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  • Armenian Recipe: Shrimp with Vodka Sauce and Arishta

    Vahe Keushguerian and Nicole Hassoun team up in the Hatsatoun at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

    Vahe Keushguerian and Nicole Hassoun team up in the Hatsatoun at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo by Ted Chaffman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Hospitality is a way of life in Armenian culture. The table isn’t set until it groans with the weight of too many dishes, and a meal isn’t a meal without a drink and multiple toasts of gratitude. The sentiment is reinforced when your hosts happen to work in the food and beverage industries.

    At the 2018 Folklife Festival, Armenian winemaker and former restaurateur Vahe Keushguerian joined forces with D.C.-based master distiller Nicole Hassoun in the Hatsatoun demonstration kitchen to show our audience how culinary professionals entertain with an Armenian twist.

    Cooking with vodka at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Photo by Ted Chaffman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    In the spirit of collaboration, Keushguerian demonstrated shrimp with vodka sauce, using arishta (handmade Armenian pasta) made by other Festival participants and Hassoun’s own Royal Seal Vodka, which she distills at Joseph A Magnus Distillery in Washington, D.C. Hassoun in turn crafted a cocktail that spoke to her Armenian diaspora roots, topped with Keush, the méthode traditionelle sparkling wine from Keushguerian’s winery in Armenia.

    The pair discussed the joy they get from creating a menu for friends.

    “For me, it’s about hospitality,” Keushguerian commented. “I love people, I love cooking, I love drinking wine, I love conversation. When I’m alone, I don’t cook. But when I have dinner for eight or ten people, then I really get inspired.”

    Hassoun echoed his sentiments: “The excitement for me is entertaining and bringing people into my home. I thrive on watching other people smile and really catering things to their flavor. I want the whole thing—from the food, to the drink, to the wine, to everything—to be something that makes you feel very taken care of. That’s how I enjoy life, is really taking care of friends and family and anyone who enters my house.”

    For this dish, arishta noodles made by our resident lavash makers were dried and roasted in the oven, giving a distinctly toasted and bready taste to the pasta. Flat noodles such as linguine or fettuccine can easily substitute in this recipe. The Royal Seal Vodka has a final distillation of bergamot peels, lending a hint of citrus to the dish. Purple basil is a common basil of Armenia, but regular basil can also be used.

    Armenian arishta noodles
    Arishta noodles hanging in the backdrop of the Hatsatoun kitchen.
    Photo by Kathy Phung

    Shrimp with Vodka Sauce and Arishta


    2 pounds ripe tomatoes
    1 pound shrimp (26-30 count), peeled and deveined
    5 cloves garlic, minced
    1 small yellow onion, diced small
    Olive oil, as needed
    Salt and pepper, as needed
    2 ounces vodka
    1/2 cup heavy cream
    1 pound arishta (or fettucine or linguine)
    1 handful purple basil leaves (or regular Italian basil)
    Parsley, for garnish


    Fill a large pot about halfway with water. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Score the bottoms of the tomatoes by making an “X” with a knife. Blanch the tomatoes in the boiling water to remove the skins. The tomatoes are ready after approximately 30 seconds, or when the peels start to separate from the flesh. Using a slotted spoon, remove tomatoes from the boiling water and drop them in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skins completely. Dice the tomatoes and place in a bowl, keeping its juices. Set aside.

    Coat the bottom of a large sauté pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant. Turn the heat to medium-high. Season the peeled and deveined shrimp with salt and pepper. When the pan is hot enough, add the shrimp. There should be a nice sizzle. Cook just until the shrimp turns pink. Move the shrimp and garlic from the pan to a clean bowl. Set aside.

    Cooking with vodka at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    He’s on fire! Vahe Keushguerian adds the vodka to the pan.
    Photo by Ted Chaffman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    In the same pan, over medium heat, coat again with olive oil and add diced onions. Sweat the onions until translucent, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from heat and carefully add the vodka. Be careful when moving the pan back to the flames as the alcohol may ignite. Have a lid handy to cover it, or let the flames die down as the alcohol evaporates. Add the diced tomatoes and turn the heat down to allow the sauce to simmer. Season with salt and pepper as you go.

    In a large pot, boil 4 quarts of water and cook the pasta to just under al dente; the noodles will finish cooking in the sauce. Drain the noodles.

    Stack the basil leaves together and roll lengthwise. Cut into thin strips. Add some to the sauce, and reserve the rest to garnish.

    As the sauce simmers, it will thicken. If it needs more time to break down the tomatoes, add a few splashes of hot water. Once the desired consistency is reached, add the cream. Return the shrimp to the pan and add the drained noodles. Cook for a minute or two longer, until the noodles have reached the proper texture. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Plate the noodles and garnish with reserved basil and parsley leaves.

    Kathy Phung is a foodways coordinator for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, who also manages the demonstration kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Armed with a degree in anthropology and baking and pastry arts, she has worked in various food enterprises in the D.C. area as an oompa loompa, pastry cook, and butcher.

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