Fricot Feature | The Kalajosh Conundrum

The recipes for kalajosh by Vartanoosh Onigian and Rose Terzian in the 1973 book Adventures in Armenian Cooking by St. Gregory’s Armenian Apostolic Church of Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, U.S.A. remain the default standards for this traditional dish in American-English.

In the years since the book went out of print and became available online, these versions have travelled through hyper-space onto recipe sites and personal blogs without acknowledgement to the original source.

This, sadly, has allowed those who sought and still seek to interpret the dish to get it wrong. When the people of St Gregory’s published their book they expected to sell it locally as a fundraiser. They did not expect it to become a best-seller, and that meant that the easier recipe, by Terzian, became more popular than the slightly complicated recipe by Onigian.

Terzian stated the obvious. ‘Saute meat and onion in a quarter of a cup of olive oil, add salt, pepper and garlic. Cook until tender. Add bread cubes, stirring lightly until browned. Spoon yogurt over meat when serving.’

It could not have been more simple, and with the ingredients easily available to north Americans the recipe by Terzian is now stuck in a default position.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the Terzian recipe. But it does not explain the purpose of the dish or its place in the traditional cuisine of Armenia, whereas the recipe by Onigian contains hidden mysteries.

Lamb has always been a reliable source of protein for the peoples of eastern Anatolia and the trans-Caucasus. By combining the lamb with yoghurt, the Armenians were paying homage to one of their oldest culinary traditions. And by transforming their own sweet yoghurt (known as manzoon or macun) into a sauce to accompany the slow-cooked lamb they are acknowledging the role that traditional food plays in their culture, one of the oldest in the world.

Onigian suggests mixing manzoon or yoghurt with egg and water to make the sauce. Some cooks also add flour and use a thick home-made yoghurt (see recipe below).

Modern versions of kalajosh can be made with large pieces of lean lamb. Traditionally the lamb is cubed, in some recipes into small cubes that reduce further in size during cooking and resemble mince in the finished dish.

A meat stock instead of water is preferred to produce a richer flavour. Seasonings should be treated with respect. Too much salt will ruin this dish while black pepper and paprika will add an aromatic depth to contrast the sweetness of the manzoon sauce.

It is believed that kalajosh has a Persian origin. Armenians will probably argue that notion with you and insist that this rich traditional dish has nothing to do with the period when the Ottomans ruled the region, or with any other influence.

Professor Gürsoy, in his reflections on Armenian and Turkish culture, argues that both societies shared culinary traditions, and notes the historical influences of Arabia, Greece, Persia and Syria.

The professor refers to Adventures in Armenian Cooking as a common denominator between these cultures in north America. The book, the professor says, ‘includes information about Armenian food names, their ingredients and methods of cooking’.

‘Food … is a cultural category which defines societies, and common food is an important element which shows the interaction of the societies.

‘Armenians … from the population of the Ottoman Empire still carried on their food culture after migrating to the US.’

Professor Gürsoy identifies numerous dishes shared by the food cultures of the region. Not surprisingly, the professor asserts, there are many similarities between Anatolian, Turkish and Armenian dishes. Interestingly kalajosh is not one of them.

Here is the anomaly. Terzian’s recipe is very close to yogurtlu yahni, a Turkish dish (below) whereas Onigian’s recipe is faithful to Armenian traditions. Yet Terzian’s is regarded by Americans as genuinely Armenian, when it is clearly influenced by Turkish culture.


meat in yoghurt sauce

  • 800 g lamb, boneless shoulder cut into small cubes less than 2 cm
  • 600 ml meat stock
  • 400 g onions, chopped small
  • 100 g apricot, dried, sliced thin
  • 45 ml olive oil
  • 30 g paprika
  • 10 g black pepper
  • Salt, large pinch

Gently warm the stock in a large pot.

Sauté a third of the cubed meat in a splash of olive oil over a medium heat in a heavy-based frying pan.

When the fat and juices separate from the meat, pour contents of the pan into the stock pot, deglaze pan with a little of the stock.

Repeat with the remaining oil and meat.

Add onions to the stock pot. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Cover and simmer for 60 minutes on a low heat.

Remove lid, simmer and reduce for a further 45 minutes.

  • 500 g yoghurt, thick sweet
  • 1 egg
  • 50 ml water, mineral
  • 30 g semolina

Beat egg into yoghurt, loosen with the water.

Pour into a saucepan and bring slowly to a low boil.

  • 3 two-day old dry pideh breads, cut into small pieces.
  • Mint, fresh, cut into strips

Place bread in soup bowls, spoon hot yoghurt on top followed by the meat and onion mixture. Leave to soak into the bread. Finish with a little more of each. Garnish with mint and serve with rice.

Yogurtlu Yahni

lamb in yoghurt

  • 1 kg lamb, cut into 4 cm cubes, salted
  • 250 ml yoghurt
  • 200 g onions, small, quartered
  • 75 ml water
  • 15 g butter
  • 15 g vegetable oil
  • 10 g herbs (dill / mint / parsley or mixed), rough chopped
  • 10 g salt
  • Water, for diluting yoghurt

Sauté lamb in butter and oil in a large wide frying pan over a low heat for 15 minutes.

Pour a third of the water into the pan, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Repeat every 15 minutes. Cook in total for 75 minutes, until the lamb in tender.

Stir the herbs into the meat.

Loosen yoghurt with a little water.

Put the meat in a large dish, the yoghurt in a jug and allow diners to help themselves. Serve with pide bread.


dairy dessert

  • 1 litre milk
  • 250 ml double cream
  • 80 g milk powder
  • 60 ml manzoon / yoghurt

Bring milk to below boiling point in a large saucepan. Remove from heat, stir in milk powder and cream and cool to 45°C.

Preheat oven to 80°C.

Loosen the manzoon / yoghurt with a little of the warm milk.

Pour the warm milk into a large ovenproof bowl, stir in the manzoon / yoghurt.

Reduce oven heat to 45°C.

After four hours the new batch of manzoon/yoghurt should be thick and have a sour-sweet flavour.

Allow to cool, then refrigerate.