Ghapama: A Very Armenian-American Thanksgiving
Ghapama, a traditional Autumnal dish consisting of a pumpkin stuffed to the brim with rice, nuts, raisins, apricots and other trimmings depending on personal preferences is very Armenian. It is so very Armenian that Harout Pamboukjian, an Armenian-American pop singer who is such a transnational treasure that we would enshrine him in gold and cast his profile on coins if we could, has an entire song dedicated to the dish called “Hey Jan Ghapama.” The song is wholly about this gourd of wonder, detailing bringing a ripe pumpkin home, chopping up ingredients and putting it in the oven and having 100 people, including various relatives and sister-in-laws and cousins show up to eat it (because that’s how good it is). So if you speak Armenian, listening to it will practically give you the recipe. The problem with that is, generally speaking, this song comes on towards the middle of end of weddings or other massive celebrations when the liquor and sweat have been flowing for hours, rendering you full of joy and devoid of any proper coordination whatsoever. Everyone knows the chorus. Everyone will sing it with you and at you. When you’re that happy, you’d sing about a stuffed pumpkin, too.
The ghapama process is pretty simple, and makes a colorful and unique addition to any fall Thanksgiving table. The beauty with this particular dish, made during October and November is not only its warmth (especially helpful considering how cold Armenia tends to get in the fall and winter) but how the intensity of the different flavors never overwhelm, but compliment each other in every bite.
Then again, it’s hard to go wrong with dried fruit, butter, cinnamon and honey mixed in with white, steaming rice. It’s also a very flexible dish. You can use other gourds if you wish, or change up the ingredients to fit your tastes, switching out raisins for cranberries for example, or adding pecans instead of walnuts. Think of it as a gigantic, sweet dolma made with a pumpkin instead of grape leaves.
If you’re sticking with tradition and using a pumpkin, go for a sugar pumpkin (used for pumpkin pie). They’re a perfect, manageable size and because they’re used in baking, you’re guaranteed to have a fool-proof ghapama on your hands.
Leaving the pumpkin stem on gives the dish a great look when you present to your hungry clan of 100 people who will surely fight over this magnificent Armenian delicacy. Harout Pampoukjian says so.
Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, or looking to add a unique twist to your table during the colder months no matter what background you’re from – the ghapama is a perfect addition to transport you from wherever you are, to a snow-covered village where strangers, especially cold ones, are family.
This recipe comes from a stained, very old piece of paper, written in Armenian, acquired by my mother (and stolen by me!) many, many years ago.
1 cup white, short grain rice (you can substitute brown or increase and decrease quantities, depending on the size of your pumpkin)
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup apricots
1/2 a stick of butter [room temperature]
6 tablespoons of honey (increase or decrease depending on taste) + 2 tablespoons to line the walls of the pumpkin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
• Preheat oven to 450 degrees F
• Wash and carve a circular whole on top of the pumpkin, taking care to remain symmetrical as possible all the way around.
• Using a spoon, empty out the pulp, including seeds. Pro tip: Save the seeds to roast later.
• Cover the walls of the pumpkin with 2 tablespoons of honey, coating thoroughly.
• Boil the rice, taking care to cook it only half way so the rest of the baking occurs inside the pumpkin. Put in separate bowl.
• Cut up butter and add to rice.
• Pour the dry ingredients, including raisins, apricots, walnuts and cinnamon into another bowl.
• Pour the rice, along with melted butter into the dry ingredient mixture, taking care to mix well.
• Add your remaining 6 tablespoons of honey to the rice, nut and fruit mixture.
• Fill your pumpkin with the mixture to the brim, packing in tightly.
• Coat the outside of your pumpkin with butter [Optional – the pumpkin above had no butter coating but still came out of the oven with a lovely, roasted color]
• But the top of the pumpkin back on and place your pumpkin on a lined baking dish.
• Cook for one hour at 450 degrees F [You’ll know it’s cooked when you touch the pumpkin and it’s soft, your finger leaves an imprint]
• Let cool before cutting which you can do by following the ridges of the pumpkin to produce a stunning dish but also making sure everyone gets an even slice.
• Listen to “Hey Jan Ghapama” while eating [Alcohol is mandatory]
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