Thursday, June 29, 2006

Sunflower Seeds: Eat! Spit! Be Happy!

There’s no doubt about it, sunflower seeds, semushka, are the favorite snack in Armenia. Elderly ladies sell them on every street corner. They measure the seeds in small crystal shot glasses and deliver them to your hand, wrapped in funnels made of old newspapers. A typical Armenian gathering is everyone sitting around the kitchen table, nimbly cracking and eating semushka. We included a sidebar story in our book about the Armenian love for sunflower seeds, and we explained how those little black seed hulls have become somewhat of an obstacle to downtown Yerevan’s modernization.

I didn’t think anyone else in the world could match Armenians in sunflower seed consumption, but I recently learned that they might have some competition: the Assyrians. Having a bad history day, I had to ask Irina, “Who exactly were the Assyrians?”She replied, “They fought against Urartu, Armenia’s forebearers. We beat them, ran them off.” Hmmmm. Is that really what happened? I wondered. Just to be sure, I consulted the Wikipedia online database: “Assyrian people (also known as Aramaeans, Chaldeans and/or Syriacs) are an ethnic group inhabiting today, parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon.” I read on that the Assyrians have no homeland of their own, and like Armenians and other Christians, they suffered greatly during and after World War I.

Michael Abdalla wrote about the Assyrian love for sunflower seeds in his report, “The Evolution of Assyrian Traditional Culinary Practices.”

Assyrians are particularly fond of various roasted products. Those containing oil yield the pleasant nut flavor after roasting. Seeds are washed, sun-dried and boiled for a long time in salted water with some ash added. On occasion, they are roasted in heated sand. This writer does not have precise information on the amount of seed consumption (watermelon, pumpkin, or sunflower) in an average Assyrian family. Suffice it to say that it is substantial, and seeds provide a rich source of mineral substances, oil, and protein.

Attention must be paid to the technique and tempo of getting “flesh” out of the seeds with only the tongue, but without use of the hands. Even now that they are in diaspora, Assyrians cannot give up this delicacy. In places such as Sodertalje [Sweden], some of the Swedish students, following the example of their Assyrian friends, bring seeds to school in their pockets, and eat them during breaks.

It is said that when sunflower seeds packed in small plastic bags began to appear in Swedish shops in the 1970s, Assyrian emigrants would buy up all the stock. Until that time, bird breeders had been the principal buyers of seeds. When Assyrians later discovered that the seeds they purchased also contained sand, they continued to buy the product and sifted the sand [out] at home.

Irina sometimes feels the call of the semushka, and we get a big sack of seeds (from the grocery, not the birdfeed store). Sunflower seeds are widely sold in the US, but they are nowhere near as popular as they are in Armenia. And, leave it to my inventive countrymen, there are now American versions of sunflower seeds flavored with hot jalapeño peppers and salsa, barbecue sauce, ranch-style buttermilk dressing, and nacho cheese. I believe Armenians would recoil in horror at the sight of sunflower seeds tainted with such artificial additives.

I considered how life is full of strange coincidences when I saw the name of the number one marketer of sunflower seeds in the US. Their bags are embellished with the amazing motto: ‘EAT! SPIT! BE HAPPY!” I can attest that Armenians do this regularly, but maybe not in that exact order.


Read about sunflower seeds and other Armenian munchies in the new book ARMENIAN FOOD: FACT, FICTION & FOLKLORE by Irina Petrosian and David Underwood, ISBN 1411698659.

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Anonymous Inessa said...

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2:03 PM  
Blogger Irina Petrosian said...

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2:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank You Very Much Dear Irina and David!

I've enjoyed very much being here in your blog. I do really feel the Armenian "ham e."


Full of new ideas!

May God bless you richly.
Shnorakalutyun sireli barekamner.

4:45 AM  

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