Armenian Pasta: Surum
In this day and age, one doesn’t normally think of pasta in terms of Armenian cookery. However, in the era of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, mastering the art of dough (or paste)-making was considered essential, if she was to be considered a good cook. To make the grade, the dough had to be rolled paper thin without tearing apart — not as easy accomplishment.
In the culinary world, there is a fine line between the preparation of pasta dough used for savory recipes and pastry dough used for sweets. Both require flour, water and the skill of fine dough-handling and rolling techniques.
When considering Armenian dough one generally thinks of thinly rolled layers of delicate sheets, stacked layer upon layer to create our favorite sweets — paklava and boorma.
Pasta preparation sheds a different light in the Armenian kitchen. Here we’ll see fine noodles (sheireh) used in making pilaf and Armenian chicken soup, and small squares of dough to make manti (tiny canoe-shapes stuffed with a meat mixture).
But there is more.
As part of our blogging at The Armenian Kitchen, Doug and I attempt to find lost recipes for our readers. One such request was for a dish called Surum. This recipe has never been part our family’s cooking repertoire, so a search ensued.
A reference for surum came from an essay written by Dr. Carolann Najarian after she toured parts of Turkey with her husband and aunt in 2005. Among the places they visited were the towns their families came from — Kharpert (Harput), Sheykh-haji, and Arapgir.
Their tour was led by organizer and guide, Armen Aroyan.
Dr. Najarian wrote:
“Armen had already told us two local specialties would be served — Kharpert kufteh and surum! Surum! My aunt Hasmieg and I couldn’t wait! For years we have enjoyed surum (or serim) in our family, but today, few people are familiar with this dish — it is not in any recipe book or on any menu. It is a forgotten food! Hasmieg and I simply could not believe that surum was here, in this desolate town. During the summer, on the days our grandmother baked the flat round bread on the sheet of zinc — the sahje — over the outdoor fire, she would make surum for lunch. Some of the flat rounds of bread would be cooked until thoroughly dried and hard making it possible to store the breads for weeks while others were taken off the sahje while still soft. These she rolled and placed in a large baking pan layered with garlic, butter, and with her own madzoon (yogurt), and then baked. This is surum!”
Dr. Najarian contacted us hoping we could provide a recipe for surum – and we did. It came from the 1949 cookbook Treasured Armenian Recipes, published by the Detroit Women’s Chapter of the AGBU.
Like so many Armenian recipes, this one is labor intensive.
- Yield: 6 servings
- 5 cups flour
- 1 Tbsp. salt
- 1 ½ cups lukewarm water
- 4 Tbsp. melted butter
- 1 tsp. sugar
- Make a dough of the above ingredients.
- Divide dough into 15 equal pieces. Place on a baking sheet and cover with a damp cloth. Let stand for ½ hour.
- Roll out each piece with a long type rolling stick to same size as the inside space of your oven. Sprinkle flour when rolling.
- While dough is rolled on the stick, take it to the oven and spread it directly on the flat surface directly over the heating unit at 375ºF.
- Bake ½ minute on one side; turn over and bake another ½ minute on the other side. Leave door open while baking to keep dough soft and not browned too much.
- Take the baked dough to the table. Fold twice the same way. Sprinkle a few drops of water and fold again 4 times until you have a 1 inch wide long strip. Put aside and cover with a dry towel.
- Continue the same process with the remaining pieces of dough.
- Pile all the strips on top of each other. Cut the pile into 2 inch long pieces.
- Arrange these pieces in a pan close to each other with the cut sides up to let sauce run down.
- 2 quarts madzoon [yogurt]
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ lb. Butter, melted
- garlic (optional)
- Prepare sauce by heating the madzoon mixed with salt. If madzoon is too thick, dilute with a little water.
- Then blend the melted butter with madzoon. (If using garlic, it can be thinly sliced and sauteed in the butter.) While hot, pour sauce over the dough on the pan and serve immediately.
* * *
Pasta, yogurt, garlic, and a bit of butter create a winning combination. Just ask my aunt Arpie Vartanesian. She regularly combined these ingredients, calling it her “comfort food.” My aunt never called this recipe by a specific name, so I never thought of it as particularly Armenian — just one of her quick, creative, weekday dinners. After reading through the surum recipe, I knew immediately that Aunt Arpie’s recipe was a short-cut version of the original.
Aunt Arpie’s recollection:
“I remember watching my mother make surum when I was a child. She would roll out the homemade dough into very thin sheets, then bake them in the oven. Afterwards she would break the baked dough into pieces slightly larger than bite-size, perhaps 2 inch squares. She would top the dough with her delicious yogurt-garlic sauce, and in minutes, the surum would disappear! When commercially prepared pasta was introduced in the markets, my mother quickly decided to use that for surum instead of making her own dough.”
Aunt Arpie’s Easy Pasta with Garlic-Yogurt Sauce
- Sauté 2 to 3 cloves of thinly sliced garlic in 2 Tbsp. butter and 2 Tbsp. olive oil until garlic is soft. Do not let garlic burn. Cool slightly.
- Gently stir in 1 to 1 ½ cups plain yogurt being careful not to curdle the yogurt.
- Boil ½ lb. shell-shaped pasta according to package directions. Drain.
- Place cooked pasta in serving bowl; toss with garlic-yogurt sauce.
- Serve immediately. Top with chopped parsley, if desired.
NOTE: You can use any shape pasta you like, but Aunt Arpie recommends the shell-shaped pasta because the sauce collects inside the pocket of each shell for a juicy bite. Eating this with a spoon is highly recommended!