Sweet buns and pakhlava, bittersweet memories in a time of change

Author: Ella Kanegarian Göktas

I spent half the spring at home, shut in my apartment in Yerevan, with no desire to go out or spend more time outside. I didn’t even want to walk any further than the closest store.

I didn’t stay in due to fear; I stayed in because I didn't want to see the capital empty, wiped clean of its sounds and textures--the people, the cafes and the noise.  But then the Armenian government started to slowly roll back the quarantine rules and, even more slowly, the city center went through yet another transformation: it became a space where only the stubborn or the tough dared to go and sit at the cafes--acting out of a desire to hold on to their old habits or, perhaps, out of principle, an attempt to hold on to the old world even as it was vanishing in front of our eyes.

Seeing them from my balcony made me feel guilty about my weakness and laziness. I felt I must go out, go further than my usual store, maybe even visit the Haleb market nearby and buy sweets to go with the strong coffee I had started drinking more and more often.

The new route I took passed through a part of Arami Street that is close to Republic Square, near a small block of condemned buildings, a ruined neighborhood that has not been turned into anything new yet.

I walked through it and sensed a smell that reminded me of sweet buns. I turned my head to see if anyone was selling them on the street. But the street was empty, as was the neighborhood. The smell was very strong, however, and it clung to my thoughts as I continued toward the market. 

After walking for some time,  I realized that the smell had come from my memory, a strong memory of the city and this very neighborhood.

The experience was so vivid, it was like a piece of my life had been projected onto the walls, a corner of my world had collided with my past. And it reminded me of the wise words I heard not long before the coronavirus pushed all of us into our homes and out of the city, out of the world.

In times of instability, all you can hold on to is tastes and smells. Their stable presence may distract people from the damage of losing their homes, their jobs, their political freedom. Familiar tastes and smells make you suffer less because you feel in the comfort zone like nothing has changed,”  a Turkish guide told me in February, when I was in Istanbul. 

And so it was with me, when I happened down the street where an old childhood friend used to live. Her mother, who I called Mrs. Anna, used to bake sweet buns and sell them from their kitchen. 

Now this neighbourhood is gone, all the small houses demolished, but nothing has been built in their place so there is a void, a hole where the ghosts of times past can still be felt and where each one can add his or her own memories. 

Mrs. Anna’s house was a small, partly wooden house that was semi-ruined and, at times, it seemed to be barely standing. It had its own sounds and aromas. It was barely the same size as our closet, but it had some hidden depth, an obscure charm fueled by the  layers of history built into the walls. I wanted to spend  days at their place, not at my house, which looked like one of those American houses from movies. My friend’s house was reminiscent of old Yerevan. Her walls were cracked, garnished with posters and heavy with the smell of humidity, mixed with the scent of sweet buns. 

The walls in my room were just beige, without any place for posters and any sign of drama or struggle. They were new, polished to the point where no single emotion or feeling could sneak inside. Her mom baked almost 50 buns a day; my mom barely baked anything, even for me when I asked her to. She always said “I need to feel very good to touch the dough. Dough senses love, if you touch it without love, or when you don't feel well,  it will spoil.” 

So I began to think that bakers and everyone, who constantly worked with dough, must have so much love and happiness inside because their baked goods always tasted so good. 

Not long after my outing to the market awakened my memory of sweet buns, I discovered a woman who created the cookies and treats that had brought joy to my earliest years.

Anahit Hakobyan, known to her friends as Ada, trained as an engineer and teacher. To help her family survive the tough years of the 1990s, she turned to the baking and sewing she learned as a child. 

One of my friends, an architect, says you should never continue living in the city where you were born, because eventually you end up merging with the city. 

You remember how the city smelled, looked, what buildings were around, which were the coolest clubs. You remember the people on the streets, the beggars, the crazies, the famous and the most loved--and when the city changes, ruins its layers, only you keep these memories and bear witness to them. So you become the one who holds the memory of a city, which does not exist anymore. It exists within you.

I never thought that one day I would agree with him, but that day, when I passed through the Arami neighborhood, which is a ghost now, I realized I am the city, which still continues to change.

Ada, I also started calling her that, mentioned the stores, where she used to sell  her pastries and I recalled some of them, realizing that the sweetest memories of my childhood were connected with her. 

She had been the one providing those tastes I loved. 

What I remembered especially were the nut shaped cookies with sweet cream inside. While there is probably something similar in shops now, I`ll never dare to buy them for the sake of not ruining my childhood memories, just like I avoid rewatching the X Files. I believe memories should stay untouched, because the past can also transform and change. 

The past doesn't need special tribute, because it is always present, fused with our actions or  habits, which are always anchored to some events from our past.

“I sold my first cookies for 7 AMD each (which according to current is about 15 cents), the pecan sandies cookies everyone loved then. My first client was my aunt, who just opened a cafe and needed baked goods, so that was pretty motivating for me because I was earning money from home just doing things I usually did for my kids, my twins. This triggered me to start looking for better recipes in order to have more things to offer,” Ada recalls.

Today if we want a recipe, we can find it online. But back then, women passed around recipes, written on cards. Ada recalls getting recipes from women she didn’t even know, the only clue a name written in the corner.

“The other interesting thing was trying the recipe and seeing that it is written wrong, the portions are messed up. This is when you could come up with either disaster or a whole new recipe. This is when I started paying much attention to the things, which many of my friends were missing or not paying attention to, like how many grams of an ingredient were needed.” 

Ada was right. I remembered that lots of recipes my mom struggled with were written like this “1 cup of smth,” which is not the best form of measurement, as cups have different shapes and volume. 

“I think I still have this habit of having a handwritten recipe with a note where it comes from, even if it is a cooking blog, I write down the whole link. Maybe it's a tribute to old times,” Ada says, promising to send me her recipe notebook, which is almost 40 years old. 

I remember my mom having something similar, she even made small drawings there to show the best options of serving the dish. She promised me to give it to me one day, saying it's a tradition. I love traditions, but I fear I will disrupt this one because I do not write recipes down, I just remember them. 

Once I kept a blog where I wrote and shared recipes, but I don't think I can pass my blog to my daughter...handwritten notebook seems much more suited for that purpose. 

And in general now we have so many sources of information, we don't even recall where we found what. And sometimes it even seems that we all are fueling up from the same source, sharing the same things and attitudes. But still there are exceptions.

After the quarantine started and it became more and more obvious that things are going to change and nothing will stay the same anymore, a lot of people ended up staying at home, cooking, trying to redirect their attention or just fill the time. 

I found myself doing the opposite: I tried to get rid of as much as possible, in order to make things clearer for me. 

But still, I was eating. Only now I used delivery services so the sights and colors of food--not the smells--drove my choices. One day I saw a story on Instagram of an acquaintance, Ira, baking pakhlava. I never knew she was a baker or that she sold her pastries, and I became curious about her baking and how she was faring during these strange times.

I used to see Ira Avarjakyan often whenever I was at one of Yerevan’s many cafes. She would walk by with her husband, or just sit near, beaming with confidence and  love. I knew her from Instagram and we usually greeted each other whenever we met, but we actually never had a chance to have a real conversation or meet in real life.

I mentioned seeing her Instagram post to a friend and he promised to introduce us. The days of us meeting at a cafe seemed long gone, and so I called her instead. 

I wanted to ask her about her baking and how she was moving the love of pastry through the city during the lockdown and quarantine. 

Ira told me how she started baking about 10 years ago, in Karabakh, at a recently opened cafe. Her baked goods became popular with Yerevantsies (people living in Yerevan), she also found ways of baking here. And, when all the cafes and restaurants closed in Yerevan due to the quarantine, she decided to keep on baking to bring a bit of happiness to her clients. 

“ I can't stay at home doing nothing, after all, my heart could explode if I stayed still, I always have to do something, work, be active. So I continued baking for myself, just trying new things and adding them in my daily Instagram stories. Soon people, friends, the friends of the friends started reacting and were ordering my cakes. So, I again started selling those, plus also delivering,” she says.

I could tell by her voice that she was smiling and I imagined all those people receiving their pakhalavas or brownies with the added sweetness of her smile.

My mom was right--baking when there is no love inside of you could essentially be a crime. But loving isn't just an action that appears every once in a while or only in certain times or occasions. 

Maybe it is more of a vibration and once it enters your body, it never leaves and everything you do becomes filled with love. You share love and the memory of those you have loved, with every sweet bun, cookie or pakhlava, without any preconditions. 




Chai-khana Survay