Eetch—pronounced midway between “itch” and “etch” and transliterated into English in just about all the ways you can imagine forming that sound—is a classic Armenian dish consisting of bulgur wheat, tomatoes, and lots of chopped green herbs. It’s often compared to tabbouleh, but unlike tabbouleh, it isn’t really a salad, as it’s more moist and cohesive. While it can be eaten with a fork, it’s more often consumed wrapped with a tender lettuce leaf or a shroud of lavash.
It’s better to think of eetch as a meatless meat dish. Traditionally, Armenians were known for being pious and carnivorous in equal measure, and with some 160 fast days scattered throughout the Armenian Church calendar year (including the 40 days of Lent), they faced near-constant roadblocks to enjoying meat. Which means that Armenians have made vegetarian and vegan cooking something of an art form, and eetch is one of our greatest creations.
Eetch is actually a vegan version of kheyma, a finely-minced minced raw beef (or lamb) and bulgur meatball seasoned with tomato paste, lemon, dried chile pepper, lemon or pomegranate molasses, mild raw onion, and chopped fresh herbs. The mixture is kneaded with water until it becomes tacky and then formed into balls or logs, which are eaten wrapped in lettuce or lavash.
In eetch, the meat is left out. The meatiness and moisture of the dish is instead provided by additional tomato in various forms—paste, canned, and/or fresh—and the fat comes in the form of olive or vegetable oil. The onions are usually cooked rather than raw, which further serves to bolster the meatiness of the dish. And because the mixture lacks sticky meat proteins, it doesn’t get formed into balls; instead, it’s spooned into the wrapper.
There are as many versions of eetch as there are Armenian families (more, even—there are at least three that circulate in mine). For my own version, which borrows heavily from several family recipes, I lean on tomato paste for the underlying meatiness and feature fresh tomatoes both in and on the dish. I like my eetch to be moist and yielding in texture, but not wet, making it imperative to avoid canned tomatoes in favor of fresh. The final consistency can be adjusted with water, but only as much as is needed.
Lemon is the most commonly used form of acid in eetch, though pomegranate molasses appears in some recipes. Since I like the caramel-fruitiness of pomegranate molasses and the tartness of lemon, I use both. Garlic is rarely used in eetch, but I like the way it amps up the meatiness, so I add a few minced cloves to the onions once they’re fully softened.
Armenians adore herbs and herb salads. While some eetch recipes get just a sprinkling of chopped herbs, I tend to go all-in, using a hefty mixture of whatever tender aromatic herbs I have on hand: flat-leaf parsley, mint, cilantro, purple basil (Genovese basil is unknown in West Asian cuisine), or dill, along with scallions, which are pretty much mandatory. A portion of the chopped herb salad gets mixed into the eetch, and the remainder serves as a topping and garnish for the roll-ups.
About the bulgur: Eetch should have a smooth, almost silky consistency, which requires the use of fine bulgur to achieve. (Fine is also known as “#1” grade, with medium labeled as “#2” and coarse as “#3.”) Fine bulgur can be a challenge to find outside of Middle Eastern markets or online retailers; if unavailable, use the finest grade you can locate, and be sure to measure by weight and not volume to keep the total amount in line.
Eetch is usually served as part of an appetizer (meze) spread at gatherings, but it also makes a thoroughly satisfying and quick-to-assemble one-dish meal (which is how it most often appears in our house). And while excellent year round, it’s extra special in the heat and height of summer, when cold dishes are welcome and vibrant fresh herbs, lettuces, and juicy, flavorful tomatoes abound. (When farm fresh tomatoes aren’t available in the off season, grape or cherry tomatoes are an excellent substitute.)
In a large bowl, combine bulgur, tomato paste, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add boiling water and whisk until well combined; set aside.
In a 12-inch skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions, 2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper, cumin, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring regularly, until onions are softened and just beginning to brown (although they will be naturally darkened by the Aleppo), about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer onion mixture to prepared bulgur and stir until well combined. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature, 30 to 60 minutes, then cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours.
Remove bulgur mixture from refrigerator. Set a colander or fine-mesh strainer in a large bowl. Add tomatoes to prepared colander, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and toss to combine. Set tomatoes aside and allow to drain for 20 minutes. Place mixed herbs and scallions in a small bowl and toss to combine.
Once tomatoes have drained for 20 minutes, set aside 2/3 of the tomatoes for garnishing; reserve drained tomato liquid. Add remaining 1/3 of tomatoes to prepared bulgur, along with reserved tomato liquid, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, 1/4 cup of herb mixture, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and black pepper. Stir gently until well combined. Add water as needed, 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, until mixture is moist but still holds its shape when scooped. Season with additional salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste.
Transfer eetch to a serving platter or bowl, top with remaining tomatoes, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of herb mixture and remaining 1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper. Serve, passing remaining herb mixture, Aleppo pepper, lettuce leaves, and lavash at the table.
The texture of eetch is best when fine bulgur (“#1” grade) is used. If fine bulgur is unavailable, medium (#2) or coarse (#3) will work, although the results will be correspondingly more coarse and grainy. With other grades, be sure to use an equivalent amount by weight (175g), not volume.
If you can’t find double-concentrated tomato paste, increase the amount to 6 tablespoons.
Use the best quality tomatoes you can find here. In the off-season, when nice globe tomatoes are hard to find, use cherry or grape tomatoes cut into eighths instead.
Genovese basil has a different flavor profile and is not used in Armenian cooking. If purple (also known as opal) basil is unavailable, use Thai basil instead.
Make-Ahead and Storage
To make eetch ahead of time, the prepared bulgur (the mixture at the end of step 2) can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 48 hours, before proceeding with the recipe as directed. Waiting to prepare the tomatoes and herbs will ensure the best flavor and texture in the final dish. Leftover eetch can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.