Harissa, Herriseh, Keshkeg – Armenian-Style Stew

No matter what you call this dish, it’s one of the best stick-to-your-ribs winter meals ever!

I can recall Yeranuhe Nanny making herriseh with lamb – or a combination of lamb and chicken. This dish, a winter or holiday specialty, was always served with a bowl of freshly ground cumin for us to sprinkle on top.

I have to admit, when I was young this recipe did not appeal to my culinary senses; it reminded me of creamy oatmeal with meat; it simply didn’t make sense. As I got older, I must have gotten wiser, because I finally realized just how delicious – and nutritious – herriseh truly is. I guess Nanny knew best!

Herriseh, or keshkeg, combines skinless whole wheat kernels with lamb, chicken, or even turkey, with a good amount of liquid (water, broth, or a combination), salt, butter (optional), cumin, and if desired, paprika. The trick is to cook this for a very long time — without stirring — until the consistency becomes something like thick oatmeal, but much tastier! (Note: the wheat kernels, or pearled wheat – “dzedzadz”- can be purchased in most Middle Eastern stores.)

Robert Witt, a reader from Texas, wrote recently, asking if there was a recipe for this dish. He said he’d eaten herriseh in a very nice restaurant in Yerevan.

“It was made with chicken, and served with lavash, making the world seem all right – and a bit of Armenian cognac didn’t hurt the situation any, either!”

What a great reaction, especially considering that this was part of his introduction to Armenian cuisine as well as Armenian culture. He went to Armenian to visit his son, his soon-to-be daughter-in-law, who is from Armenia’s capital, and her family.

Congratulations on your son’s forth-coming wedding, Robert — and welcome to the world of Armenian food!

Here’s my version of Armenian Stew with chicken.

Chicken Herriseh (Keshkeg)

The best stick-to-your-ribs winter meals ever! You can make this  winter or holiday specialty with lamb, chicken or both.
Prep Time 1 hr 30 mins
Cook Time 4 hrs
Total Time 5 hrs 30 mins
Course Main Course

Ingredients
  

  • 1 whole chicken (approximately 3 lbs)
  • 8 cups water
  • 2 cups whole wheat kernels (rinsed in cold water and drained)
  • 2 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • cumin (optional)
  • paprika (optional)
  • butter (optional)

Instructions
 

  • Rinse chicken. Place in large pot with 8 cups water and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Cook, with lid tilted, for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until chicken is cooked.
  • Remove chicken from liquid; place on platter until cool enough to handle. Discard skin, bones and fat. Shred chicken; cut into smaller pieces, if necessary.
  • Strain broth. Measure broth, and add enough water to make the 8 cups needed. (Note: Some of the original amount of water will have evaporated, so this step is important.)
  • Place broth in large pot. Add wheat, shredded chicken, and salt if necessary. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low. Remove any foam which rises to the surface.
  • Simmer on a very low heat, covered, for about 4 hours — without stirring! — until almost all liquid is absorbed.
  • Beat vigorously with a sturdy, long-handled, wooden spoon, mashing the wheat and chicken until they resemble thick oatmeal. Adjust salt, if needed.
  • To serve: place in bowls. Add a pat of butter, if desired. Sprinkle with a dash of cumin or paprika.

Notes

A.) Cooking the chicken a day in advance allows you to chill the broth and discard excess chicken fat.
B.) Time-saving hints:
            1. Leftover cooked chicken, lamb or turkey, and commercially prepared broth can be used to   shorten preparation time.
            2. Using an immersion or stick blender, instead of beating with a wooden spoon (see step #6), will save you a lot of time and energy!
C.) Leftover Herriseh freezes well. Just defrost, and reheat with a little extra liquid.
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!
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39 Comments

  1. L Gazarian January 18, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    My dear Dad called it 'keshkeg'…and one fond memory was when Mom was gone to a ladies retreat and I was keeping the kitchen fires burning for him and my brother. I was trying to make a chicken soup with barley…and in my inexperience ended up with a barley porridge. Dad asked me if I had made keshkeg for him – and as I had no idea what he was talking about, he explained it to me. I earned a nickname for a while as the "accidental armenian"…LOL…

    Reply
  2. Robyn Kalajian January 18, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Ah! Perhaps that's how keshkeg was first created!

    Reply
  3. Ara January 19, 2010 at 6:12 am

    Although beating with a wooden spoon (or metal masher) is time consuming, I find that it gives a better flavor to the harrissah. Maybe it's all that elbow grease dripping in LOL. Another option is to put some of the harissah in a food processor, but again, it does not have the same flavor. Next time I make it, I am going to try making it in a dutch oven and cooking longer, to see if it naturally turns into porridge.

    Incidentally, in Adana, where my grandmother is from, they make the harissah with lamb and yarma, which I understand is like bulghur, but made from corn.

    Reply
    1. Rant January 8, 2020 at 7:42 pm

      Ara, i put mine in a slow cooker overnight, by the following afternoon, it tastes just like it does after beating it.

      Reply
      1. Julie gejeian April 12, 2021 at 2:35 pm

        Hello… if you would be so kind could you please send me the exact recipe for keshkeg in the crockpot??? I cannot find one online. Thank you, Julie

        Reply
        1. Robyn Kalajian April 13, 2021 at 7:29 pm

          Hi Julie, Here’s the recipe you requested from friend, Ruth Bedevian: Keshkeg in a Crockpot from Ruth Bedevian
          Ingredients:
          1 cup gorgod (shelled whole-grain wheat- sold in Middle Eastern stores)
          2 chicken breasts, cooked
          4 cups chicken broth
          2 cups water
          1 Tbsp. butter
          ½ tsp. each salt and pepper
          Garnish: ground cumin, optional
          Directions:
          Wash gorgod in a colander and drain. Place in crockpot and add the chicken, chicken broth, water, butter, salt and pepper. Cover lid and set crockpot on low or high setting depending on your unit (6-8 hours is sufficient). When cooked, the mixture will look like porridge. Beat with a hand mixer or hand blender so that the chicken is shredded.
          Serve with cumin sprinkled on top, if desired.

          Reply
  4. Robyn January 19, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    I agree, Ara, the longer the cooking, the better the taste. Good-old, heavy-duty stirring does produce the best result, too.
    You are correct about yarma, also. It's split, boiled, then dried corn that's pounded with a mortar and pestle.

    Reply
  5. Andovercookiemama January 20, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Ah! Keshkeg! Love it (husband hates it, can't even smell it!) We've always made it with lamb. Didn't even know it could be made with turkey or chicken. I'm very curious as to the taste difference. Can't imagine. Now I'm craving it. I think I'll call up Mom and have her make it for me!

    Reply
  6. Robyn January 21, 2010 at 12:13 am

    Dear Andovercookiemama,
    If your mother makes you the chicken or turkey version of keshkeg, would you be kind enough to share your taste evaluation with the rest of the readers?
    Thanks!

    Reply
  7. Andovercookiemama February 16, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    Robyn,
    My Mom made the chicken keshkeg! Here my evaluation. As I sit here eating the chicken version I'm thinking I wish this was made from lamb! Now, maybe that's because it's what I used to, however, I think it's more than that. Lamb has a stronger flavor. I know I'm eating keshkeg but I feel like I need to add more salt to really get the flavor to come out. I've already added some so I think that the chicken just doesn't have the intensity that the lamb does. Having said that, it's still good! A true treat that I am enjoying but next time Mom, make it with lamb!

    Reply
  8. Robyn February 16, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Dear Andovercookiemama,
    I hear you loud and clear. I, too, prefer it with lamb, but had chicken on hand the day we made it.
    Thanks for sharing your evaluation.

    Reply
  9. Vanessa May 14, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Hi! I'm a filipino who's in LOVE with Chicken Herriseh! Thanks for posting this recipe! Is skinless whole wheat kernels same as bulgur wheat or barley? We have some Armenian groceries in the area but I don't know exactly what to ask for!

    Thanks!

    Reply
  10. Robyn May 15, 2010 at 4:55 am

    Ok Vanessa, here are some definitions that might help:
    Bulgur: wheat kernels that have been steamed, dried and crushed. It's not the same as barley or skinless whole wheat kernels, and is not used for herriseh.
    Barley: a hardy grain; "hulled" barley has the outer husk removed & is the most nutritious form of barley. "Pearled" barley has the bran removed and is steamed and polished.
    Skinless whole wheat kernels: also known as dzedzadz, is hulled uncooked wheat.
    Either barley or skinless whole wheat kernels (dzedzadz) can be used to make herriseh.
    Hope this helps!

    Reply
  11. Anonymous June 14, 2010 at 5:27 am

    Here is a short cut I have been using the past few years. Rather than simmer on the stove for 4 hours (step 5 in the recipe), I put my ingredients in a crockpot set on low for 6 hours.

    Reply
  12. Robyn June 14, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Crockpot? What a brilliant idea! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  13. Suzanne July 12, 2010 at 4:37 am

    I just made the keshkeg with chicken thighs that I roasted first, then put all the browned juices, fat, and bones in with the barley. (The recipe I received from an Armenian friend years ago said to use barley or the hulled wheat, and chicken or the lamb.) Roasting the chicken was a breakthrough: it gave much better flavor than boiling the chicken. I wonder if roasting would be good to do with the lamb, too, or if lamb doesn't need it because the flavor is already richer.

    Also, I used really high-quality, cultured butter that a friend had made from fresh, unpasteurized cream. Wow, does that taste good in there! I bet all the Armenian great-grandmas would approve!

    One last thing: I tried to simplify the recipe by just putting the meat in unshredded and uncut, just straight from the roasting pan. I added it when I started cooking the barley (which I soaked overnight first, because soaking grains overnight makes them easier to cook and easier to digest). Anyway, my point is that all I did was stir vigorously with a wooden spoon at the end, and the chicken shredded itself.

    This method was so much easier, I'm going to add keshkeg to my regular monthly menu. It's been years since I made it, because it was so time intensive. But this time, it was a cinch! Day 1, roast the meat and rinse and soak the barley or wheat. Day 2, combine the soaked grain (drained and rinsed again), meat, salt and spices and cook. Stir it hard, and voila, it's ready! I can't believe how easy it is this way.

    Thanks for posting this recipe and discussion online.

    Reply
  14. Robyn July 12, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Thanks Suzanne; another brilliant suggestion! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  15. Anonymous February 19, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Our family loved this dish too, and always served it with browned butter. That nutty flavor really "makes it" for us. My grandmother had a huge terra cotta crock she put in the oven overnight, and then she (or one of the men) would beat it with a wooden bat! (By then, most of the smaller bones had melted.) We used stewing hens, so today I at least try to find a good quality chicken that actually has flavor. Turkey is a great idea (thank you!), I will try it with a turkey thigh soon, in my crock pot.

    Reply
  16. Robyn February 20, 2011 at 12:18 am

    I'd love to know how your turkey leg keshkeg(made in the crock pot) turns out.

    Reply
  17. Anonymous February 28, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    I made it yesterday Robyn, with two turkey thighs and it was the best batch I've made in years! I started with a scant 2 cups of the wheat, soaked that overnight and proceeded. Turkey thighs have more flavor than the "indifferent" chickens often found in supermarkets. I got them at the local Amish Market (I'm in NJ), and also bought their lightly salted butter, as I usually only have unsalted at home, and prefer salted for this dish.

    Reply
  18. Robyn February 28, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Mmmm, the turkey thigh version sounds tasty! Thanks for sharing. Did you use the crock pot? If so, how long did it take to cook?
    BTW, where in NJ is there an Amish market?

    Reply
  19. Faith Bahadurian February 28, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    I go to the Amish Market in Kingston, but there are numerous others I gather, including at least in part at the old Trenton Farmer's Market. For Middle Eastern groceries, I have to head up to The Phoenician Market in New Brunswick, though. I've been lazy (sorry!), posting as Anon, but am now finally taking the time to fill in my name, and a link to a blog I have.

    Reply
  20. Anonymous June 1, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    My dad smokes a turkey for thanksgiving every year. Afterwards, my mom takes the leftovers and chump ass pieces and makes heressa. I know it's not traditional, but smoked turkey heressa is the best! zoooomgggggggg

    Reply
  21. Robyn June 1, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    WOW, that sounds fabulous! It's a great way to use leftovers no-matter-what.

    Reply
  22. Ano January 16, 2012 at 1:27 am

    For all the vegetarians out there, you don't have to add meat to this dish. I'm not vegetarian, but I cook it as such. I use vegetable broth. It still is as delicious as I remember it from my childhood
    Anahid

    Reply
  23. Anonymous November 29, 2012 at 12:07 am

    I just made two huge lagans of keshkeg from leftover Thanksgiving turkey meat and bones. Yes, it requires more salt to bring out the flavor, and I much prefer it with lamb, but this is really quite good. For the grain, I used a combo of large bulghur, red lentils (vosp) and oatmeal. Texture and flavor are just like grandma's, esp w/ the addition of melted butter, cayenne and cumin.

    Reply
  24. Anonymous November 29, 2012 at 12:08 am

    Ahhh….I also used the immersion blender. The texture isn't exactly the same as beating w/ a spoon (which gives you that nice stringiness), but it's still alot easier and the taste is the same.

    Reply
    1. Robyn November 29, 2012 at 12:17 am

      What an excellent use of leftover Thanksgiving turkey, and using a combination of grains is a great idea! An immersion blender? Why not!

      Reply
  25. Anonymous December 14, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    My mom has made this with leftover turkey since I was a kid. I don't speak Armenian so I had trouble figuring out how to spell it. My family always pronounced it like "Heddy-saw". I love it! Especially with smoked Turkey, makes a really unique flavor.

    Reply
  26. Anonymous February 7, 2014 at 7:09 am

    herisseh or kesheg is the best in lamb 2ndly in beef, with butter

    Reply
  27. Anonymous February 25, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    I can taste this keshkeg now. I grew up eating this delicious food, but when I married, my husband called it wallpaper paste. Although I grew up having this lamb, today, it is chicken. Can't wait to taste that buttery bit of goodness again. Yes, my husband will still call it wallpaper paste!

    Reply
  28. Dickie January 18, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    We grew up with Amasyatsi lamb keshkeg that was roasted/baked in the oven all day. My father told the story that his mother would put all the ingredients together and his father would take the uncooked pot of ingredients to the baker who bake it in his oven all day and then his father would pick it up on the way back home after work. We would buy a whole leg of lamb and cut the meat off for shish kebab and then freeze what was left on the bone for winter keshkeg. We used the lamb bone, whole wheat, chick peas and water and stirred it and added water as needed throughout the day. And then my mother would add some saved chemen from basterma towards the end of the baking time if she had any. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Any other Amasyatsi's out there know what I'm talking about?

    Reply
    1. Unknown December 27, 2019 at 4:27 pm

      My Dad was born in Amaysa. I'm making keshkeg today using berg ribs from our Christmas roast.

      Reply
  29. Unknown December 27, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    'beef ribs'

    Reply
  30. Dickie December 28, 2019 at 4:20 pm

    Your dad was born in Amasya? Tell me more. Can you email me directly at dickie.nichols@gmail? I’d love to know more since there are so few Amasyatze out there!

    Reply
  31. Ani February 15, 2021 at 10:55 am

    Hi Robyn,
    I just promised my 91 year old Dad that I would make him harissa in the new slow cooker I just ordered. Since his memory is as sharp as can be, would you be willing to suggest how I modify this recipe to cook it in the slow cooker. Many thanks!

    P.S. He loved the fasoolya I made using your recipe!

    Reply
    1. Robyn Kalajian February 16, 2021 at 10:42 am

      Hi Ani, Since I don’t own a slow cooker, I found a link to a video showing how to make chicken herriseh (harissa); I hope it’ll help. Robyn
      https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=slow+cooker+Armenian+chicken++herriseh&&view=detail&mid=FAC83CC4381FA40D2ADFFAC83CC4381FA40D2ADF&&FORM=VRDGAR&ru=%2Fvideos%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Dslow%2520cooker%2520Armenian%2520chicken%2520%2520herriseh%26qs%3Dn%26form%3DQBVR%26sp%3D-1%26pq%3Dslow%2520cooker%2520armenian%2520chicken%2520herriseh%26sc%3D0-37%26sk%3D%26cvid%3D2AD7AFA5203C406AA482EDD694DA18DA

      Reply
      1. Ani February 18, 2021 at 10:33 am

        Thank you Robyn!

        Reply

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