The snack from a medieval monastery
A brief introduction to Armenian gata
Hello and welcome to Snack Stack, the newsletter that explores the history, origins, and cultural significance of snacks. If you like it, please subscribe! There’s a free snack every Wednesday (like this one!) and paid subscribers also get snacks on Monday and Friday. Check out past snacks here.
Photo via Wikipedia Commons
A sweet, buttery bread, with a bit of a crunch on the exterior. Comes in various shapes and sizes—sometimes large decorated rounds (as in the photo above), but other times smaller and in a crescent shape. There’s also a sweet filling “made of flour, clarified butter (ghee), sugar, a bit of vanilla and Armenian cognac or rum,” as an Armenian caterer in Australia described it to SBS. “The combination of the outside and filling together should taste a bit crumbly but moist.”
Armenia and the Armenian diaspora
There are three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Armenia, but only one of them has a strong association with a specific kind of bread. That’s not why the site is a landmark—officially, the monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley is UNESCO-listed because its cut-rock structures “illustrate the very peak of Armenian medieval architecture.” But there is bread to be found there, sold by vendors on the paths outside the monastery, and that bread is famously delicious.
It’s called gata (or katah) and it dates, supposedly, to the earliest days of the monastery, which was established by the excellently-named Gregory the Illuminator in the fourth century. The bread’s roots go back even farther: as Armenian researcher Hamlet Martirosyan has found, similar decorated breads have been part of religious practice since at least the sixth or seventh century BCE, as evidenced by archaeological findings of stamps used for this ornamentation around Eurasia, including what’s now Armenia. Martirosyan writes of of this decoration:
the signs which nowadays are being perceived as patterns, were actually letters conceiving conceptions of names of deities, attributes and titles. The signs embossed on the bread were indicating to which certain deity the bread was considered to be sacrificed.
(Click through to his full story to see some images of the stamps. Fascinating stuff.)
Around the monastery, gata became popular because of the symbolic connections with Christianity, bread being an essential part of the eucharist. There are places in Istanbul and Cairo that claim to be claim to be the world’s oldest markets in continuous operation (and that’s a whole rabbit hole to explore, if you’re interested), but they date to the fourteen and fifteen centuries, respectively—which means the gata vendors of Geghard may have a claim to that title.
The religious element is still part of the gata story, and the bread is often eaten as part Candlemas celebrations, as well as at Armenian weddings, during which a loaf of fresh-baked gata is “broken over the head of the couple as a blessing of good luck,” its flavor said to offer an auspicious and far-reaching sweetness in life.
As gata spread far beyond the monastery, the precise religious roots faded—it’s popular just for snacking or dessert, on any occasion—and the recipe evolved into all kinds of regional variations. There are still the large rounds of Geghard but in the town of Tsovinar, for example, “this pastry is denser and sweeter. It is made without koritz, decoration and has a triangular shape.” Such highly localized variation is, of course, common across many of the world’s great dishes (as any fan of American barbecue can attest), and is also found across Armenian cuisine—as Armenian-American journalist Liana Aghajanian has detailed, “the definition of Armenian food changes, depending on the people you ask and where they’re from.” (Her excellent Dining in Diaspora project touches on many of the same themes.)
Anyway, here’s a charming instructional video, if you want to try making your own gata (the big round version):
Get it here
Bakeries and streetside stands all over Armenia, plus assorted bakeries around the world, including:
You can also order it online (here’s a 16 ounce loaf for $6.99) or, best of all, try making it yourself using that video linked above.
Will you like it?
Hamlet Martirosyan, via Lilith Arutchyan on LinkedIn (translated excerpt from an academic article): “The amazing antiquity of Armenian Gata, the progenitor of pastries”
Armenia Discovery: “Festival of Gata”
SBS: “Armenian gata is the lucky, sweet bread you've got to taste, at least once”
Smithsonian Folklife Festival: “What is Armenian Food? Depends Who You Ask”