Defining Armenian Food: A Recipe for Disaster

(Photo: Flickr/Garen M.)

I once heard an old adage: “With three Armenians in a room, you get four opinions.” Nowhere does that seem more fitting than when it comes to food. Whether it be an omission of salt, the use of olive oil versus butter, or how many minutes you knead the dough, food is open to criticism on both online forums and dinner tables alike. For any neutral observer, it is clear that food plays an outsized role in Armenian identity, compounded by its connection to family, immigration, etc. 

History does not develop in a vacuum and the same goes for food.The figurative food fights between nations and their perceived ownership of said food is just as nonsensical as the modern borders they currently inhabit. These boundaries are relatively new and do not mean much in the shadow of hundreds of years of cultural exchange, co-existence and conflict that contributed to a shared culinary heritage.

This defensiveness is not without merit though. For Armenians, especially those in the wider Diaspora, food has served as an important vehicle for cultural identity and memory.  

In the United States, many of the original Armenian communities settled with members of their families as well as villages and towns, establishing compatriotic unions and churches that would serve as focal points of Armenian community life. Some traditions had to be revitalized or introduced for the first time altogether, like yogurt. Yogurt, now available in every supermarket in countless flavors and even non-dairy options, was once alien and unpalatable to the average American consumer. Families like the Colombosian family in Massachusetts started to make their own yogurt, selling it to other Armenians as well as Greek, Syrian and Lebanese families who couldn’t find this familiar product elsewhere. In order to make it, they had to begin with a starter from scratch or somehow bring a live or dried form of starter with them from abroad. Of course, for anyone who has worked with a starter, the makeup can change day by day. During fermentation, it feeds on yeast and bacteria from its local environment: adjusting, adapting, and most poignantly, surviving.

Survival has been integral to the Armenian experience. As Charles Darwin would have it, natural selection begets winners who adapt best to their environment and anyone who has studied Armenian communities in the Diaspora can attest, this is what they do best, food included. New environments mean alien products and ingredients: immigrant ingenuity and the discerning collective palette of Armenians act as natural selection would, weeding out inferior dishes and substitutes. It should be pointed out that our current conception of “Armenian food” is already altered by genocide, displacement and migration, where whole histories of village and town customs vanished as well as access to certain cooking processes/ingredients. Most of what exists in the United States is passed on through families as well as church-sponsored cookbooks and until recently, heavily skewed towards those from the former Ottoman Empire.

To put another arrow in the purist’s argument, many foods that are popular in Armenian cuisine: various beans, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, all come from the Americas. The iconic ghapama, which singer Harout Pamboukjian dedicates an entire song to, is a stuffed squash, a plant native to North America. Greeks, Turks and Armenians can call it quits because it turns out coffee originated in Ethiopia. The introduction of new ingredients and loss of old ones isn’t new, it’s normal and there is very little to be gained fighting about it.

So this might still leave you wondering: what the heck is Armenian food? The answer is deceptively simple: food that people who self-identify as Armenian call Armenian food. For example, Muenster cheese is not an indigenous product of the Armenian Highlands (or Germany!) but it appears in my family’s borek recipes. Uncle Ben’s or Carolina Rice are not heritage grains like emmer or einkorn wheat but they show up in my church cookbooks! Even with these egregious disqualifiers, I considered these foods Armenian because it’s what I grew up with and what I associate with being Armenian. It’s not much of a stretch to consider that this might be the case for others in what they perceive to be Armenian food. There are Armenians who don’t eat meat or animal products altogether but consider what they’re eating to be Armenian! Others may recognize kuku sabzi and vinegret as Armenian food rather than choreg and lamajoon.

Edward Said’s idea of imagined geographies strikes at the issue of perception and the reproduction of ideas over time through the media, texts, pictures, video: essentially tropes and memes. The same concept extends to food. As travel becomes cheaper, the Internet breaks down communication and informational barriers and the makeup of our communities change, so do our preconceived notions of Armenian food. While the late Anthony Bourdain highlighted the food of Armenia on a trip there in 2018 for No Reservations, this year chef Marcus Samuelsson put the spotlight on Armenian food in Los Angeles, itself a collection of different Armenian communities and culinary traditions, in No Passport Required. Last year Kate Leahy, Ara Zada and John Lee brought us Lavash, a beautiful compendium of recipes and stories from the contemporary Republic of Armenia. This past January The Vegan Armenian Kitchen Cookbook by Lena Tashjian and Siroon Parseghian has revived traditionally vegan recipes and introduced newly veganized ones. You want a breakdown of the unexplored histories, connections and role of food in the Armenian-American diaspora? Look no further than Dining in Diaspora, a multimedia project by Liana Aghajanian. 

Letting more people define what Armenian food means to them, their families and their communities is more real and authentic than not. Food doesn’t just tell one story for one person or group of people, it tells it in multitudes and to get the full experience we should be willing to bring a few more chairs to the table and broaden the conversation. 

Robert Fullam

Robert Fullam

Currently based in Yerevan, Robert Fullam is exploring the Armenian culture and language. Before this recent venture, he had worked in travel, editing, politicking, among other things. An aspiring flâneur and bon vivant, he's constantly looking for good food and better conversation.
Robert Fullam

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  1. “The figurative food fights between nations and their perceived ownership of said food is just as nonsensical as the modern borders they currently inhabit. These boundaries are relatively new and do not mean much in the shadow of hundreds of years of cultural exchange, co-existence and conflict that contributed to a shared culinary heritage.”

    Disagree here, strongly. As Armenians our fight to protect our culture is not due to “shared culinary heritage”, but outright THEFT of our food identity by two artificial nations called Turkey and Azerbaijan which simply came about out of the acts of committing genocides on the natives of the land, namely Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. The natural next step after committing genocide against a people after taking their lands, homes, children etc is to assume their identity and culture, albeit an imitation copy of it. The problem with the passing of a hundred years is, that imitation suddenly thinks that it is the original and the victim people committed genocide against “are trying to steal Turkish foods, culture and identity”.

    If you want to claim that Armenians and Turks/Azeris have “shared culinary heritage”, you can start by researching what the nomads from Central Asia brought into the Armenian Highland and taught the settled Armenians of several thousand years the wonders of “Turkish Cuisine”. Presumably, and according to anti-Armenian propaganda outlets like wikipedia, Armenians never ate any food until the charitable Turks arrived to teach them what food was all about.

    From my own research, the only one item of “eastern” origin, and that is not the food but the name, and here I will not even say “Turkish”, is the dumpling which is Manti, since East Asian and Central Asian nations all share a dumpling they call Manti or Mandu. However, Manti made by Armenians, as it is from historic Armenia is certainly not of East or Central Asian origin, because Armenians of the former Ottoman Empire make their own style which only one other people have copied. And that is, surprise, surprise, those who call themselves Turks. All other nations who make dumplings, the Chinese, the Mongolians, the Koreans, they all make them with different styles and typically steam them. In Armenia they are always cooked or baked, and open faced in the oven. For me this is solid proof that the Turks have copied Armenian Manti and not the other way around, otherwise, the Armenians today would be steaming their Manti and making it look and taste like the East Asian counterparts. For us Armenians therefore, we are using an Asian word, not a dish when we describe our dumplings, unfortunate though it may be. But that is the price we are paying for 500 years of occupation and genocide. “Manti” simply means dumpling, and Armenians are only using the borrowed name, not the food in question.

    And to put things in perspective, we Armenians are not claiming Chow Mein. We are not claiming Chicken Tikka Masala. We are not claiming Fettuccine Alfredo. We are not claiming Tostada. What we want is, the assertion and protection of our identity and food identity happens to be a part of it. And that entails the foods of our historic Armenian homeland. Turks have no right to claim our sarma, harissa, ichli kufta, chi kufta, sini kufta, lavash, adana kebab, basturma, soujoukh, manti, lamajoon etc, etc. The fact that western Armenian foods have Turkish names does not mean they are Turkish, it just means Armenia was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for 500 years and most Armenians of historic Armenia – “East Anatolia” – came to use Turkish as their primary tongue, and many if not most of the Armenians did not even speak Armenian, so our foods lost their original names over time. Turks like to use this concept as an “advantage” to claim Armenian foods, but we must always point this out and provide clarification.

    Also, the fact that Tomatoes, Potatoes and Peppers are from the Americas is a valid point, but does not mean the associated foods are not “of Armenian origin”. The only argument that can be made therefore is that those foods are not going back to ancient times, but perhaps a maximum of 500 years. The Turks are welcomed to make a similar claim if they can prove it, namely show us what certain Turk inhabited areas of the Ottoman Empire came up with what and which Armenians don’t have in our cuisine. For example, “The Turks of Konya have…”. Until then, any food item from any of the eastern regions of “Turkey”, part of historic Armenian land and presence remains as “of Armenian origin”.

    Finally I will agree with you somewhat that if we have families that made any foods a certain way or used certain ingredients we can call it “Armenian food”. However, this article was blurring the line between this concept and the historical/cultural aspect, and with my comment, I merely want to point this out and make a distinction.

    • Bravo Baron Hagop. I’m tired of reading falsehoods about our wonderful food. Consider that agriculture and viticulture originated in the Armenian Highland. It makes sense that dolma, beer, and wine would have originated in Armenia too. Armenians themselves do not know of many Armenian “firsts.”

  2. Turks took our lives. Turks took our lands. Turks took our wealth. Took changes thousands of place names. Turks steal our songs. Turks dig ancient Armenian coins and sell them on the black market as ancient Turkish coins. Turks appropriated such Armenian geniuses as Maymar Sinan. What would have stopped them from stealing our cuisine? The donner, which they made popular in Germany is an Armenian/Greek/Arab dish. Donner is the same word as the Armenian TARNAL because the meat is rotated on a gyro and that’s why Greeks call it their version gyro. Yoghurt and Baklava are also Armenian. Yoghurt is the corrupted reverse of YOUGH VORT (fat, butter and bacteria).cI am told if you watch a Turkish movie, you will see they plunder world music, including Armenian and Arabic. Re approopriation: they they have a ministry which spends lots of money to make the above “Turkish heritage” when we know the number-one Turkish heritage is plunder, theft, and genocide. It’s a pastiche nation with a bloody flag.

    • I recently read an article that DNA shows that “ancient Turks” took agriculture to Europe in either 6000BC or 6000 years ago. Ancient turks. Can you imagine? Modern Turks have so much stolen Armenian DNA, the actually claim our ancient feats. Shame on the world for letting this happen

  3. Surely the author of this article knows that the highly political UNESCO has awarded provenance to Turkey and Azerbaijan for many dishes that scientists have proven originated with Armenians.

    Why is the Armenian Weekly publishing material such as this?

  4. It seems to me, that since according to the Bible, Noah’s Ark landed in Armenia, ALL food/ cuisines originated in Armenia. And that was way before any Turks existed. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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