Yerevan: Covered food market

Markets are great places for getting a sense of what makes a place tick, for grasping both the local agricultural bounty of a place and its culinary inclinations. Yerevan’s covered food market presents no exception to this general principle.

It’s physically a very impressive site, looking for all intents and purposes like an ornate Jugendstil airplane hanger. It is lively and fascinating, a great place for observing life in the capital of Armenia as well as for shopping for fruits, vegetables, and spices.

Stall owners at the covered food market have perfected the art of the medium sell, occupying that fantastic space between insouciance and overbearing intensity. Visitors are invited to inspect and taste products by salespeople, who in turn know how to read cues and back off when appropriate. My half-hour stay resulted in a dozen offers to try samples of nuts, dried fruit, and various spices. One fellow was so rapid-fire with his offerings of dried and candied fruit that I had to bow out. There is, after all, only so much dried stone fruit that a person can eat in 90 seconds. The entrepreneurial instinct turns the market into a hands-on place. At one point, a salesman dipped his finger into a bag of cardamom and brought it to my lips.

Pricing at the market is pretty reasonable, which makes it a great place for picking up food for immediate consumption and gifts alike. My wishlist was short: saffron and honey.Saffron is particularly well represented at the market, with many stands offering the very pricey spice. A small cup of saffron costs 1000 drams (about $2.65); a special rare saffron of identical weight was priced at 5000 drams ($13.20). Iran currently produces most of the world’s saffron, and Iranian saffron can be purchased all over the market. The Iranian saffron on offer is professionally packaged (in distinction to the local variety, which is very informally enclosed in lidded plastic condiment cups) and also considerably more expensive. The ubiquity of Iranian saffron here can be explained by proximity. Armenia’s border with Iran is just five hours by car from Yerevan.

My honey needs were easily met. Several vendors sell the stuff in old soft drink bottles among other repurposed containers. For anyone wanting to purchase a labeled jar of honey, there is a stall under the arcade on the right side of the market (entering from Mesrop Mashtots Avenue) that sells delicious honey by Multi-Agro, a local brand. A small 150 gram jar costs 550 drams ($1.45).

The market’s visitors are mostly residents, with a handful of tourists wandering through. If you don’t look like a local you will probably attract a fair amount of attention from stall operators.

Check out other posts in the Far Europe and Beyond series.