As an indicator of how wonderful, fresh and interesting as well as eclectic this stuff is: I am seriously considering a trip to try it in situ.
See the wonderful full discussion of Armenian food as served in Armenia
But for now...Let's start with the basics. What is the shape of the Armenian staple diet? What foodstuffs can no self respecting person of Armenian heritage do without? In other words...what are the ubiquitous ingredients in my local Watertown groceries?
So...in just about alphabetical order I have compiled a list of the most COMMON specialist items available and who does which one best, in my H.O.
For non-europeans, everyday sweet breakfasts come in the form of pastry (for adults) and cereals loaded with colors and sugar (for children, mostly). Yet when you tell most Americans that in many european countries, Armenia apparently among them, it is considered not just ok, but pretty damned healthy to give your child a piece of fresh toast covered in a generous layer of chocolate hazelneut spread FOR BREAKFAST...the shock can be palpable. The most widely available brand normally is Nutella but not in Little Armenia. There it's the Turkish version, CokoKrem (choKKoKRem) all the way. It comes in stripy white and milk chocolate varieties too.
Oh Feta. Odysseus couldn't make a packed lunch without it, and funnily enough on that score the Bulgarian's call their version Sirene. At least three varieties are available in even the most modest grocery in Coolidge Sq., and usually there are enough kinds to satisfy any craving, from the inexpensive (and rather bland) domestic, to the creamy goat-y Bulgarian, on up. Sevan has the widest selection of fetas in the neighborhood sitting in their brine baths ready for fresh slicing.
Another white cheese, this time spreadable. It seems that no Armenian grocer's fridge cabinet is complete without at least two brands of Labne. I spread it on thin village bread or Lahvash and crumble dried mint or Zatar on it before folding it over a sliced tomato. It's fresh, creamy and salty and an essential ingredient to good Satziki.
Don't be fooled by cheap imitations! Accept only the authentic Lahvash: thin and baked in a clay oven!
This staple is used and delighted in from it's birth as a soft thin bread flexible enough to accomodate all manner of fillings, to it's dry state as a yummy crisp cracker. There are in fact a whole host of different kinds of flat bread available in Coolidge corner's bakeries, each one with its own special qualities. If you want a really fresh Lahvash I recommend Sevan bakery, and for a wider selection of breads...try Massis. If you want to try making it all yourself, a dizzying array of grains and flours can be found in Arax.
Nuts and dried fruit:
It seems as if nuts, seeds and dried, roasted chickpeas and corn are essential eating around here. Dried apricots, dates, and figs of various qualities are offered for baking or enjoyment on their own, and the special flavors of dried mulberries (my friend Anna Sussman's favorite) and sugar coated roast chickpeas can be found at the superb fruit and nut bar at Sevan. For better value on large quantities of raisins and other daily use dried fruits try Massis.
Next to Kay's on Mt. Auburn st. there is a rather large and swanky shop called Fastuchi (it advertizes itself as "an Opera of Nuts") specializing exclusively in nut mixes and fine chocolate. In fact considering how little is in there it is surprising how big the shop is. The spicy sweet mix is good...blending dried cranberries, wasabi peas and roasted corn with mixed salted nuts, but you get the feeling that you could have just picked up the ingredients at Sevan and mixed yourself up a large batch, several days munching, for about the same price as a half pound. Seems like more packaging than substance, if you ask me.
Green, black, or the pinkish purple kalamata. I remember the almond stuffed cracked green almonds from London's Green Valley Middle Eastern supermarket with nostalgia, but all the basics can be gotten at any of the groceries at Coolidge Sq., even my beloved oil cured black Moroccans...the bitterest of the lot. I recommend Sevan and Massis, but if you want quantity on a simple kalamata or mix, I have to say that Haymarket's Halal stops are cheaper.
Great walls and heaps of them. In every one of the markets here. Each of these little stores puts the spice racks of Haymarket, let alone any supermarket in the greater Boston area to SHAME for mediteranean and middle eastern spices.
The only contenders to any of these shops for these kinds of spices are the spice shop nestled against Christina's Ice cream shop (marvellous, by the way) in Inman Sq., Cambridge (walking distance from Harvard and Central Sq. T on the Red Line, and full of good eateries as well being home of the former Zeitgeist gallery, now renamed "The Lily Pad"), and Zamouri Spices the virtual one stop shop for Morrocan, Turkish and Lebanese Spices, which are pretty much common to Armenian food as well.
What is life without Tahini? Awfully flat if you ask me. A delicious ground sesame butter, available with or without salt, this has become a staple for me just as much as it evidently is for the Armenian community here. Huge jars of the stuff sporting a vast array of origins and labels line the shelves of most every shop around here.
Of course Tahini is an essential ingredient for any hummus worth its salt, but just try it spread on some whole grain bread toast with a bit of honey drizzled over it: it contends with the brioche and my new favorite, Bulgar cereal for the top breakfast prize.
Tahini is a great substitute for peanut butter, and as such I often swap it in for the tablespoon of peanut butter I use in my macaroni and cheese sauce; of course it is also the prime focus of my Tahini Uber Spread and Best Tahini Tomato Sandwich.