later, after I had moved to Armenia, my two horkurs came to Armenia, where they persuaded me to relinquish my grandfather's diploma because they had decided to bequeath it, along with a gold medal from France, to the Musa Ler Museum in the village of Musa Ler on the outskirts of Yerevan. I was bitterly opposed to giving up something that had enormous value for our family, but that I feared would not have any value for the museum. But against two Musa-Lertsi women, I had no fighting chance. They argued and cajoled and argued and cajoled until I gave up.

I admit I am still a little upset at my horkurs and my father, who also had a hand in this conspiracy, but as my uncle later told me, the only thing stronger than blood is the soil of the homeland. What can I do? I go on but never miss the chance to remind them of the day they took the diploma.

Food is always the medium through which we laugh, cry, and heal. So after a heated conversation about family heirlooms, we moved to the kitchen, where Armenuhi horkur had made Zerzevetov Pilav. Zerzevet means vegetable in the unique dialect of Musa Ler. I am told that Zerzevetov Pilav is probably one of the only authentic dishes from Musa Ler. It can be made year-round but is traditionally made in the autumn. Made with fresh, local vegetables, this is a hearty, healthy, and easy dish to prepare. One of the unwritten rules with Zerzevetov Pilav is that it must be served with pickled hot peppers and homemade yogurt.

Armenuhi horkur recalls that in Ainjar, Lebanon (where the villagers of Musa Ler were relocated in 1939), they didn't have peppers year round. Whenever they could get their hands on hot peppers, they would make a cut in the peppers, place them in boiling water with salt, and remove immediately. The peppers would turn yellow, giving them the appearance of being pickled. After cooling them off, the peppers would be replaced in the water, and then garlic, mint, and a quarter teaspoon of lemon (duze) powder would be added. By the time the Zerzevetov Pilav would cook, you would have pickled hot peppers to serve with it.

Zerzevetov Pilav has been a constant part of our family's diet. It's a dish that was created by the women of Musa Ler, who used the vegetables that came from the soil of their ancestors to prepare a healthy meal for their families. Generations later, it is still being prepared by Armenian families.

Armenuhi's Zerzevetov Pilav

2 potatoes
2 zucchinis
2 tomatoes
500 grams green beans
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup large bulgur
100 grams oil
100 grams butter
1 beef cube
2-3 cups of water
Salt to taste

Bring the green beans to a boil in 2-3 cups of water in a large pot for a few minutes and then add the remaining vegetables, which have been cut into small cubes. As soon as the vegetables come to a boil, add the bulgur, oil, butter and beef cube.

Turn the heat down and simmer for 30-40 minutes. Once the water has evaporated, you will have a tender and delicious rice dish. Add salt to taste.

Serve this dish with pickled hot peppers and homemade yogurt.

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