Some episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN travel show Parts Unknown are chock full of food porn and hilarious one-liners, while others offer a solemn look at life in places that have gone through a lot of turmoil. The Armenia episode definitely falls into the latter category. While there are moments of levity and quite a few memorable meals, a lot of screen time is devoted to unpacking the complicated history of this former Soviet Republic, which boarders Turkey to the west and Azerbaijan to the east.
Tony’s tour guide for much of this journey is Serj Tankian, the Armenian-American lead singer of the metal band System of a Down. Like many Armenians around the world, his family members left their home country because of the Armenian genocide a century ago, when the Ottoman government killed 1.5 million citizens. Tankian grew up in Southern California and eventually fell in love with his ancestral homeland as an adult.
This theme of Armenians born in other countries returning back to the motherland actually pops up several times throughout this episode. “The connection, the collective yearning, and the flow of money, resources, and people from the Armenian diaspora back into the homeland are powerful and important — as you will see,” Bourdain writes in his field notes. “They are also vital to the nation’s survival.”
Here’s a roundup of some of the best moments from Parts Unknown: Armenia.
Most stunning dish: That’s definitely the rice pilaf-stuffed pumpkin entree called ghapama, which Bourdain eats in the home of Tankian’s friends Mariam Movsisyan and Nazareth Seferian. The episode also features some gorgeous footage of lavash being prepared and used in myriad dishes across the country.
Best all-around meal: That’s a tie between the leg of lamb feast at Dolmana in Yerevan (“This is what my soul needed,” Bourdain says), and the bone broth and lavash supper at a “home restaurant” in Dilijan that ends the episode.
The best non-food scene: Midway through his journey, Bourdain visits the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, where some extremely hip teens are playing righteous rock and roll. As Bourdain learns, the non-profit activity center is a prime example of how Armenians encourage children to embrace science, technology, and the arts.
Coolest ride: Bourdain and Tankian head up to Dilijan in a vintage M24 Executive Class Volga Sedan, which Tony describes as “the ultimate in Soviet driving luxury.”
Most questionable ride: For his trip to the Republic of Artsakh, Bourdain boards an old M18 twin helicopter that is sputtering and spouting black smoke before he hops inside.
Most profound moments: Bourdain learns about the devastating impact of the Armenian genocide from Richard Giragosian, the director of the Regional Studies Center, while gazing out at the capitol city of Yerevan. The TV host also meets with a group of Armenians living in the Republic of Artsakh, and discusses the many bloody conflicts that have erupted over the land between the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan. And during his stay in Yerevan, Tony also hears about life in Armenia when it was part of the USSR from Mariam Movsisyan’s grandmother. When Bourdain asks her if life is better now versus then, she remarks, “It’s hard to say whether it’s good or bad, since it’s both.”
Most surprising reveal: After Bourdain visited the Republic of Artsakh, a newspaper reported that he was no longer welcome in the neighboring country. “Simply by coming here, I’ve become, as I read in the papers a few days later, officially persona non grata in Azerbaijan,” he explains.
For more on Anthony Bourdain’s trip to Armenia, plus dining guides and essays about Armenian culture, head over to Explore Parts Unknown.