When you think of Armenians in California, it’s natural for Los Angeles to come to mind, with its huge population, or Fresno, with its rich agricultural history. Both areas also sport Armenian restaurants, bakeries and import shops that offer the cultural adventurer an easy point of entry.
There is an import shop in the Bay Area: Royal Market in the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco. But if you want to experience Armenian food in its full, buttery splendor, fall is the time to cast your cholesterol monitors to the side and head on down to a food festival at a local Armenian church.
September through November, Bay Area Armenian churches put out a terrific spread, the result of months of dedicated effort and capacious freezer space in homes across the region.
To give us an introduction to the cuisine, Elise Kazanjian of Fisherman’s Wharf recently invited KQED News into her home for a big meal. She's a member of St. John’s Armenian Apostolic Church in San Francisco, which is holding it's 71st festival October 19 and 20.
Numerous pots bubbled on the stove, and the atmosphere was redolent with clarified butter. With a glass of sparkling wine in one hand and an oven mitt in the other, Kazanjian hovered, poked, prodded and asked for advice from the undisputed authority in her home that day, 95-year-old Amelia Surabian.
“Amelia, darling, how many minutes more?” Kazanjian asked about the subareg: crispy, fluffy cheese pastries made with phyllo dough. Phyllo dough is, of course, a staple in of a number of Balkan and Middle Eastern cuisines. Just about everyone has tried it as part of the dessert known as baklava: little, bite-sized pieces of stacked phyllo dough filled with chopped walnuts or pistachios and soaked in honey or syrup.
[Note: Given that these dish names are transliterated from another language, and that many of these dishes are popular in several cuisines, my spellings may vary from the ones you use!]
You can buy phyllo dough at supermarkets, typically from the freezer section. It's not like in the old days, when women made it from scratch; in part, to impress their husbands; in part, to impress the other women at church.
Surabian learned how to cook by observing women preparing food for festivals at St. John’s -- in spite of attempts to protect their techniques by covered their phyllo with dish towels.
“Some of them were kind of quiet and secretive about their recipes,” Surabian says, “but I was a little devil.”
She was also keen on learning how to feed her young family the traditional way after a childhood of desperate poverty. Surabian’s family fled their homeland at the turn of the last century. They moved to Massachusetts, and then to Fresno. Times were so hard then, she remembers some Armenian mothers made pants for their children out of flour sacks. Surabian herself started working at age 14 or 15, canning peaches for Del Monte in Oakland. She settled in San Francisco in 1938.
After peaking under numerous dish towels, Surabian eventually became an expert at making phyllo dough, as well as pie crusts, soups and meat fillings: all the labor-intensive staples so key to Armenian cuisine.
There are the manti, tortellini or wonton-like dumplings, filled with minced lamb and served in chicken or tomato broth.
There is kufta -- “A meatball inside of a meatball, which is great,” says Elise Kazajian in the kitchen. Some version of this basic concept is found throughout the Mediterranean, typically involving ground lamb or beef mixed together with onions, parsley, salt and spices.
One of my personal favorites is lahmajoon, perhaps best described as an Armenian thin crust pizza, topped with minced meat (most commonly beef and lamb) and spices. I’ve eaten more than my fair share growing up in Los Angeles County, home to numerous bustling markets in Hollywood and downtown Glendale. The pickings are slimmer the further north you go. Many Bay Area Armenians hankering for the taste of tradition will travel all the way to Fresno to visit Nina’s Bakery, famous for all sorts of things, but especially lahmajoon.
There are vegetables on the table, mind you: beet salad, tomato and green bean salad, olives, and a rice pilaf with beet stalks. Kazanjian notes, “We use everything on the vegetable, sort of like the Chinese eat. You know, even the oink on the pig.”
The food reflects a time when most Armenians were poor, and engaged in manual labor, like farming. It’s a diet rich in fat, carbs and sugar -- the biggest professional hazard faced by 32-year-old Father Mesrop Ash, who is regularly invited to meals like this one. I asked him how it is he’s not 300 pounds. He bursts into laughter.
“I often think they feel a little bit ashamed when they see me next to priests who are a lot heavier,” Father Ash admits. “They say ‘We’re not feeding this guy enough!’”
Kazanjian calls the crowd to the table, and Father Ash offers a blessing to start the meal. For the benefit of English speakers, he explains, “The prayer that we say before we eat roughly translates to 'In peace let us eat this meal, which has been given to us as a gift by God. And blessed is the Lord, and all of his gifts. Amen.'”
Like many Western Armenian-Americans, Father Ash is descended from those who fled the Turks in the early 1900s. Fresno is still predominantly Western Armenian, but the coastal populations in the Bay Area and Southern California are more of a mix. Father Ash’s wife Annie, for instance, hails from Beirut. Many Armenians fled instability in the Middle East in the 1970s. The next wave followed the fall of the Soviet Union; the one after that, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Father Ash notes, “Over time, of course, as the world shaped itself in different ways, people made their way to California, which became the safe haven of Armenians from around the world.”
Western and Eastern Armenians speak different dialects, use different names for the same dishes - and make those dishes differently. Pilafs, for instance, vary widely. Some use dried fruits, some nuts, some bulgur instead of rice. What they all share in common is the challenge of keeping their language alive in America. That’s where food is at least the start of the conversation.
"Ungoiz is the walnuts?" Kazanjian asks Father Ash, pointing to a bowl of walnuts candied in thick, sweet syrup.
"Mmmhmmm," he nods.
"And then, the quince is?"
Kazanjian laughs. "I’ve got to learn Armenian!"
“You know, I didn’t speak Armenian growing up,” Father Ash says. “I knew this was lahmajoon. I knew this was keshkeg. (Chicken porridge with a lot of butter.) I knew this was harissa. (Another name for keshkeg.) I knew that was kufta. You’ve got that vocabulary if you’ve got nothing else!”
Elise Kazanjian's Recipe for Beet Leaves with Rice (Jaguntegh Yev Purintz)
Serves 4 as a side dish
1 bunch beets with leaves and stems (Select smaller size beets as the leaves will be younger and more tender. And beets will be more succulent.)
1 medium white onion, chopped coarse
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup long grain rice
1 cup boiling water
Fresh ground black pepper
Cut beets leaving 1 inch stem on each. Put aside for roasting. See below.
Discard bruised leaves, wash good leaves well. Layer leaves on top of each other, cut into thin strips.
Cut the stems into 1 inch pieces. Set stems aside.
Heat olive oil in a 2-quart saucepan. Add onions and sauté for about 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring. Don’t brown or burn the onions.
Add beet stems and layer over the onions. Add chopped leaves. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes over low heat.
Add salt and rice, tenderly mixing ingredients. Add boiling water making sure the rice is covered by water, cover, and
simmer for about 20 minutes or until rice is tender.
Remove from stove, keep covered and let rest for a few minutes. Stir gently, sprinkle with pepper and serve.
Optional: Serve a dollop of madzoon (yoghurt) on dish with the beets.