Friday, June 15, 2018

Keep Dad COOL, this Father's Day with these recipes by Christine Datian!

Christine Vartanian-Datian lives in Las Vegas, I don't need to tell you how hot it can get there. She likes to keep things cool by preparing recipes that don't take long to make and/or won't heat up the kitchen. 
Here are two of her recipes which recently appeared in the Armenian Mirror Spectator, Chilled Summer Squash and Potato Soup, and Broccoli and Walnut, Grapes, and Feta Salad.

Have a COOL and Happy Day, Dads!!

Christine Datian's Chilled Summer Squash and Potato Soup

Chilled Summer Squash and Potato Soup   
Serves 4-6                                    


6-7 medium zucchini, yellow crookneck or pattypan squash, sliced or diced (Choose your favorite, or combine a few.)
1 large onion, diced
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 cups potatoes, peeled, cubed or diced
2 medium stalks celery, diced (plus tops)
2 medium carrots, diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (to taste)
1 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon white or black pepper
Pinch of dried thyme

Garnishes: Non-fat plain yogurt, chopped chives, basil, parsley, paprika or mint

In a large pot, sauté the squash you have chosen to use, onions, garlic, potatoes, celery and carrots in butter and olive oil for 10-12 minutes or until vegetables are tender; toss occasionally.

Add the broth, lemon juice, salt, pepper and thyme, stir, and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes. Remove from heat and cool for 10 minutes.

In a food processor or blender, puree soup (in batches) until medium smooth, but there are traces of zucchini and carrots visible.

Place soup in a container, cover, and chill for 4-6 hours or overnight. Soup can be served at room temperature, if desired.

If desired, whisk in a little half-and-half or ricotta cheese and a little lemon juice before serving. 
Top with a dollop of yogurt and sprinkle with choice of chives, basil, parsley, paprika or mint.

Drizzle with olive oil and serve lemon wedges on the side.

Christine's Broccoli Salad with Walnuts, Grapes, and Feta

Broccoli Salad with Walnuts, Grapes and Feta
Serves 4-6


1 large head broccoli, cleaned, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup red seedless grapes
1 red apple, peel on, cored and diced
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup celery (and tops), chopped
1/2 cup green onions (scallions), sliced or chopped
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup red onions, minced
10 grape tomatoes, cut in half
1/4 cup green olives, chopped, optional
2 tablespoons brown sugar, optional
Juice and zest of one large lemon, optional
1 cup Italian or creamy salad dressing (to taste)

1 cup walnuts halves or slivered almonds
6-8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
Kosher salt and black pepper (to taste)


In a large glass bowl, combine all ingredients except the walnuts, cheese, salt and pepper, and toss with dressing.  Cover and chill for up to 8 hours, tossing occasionally.

To serve, toss with walnuts (or slivered almonds), Feta cheese, salt and pepper, and garnish with more walnuts or almonds, if desired.

Serve salad on a bed of fresh spinach, endive, arugula or lettuce with sliced avocados and tomatoes or fresh sliced fruit on the side.

Serve with extra dressing.

*This salad is best if made the night before serving, so that flavors can blend.

*Christine’s recipes have been published in the Fresno Bee newspaper, Sunset magazine, Cooking Light magazine, and at

Friday, June 8, 2018

An Untimely Passing

Barely three weeks ago, the Armenian community watched with pride, as Anthony Bourdain's program featuring Armenia aired. 

Sadly, today, we mourn his passing.

Thank you, Mr. Bourdain, for sharing your culinary expertise and recent tour of Armenia with the world.

You will be missed.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Our South Carolina Home Blessing

It's official!

Our Home Blessing
Doug and I are now legal residents of South Carolina, and, we have been welcomed into the Armenian community in the Carolinas. What I mean by that is, on May 31st, our new home was blessed by Father Samuel Rith-Najarian of St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Charlotte, NC.

We’ve been living in our home for almost 3 months now. We’re unpacked and enjoying our new surroundings. Our daughter, son-in-law, and our dear friend from Maine have already visited us in our new abode. My sister will join us here in a few weeks.

That said, Doug and still I felt a bit unsettled, that is, until Father Sam blessed our home as a few friends - new and old - witnessed this event.

Now that our home, we, and anyone who may ever pass through our doors, have been blessed, we are feeling quite content and happy. Thank you, Father Sam!
(L-R) Me, Father Samuel, and Doug in our dining room. Once the food was blessed, it was time to dine! 
(Photos by Andy Kabasakalian)
A home blessing isn’t complete (at least to me) unless a meal follows. Our celebration menu consisted of Lule Kebab, pita bread, Sarma Gurgood (aka Tabbouleh), tossed salad, yogurt-tahini sauce, marinated red onions with sumac, and for dessert, cheese kadaif, and fresh fruit.

I believe all in attendance enjoyed the event and sustenance, as much as Doug and I did.

It’s great to be HOME!

For more information on Home Blessings, please click here.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Memorial Day… a day of Thanks and Reflection

As you light up your grills this Memorial Day, please be mindful of the reason we celebrate this day – to honor and thank the men and women who have given their lives to ensure America’s freedom.

With that in mind, here are a few of The Armenian Kitchen’s favorite Armenian-American side dishes to celebrate this, or any summertime occasion, without heating up the kitchen.

And don’t forget the watermelon!

Armenian potato salad (Photo courtesy of Sonia Tashjian)

White bean, roasted red pepper, and tomato plaki

Maque Choux

Watermelon and string cheese, no recipe required!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

What do Anthony Bourdain and The Armenian Kitchen have in common? Read on!

The Armenian community is all a-buzz with the knowledge that Chef Anthony Bourdain’s next 'Parts Unknown', which airs on Sunday, May 20th at 9 PM (ET/PT) on CNN, will feature Armenia! (Check your local listings for the exact time.)

I, too, am excited, because in early April, I was contacted by a member of, the website associated with Bourdain's TV show. I was asked if I’d be interested in having my lahmajoun recipe appear in their companion online publication, but I'd have to decide quickly as it was a time-sensitive offer.

The Armenian Kitchen's Lahmajoun

Would I be interested?? Were they serious? OF COURSE I would. (Disclosure, I received a modest payment for this.)

My reaction went from shock, to elation, to sheer humility. 

Before sharing my recipe which includes making dough from scratch, I thought it wise to make it – in my new kitchen – to make sure the measurements and technique were correct and easy to understand. Once I was sure the final product was just right, Bourdain’s editorial staff examined the wording of the directions, making suggestions to improve my explanation.

I guess the recipe was approved, because I just noticed my recipe’s appearance on the Exploration Parts Unknown website!

If time is of the essence, make lahmajoun using the short-cut method.

I’ll bet you’re asking what Bourdain and The Armenian Kitchen have in common. Well, we’ve never met, but he – and we - have been to Armenia! And perhaps someday he’ll try my lahmajoun recipe.

Enjoy the program, and while you're at it, enjoy 
some lahmajoun, too!

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Mother's Day Recipe: Apricot Walnut Cake with Cinnamon Lemon Glaze by Christine Datian

Christian Datian’s Apricot Walnut Cake with Cinnamon Lemon Glaze will delight anyone. But since this Sunday is Mother’s Day, show her how much she is loved with this tantalizing cake.

Christine Datian's Apricot Walnut Cake with Lemon Cinnamon Glaze

Christine makes it easy by using a cake mix. The addition of some unexpected ingredients turns it into something extraordinary!

Warning: Young bakers will need a helping hand!


Apricot Walnut Cake with Cinnamon Lemon Glaze
by Christine Vartanian Datian

1 (18.25 oz.) yellow or lemon cake mix
1 (16 oz.) can apricots, drained (reserve syrup)
2 tablespoons apricot brandy or brandy of choice, optional
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped golden raisins or dates


Note: Use apricots and syrup to replace the water in this recipe.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan or Bundt pan and set aside.

Drain and dice apricots, reserve syrup in a bowl, and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, prepare cake mix (using all ingredients except water) according to the directions on box. Add the apricots, syrup, brandy, vanilla, cinnamon, zest, and allspice to the bowl, and beat for 3-4 minutes at medium speed. Fold in the walnuts and raisins or dates and toss to combine.

Sprinkle some walnuts on the bottom of the pan, pour the batter into the pan, and bake according to the directions on the cake box. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan and cool it completely on wire rack.

Drizzle with Cinnamon Lemon Glaze (see recipe below) and garnish with walnuts or diced dried or fresh chopped apricots. Serve with fresh whipped cream.

Cinnamon Lemon Glaze

Sift 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon in a bowl. Add one tablespoon milk or cream, one teaspoon vanilla, and one teaspoon lemon juice, and mix until smooth. Add a few more drops of milk or cream if ingredients are too stiff. Drizzle glaze on top and over sides of cake and let dry before serving.

*Christine’s recipes have been published in the Fresno Bee newspaper, Sunset magazine, Cooking Light magazine, and at

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Food Festival!! Where? St. Sarkis Armenian Church, Charlotte, NC

It's that time of year ... Food Festival Time, that is. 

If you're in the area, stop by for some delicious food and family fun!

See you there!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Are you in the market for sturgeon meat or caviar? If you live in the Carolinas, you’re in luck. If you don’t live in the Carolinas, you’re in luck, too.

In February, just before Doug and I moved to the Carolinas, I received an email from Lianne Won, whose family owns  Marshallberg Farm, in N.C. They have two facilities – one in Lenoir, NC (near Boone) and another in Smyrna, NC (near Beaufort). They raise Russian sturgeon for its meat and caviar. Their website states (in Russian) that they are ‘The largest producer of Russian Sturgeon in the USA’. 

Lianne mentioned that they receive a lot of calls from Armenians in NC (particularly in Charlotte), who are excited to order some fresh sturgeon meat. She asked if I could somehow let the Armenian-Russian community know about their products.

Since Lianne’s first email, I learned that her company’s sturgeon is now available at Super G Mart, a gigantic international market, on the east side of Charlotte, as well as online. 
Sturgeon kebab from the Ararat 17 Restaurant in Indian Trail, NC
I’d never eaten sturgeon before, but noticed that it’s on the menu at the Ararat 17 restaurant. As it turns out, Marshallberg Farm provides the sturgeon served at this restaurant. 

I made a point of ordering the sturgeon kebab on our last visit.
Our server warned me that the taste might be strong. Despite this warning, I ordered it anyway. I can happily report that the flavor was rather mild. Some might object to the texture, however, as it is firm – not flaky - and a bit chewy, but that might have been the result of its preparation.

To be fair, I contacted Lianne to ask about the texture of cooked sturgeon. 
Lianne noted that the sturgeon's texture is indeed dictated by  it's preparation. When she prepares sturgeon, Lianne  bakes the fish slowly at 350 degrees F in a covered pan for about 20 minutes. Then she grills it quickly to get the grill marks and a charcoal taste. Lianne states that sturgeon meat comes out better when it is not cooked over direct heat.  

My sturgeon kebab was attractively presented with the two side dishes I selected (fluffy rice and a very tasty hummus). 
A small cup of pomegranate molasses accompanied the dish. The owner, Vardan, happened to stop by our table, so I asked why the pomegranate molasses was on the plate. He said they serve the sturgeon that way because many of their Armenian customers from Baku prefer it. 
I'm not one to argue, so I dipped a piece of the kebab into the sweet, tangy, pomegranate molasses, and decided I liked it better plain.

I didn’t ask Vardan for their sturgeon kebab recipe, but Lianne’s site offers some impressive ways to prepare sturgeon, including one for kebab. 

With Lianne's permission, here is the Sturgeon Kebab recipe from Marshallberg Farm.
Marshallberg Farm's Sturgeon Kebab
Sturgeon Kebab
 Kebab Ingredients:
1 1/2 pounds sturgeon fillet
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 onions (small, sweet if available)
10 button mushrooms (large)

Marinade Ingredients:
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary (chopped)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup olive oil

For serving: 2 lemons (cut into wedges)

Cut all the fish and veggies into similar-sized pieces; this helps everything lay flat when it is on the grill.
Marinate the fish and vegetables: To make the marinade, purée the chopped onion, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper in a food processor. Drizzle in the olive oil while puréeing, continue to purée until smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Coat the fish and veggies in the marinade. Set in the fridge for at least an hour and up to overnight.
Thread onto skewers: When skewering the fish and vegetables, pierce the fish against the grain, and select pieces of veggies that are close to the same size as your fish. This is important, because if the pieces are different widths, some things will be charred and others undercooked.
Grill on high, direct heat: Prepare the grill for high, direct heat. Clean the grates and wipe them down with a paper towel that has been dipped in vegetable oil. Lay the skewers on the grill.
Don’t move them until the fish pieces are well browned on one side, about 3-6 minutes.
Then using tongs, carefully turn the skewers over and cook them until they are seared on the other side.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
Drizzle with lemon juice or serve with lemon wedges.

Friday, April 20, 2018

An Armenian restaurant near Charlotte, NC? Yes, indeed! Welcome to the Ararat 17 Restaurant, Indian Trail, NC

It’s hard to find an Armenian restaurant – unless you’re in Armenia.

We never expected we’d find one across the state line from our new house, but we did – the Ararat 17. I know where they got the name Ararat, but haven’t a clue what the ‘17’ refers to. Maybe we’ll find out some day.
Update: I recently learned that the '17' refers to the year the restaurant opened, 2017 - now I understand!

Our area exploration brought us to the Ararat 17 on a Saturday afternoon for lunch. They serve dinner Tuesday through Sunday, but only serve lunch on the weekends. (Closed Mondays)

The restaurant is tastefully decorated; the music of Mozart gently plays in the background. A well-stocked bar fills one section of the room, and the menu is surprisingly sophisticated. 

Although the menu is not ALL Armenian (there are hints of Russian cuisine, too), they do serve a number of traditional Armenian dishes.

Artak, our server, is the son of owners Vardan and Gayenne Vardanyan. Artak is well-trained, personable, and frankly, adorable! His mom and dad work diligently to prepare delicious food for their guests.
L-R; Gayenne Vardanyan, me, and Vardan Vardanyan (Sorry, I didn't get a picture of Artak.)

Before placing our order, Doug wandered over to the bar to see if they stocked any Armenian spirits. To their credit, they do! Doug spotted Ararat beer from Gyumri, and Armenian Pomegranate wine. Artak offered Doug a sample of the wine, but I took it instead. Doug was very happy with the beer.
Ararat Beer

We wanted to try just about everything on the menu, but chose specific ones which we felt represented the Armenian-side of their offerings.
Pomegranate Wine

A complimentary basket of toasted pita bread and a bowl of dried herbs were brought to the table before we ordered. Artak explained that we were to drizzle olive oil - that was already on the table – onto the herbs, then dip the bread.
Ararat Salad
Tender Stuffed Grape Leaves
Our meal began with the Ararat salad, slices of basturma, and tender, tasty stuffed grape leaves which we shared. We each chose a sandwich and side: lamb lule kebab with hummus, and lamb shish kebab with hummus.

What we didn’t know was that the Greek-style pita for each sandwich was spread with hummus (the same as the side we chose), and topped with a generous amount of Ararat salad! It wasn’t a problem; we took the rest of the appetizer salad home.

When I noticed gatah on the menu, I decided to save room for it for dessert. Doug and I ordered Armenian coffee and a gatah to share, but, alas, no gatah! We ordered the paklava instead, and are happy to report that it was light, crisp, and delicious.

Would we return? In a heartbeat!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Armenian Kitchen has a new home!

In case you’re wondering why my posts have been infrequent lately, it’s because Doug and I have recently relocated.

After 40 years in South Florida, we decided it was time to ‘spice’ things up in our lives. Don’t get me wrong, we had a wonderful life in FL. We left mainly due to the three ‘H’s’ – heat, humidity, and … hurricanes – plus we wanted to be a bit closer to our family in the northeast, without actually being in the northeast.

We struck a happy medium moving to South Carolina, just across the border from Charlotte, North Carolina where there is an Armenian community and St. Sarkis Armenian Church.

Our time has been spent setting up our home, and exploring the area. We are pleased to report that there are several Middle Eastern stores in the area, so shopping for our necessary ingredients is easy.

I’ve been having fun cooking on our gas stove, something I haven’t done since 1986. For Easter I made Doug’s mother’s recipe for Lavash, and last week I made a dozen Lahmajoun from scratch. The gas oven is a joy to use!
Sylvia Kalajian taught me how to make her lavash recipe over 40 years ago. I still make it today.
Homemade lahmajoun topped with parsley, onion and fresh lemon

To my surprise –and- delight, I found that our local grocer carries American lamb, so when we invited our new friends, Karen and Charlie Guzelian to dinner, I served Fassoulia with Lamb, rice pilaf, salad – and mini paklava for dessert! Charlie paid me the sweetest compliment when he said my cooking was as good as his mother's. 

Our new friends and neighbors, Karen and Charlie Guzelian

Fassoulia with Lamb and Rice Pilaf
Mini Paklava

It’s great to be home!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Meet Joel Denker - Teacher, Author, Food Enthusiast, and creator of Food Passages - Excursions in the World of Food & Culture

I was recently introduced to the written work of Joel Denker by his wife, Peggy. She asked me for permission to use my photo of kadaif in an article Joel was writing about Armenian Pizza – aka lahmajoun. I was delighted to share. Once completed, she sent me his article – a fascinating read! 

Joel Denker
Joel, a man with a passion for knowledge in the history and culture of ethnic food, has invited me to share his story with readers of The Armenian Kitchen. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the 'jottings of Joel'. 

'Whose Pizza Is It? An Armenian Adventure'  
Lahmadjoune (Armenian pizza) from Chez Apo
 Photo by Denzil D’Sa. Instagram @reekooh

A Lebanese friend had a bone to pick with me about eggplant. The vegetable, he said, did not originate in India, as I had written, but in his homeland. The urge to identify particular foods with one’s own ethnicity or nationality is an irresistible one. I was reminded of this exchange by an experience I had had on a recent visit to Montreal. During my stay, I had gone to visit Chez Apo, an Armenian bakery whose specialty was lahmadjoune, a product the shop called “Armenian pizza.” I was eager to find out what made their pie “Armenian.” (In this piece, I will be using “lahmadjoune,” instead of the Arabic “lahm b’ajin,” simply because of my Armenian themes.)

Over the years, I have been drawn, almost serendipitously, to Armenian food. When I lived as a young teacher on Lexington Avenue in the mid-twenties, on New York’s East Side, I discovered a restaurant, Palace d’Orient, nearby. It became a haunt of mine. At the time, I took its unusual cuisine for granted. I even gave little thought to its name, which, I later realized, evoked the alluring Middle East.
Menu of the old Palace d’Orient Armenian restaurant in New York

The small dining room had all the trappings of a luxurious establishment. At least, it seemed elegant to me, a roving bohemian attracted to snack bars and luncheonettes. Overpowered at first by the Palace, the culinary hideaway gradually grew on me.

Formally dressed waiters presided over the restaurant. They hoisted trays of dinner specials, which they delivered to well-appointed tables with white tablecloths. Platters of mussels stuffed with rice and currants and skewers of lamb shish kebab were presented to diners. I remember savoring a curious dish, baked eggplant topped with a rich tomato sauce and luxuriant with olive oil. Thinking back, it might have been imam bayildi (“the priest fainted”). Its extravagance was suggestive of the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire. Yet it was on the menu of an Armenian restaurant, whose proprietors’ forebears were members of a large Christian minority ruled by Turks. In retrospect, this was a paradox, but not one I pondered at the time.

The Palace was one of several restaurants that sprang up in Manhattan’s Little Armenia neighborhood. An Armenian Orthodox church, St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral, anchored the district. Several rug stores were located nearby. The restaurants have vanished, but one landmark of the old community’s retailing past remains. Kalustyan’s on Lexington Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets was opened by an Armenian businessman in 1944 to market familiar foods to his fellow ethnics. Kerope Kalustyan had planned to export steel to Turkey but decided to try his luck in the food trade.

By the 1950s, the shop’s wide selection of grains, spices, and lentils had caught the attention of new arrivals from India. Kalustyan’s was a lifeline for South Asian immigrants who had few places that carried their foods. “They were the only game in town,” Indian food writer Madhur Jaffrey told journalist Vikram Doctor. Writer Jimmy Breslin, she adds, observed how proud the owner was of carrying supari, “a kind of nut from India and Kerope may be the only one in America who stocks it.”

Basterma. Photo by Joumana Accad.

The owner shrewdly expanded its offerings to capture these new patrons. Kalustyan’s even launched its own brands of chutney and mango pickles. As Little Armenia gradually disappeared, Indian shops and restaurants took its place. The section was now dubbed “Curry Hill” (the larger area is called Murray Hill). The store has changed hands several times and is currently run by a Bangladeshi. Middle Eastern products are still for sale, but the shop is more widely known for its vast website, an online catalog of traditional as well as new-wave ethnic items. Visiting the store in 1996, food writer Regina Schrambling marveled at the emporium’s novel wares: “dried herbs on the vine from Greece and Sicily, sour cherry products to cater to Iranian customers, shelf-stable, ready-to-eat Indian meals, Irish butter alongside labneh. It has a wall of salts, from Antarctica and the Kalahari Desert and Italy and Germany and Cyprus…. It also carries a global array of even things as basic as sugar: Belgian, Balian, Japanese, jaggery, coconut, palm.”

Some years later, I ventured into an Armenian grocery store in Marseilles, a port city that is home to a large community of these ethnics. In this entrepôt for trade with the Levant, Armenian merchants had built a small colony by the early seventeenth century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a large influx of Armenian immigrants fleeing oppression in Turkey streamed into the city.

I was on a ramble in a multi-ethnic quarter of the city, where earlier newcomers had set up shop and which was now becoming increasingly North African. I nibbled sweets at a Tunisian bakery, peered at a plethora of spices in a Somali-owned shop, and dined at a festive Ivoirian restaurant, whose owner hugged me and introduced herself as “Mama Africa.” Soon, a pitcher of bissap, a crimson, tart, West African juice made from hibiscus, arrived at the table.

A tray of Armenian pastries, known as Kadaif. Photo by Robyn Kalajian,

Alimentation Murat, the Armenian store, represented an older immigrant era. The store, which advertised specialties of the “Orient,” was a remnant of a once-thriving commercial diaspora. The neighborhood once boasted “beaucoup” Armenians, a local told me. The grocery displayed an array of goods—chopped pistachios and other nuts, dried fruits, cherry syrup, orange blossom water, cans of okra, Mediterranean white cheese (like feta), and sweets like halva and kadaif (a pastry resembling shredded wheat). It had the flavor and atmosphere of a Middle Eastern food hall. At least one item, a dried, spiced beef called basturma, dear to Armenians, would have been a telltale sign to his clientele of the owner’s heritage.

On another food quest, digging through books for nuggets on the history of ethnic food, I chanced on a reference to Colombo yogurt. Apparently, this once exotic product, which I had first sampled at Skenderis, a former Greek grocery in Washington, had been conceived by an Armenian family. My curiosity whetted, I wanted to know more. I got in touch with Bob Colombosian, whose parents founded the business.

Colombo yogurt and
Rose Colombosian, who started Colombo Yogurt with her husband, Sarkis, in Massachusetts.

Rose and Sarkis Colombosian arrived in Lawrence, a city in northeastern Massachusetts on the Merrimack River, in the 1920s. They joined a growing Armenian community, the latest in a long line of settlers—French Canadians, Irish, Italians, Syrians—attracted by the city’s woolen mills. The Colombosians left Lawrence on the eve of the Depression, to start a dairy farm in nearby North Andover. On an impulse, they decided to peddle their homemade “madzoon” (yogurt) to Greeks, Lebanese, and Syrians in Haverhill, Lowell, and other towns with ethnic communities. In horse-drawn wagons, the vendors of the Wild Rose Dairy carried their product in quart glass bottles. They soon branched out to “mom and pop” groceries, Lebanese and Armenian shops in Lawrence. “The only place you could sell it was the ethnic stores in the beginning,” Bob recalled. They soon hit on a name for their yogurt. They called it “Colombo,” Bob said, because “nobody could pronounce their name.”

An early Colombo yogurt bottle, from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

A new client, the Mugar family, who owned two groceries in Watertown, a Massachusetts town with a large Armenian population, opened the door to a larger market for the Colombosians. The Armenian merchants who began carrying Colombo later launched Star Markets, a statewide chain. The entrée the owners gave the Colombosians to their supermarkets provided greater visibility and income.

Gradually, the Colombosians reached a wider market. By the mid-sixties, Bob and his brother decided to sweeten their brand. Although they continued to carry plain yogurt, they somewhat reluctantly adapted to American tastes. “American people like a lot of sugar,” Bob observed. The new product, a fruity custard, meant, he said, that “New customers wouldn’t spit it out when they took a bite.”

Rice pilaf with sujuk sausages. Photo by Joumana Accad.

I continued to stumble on Armenian foods. At Bacchus, an early Lebanese restaurant in Washington, DC, Usama El-Jallad, the flamboyant owner, explained the myriad items on his mezze (appetizers) menu to the uninitiated. As he ran down his roster of delicacies, flavored with mint, pomegranate molasses, sesame tahini, and other seasonings, he stopped to decipher the names of unusual dishes. One of them, sujuk, was unfamiliar to me. The tasty, spicy sausage, which he identified as Armenian, I later learned was a specialty of their kitchen.

Sign over the front door of Chez Apo in Montreal, Quebec. Photo by Risa Dickens

In the fall of 2017, I was at the doorway to Chez Apo, a tiny Armenian bakery in Montreal. I was on an expedition to uncover the mysteries of the shop’s celebrated product. Ever since I had seen “lahmadjoune” on signs in Armenian shops in the Boston area, I had been tantalized. The shop’s owners, Maro and Apo (a nickname for Abraham) Esrabian, had left Lebanon in 1976 in the aftermath of the country’s calamitous civil war. They settled in Montreal, burning with a desire to innovate, to build a different kind of business. They wanted to “start something homemade, old fashioned, something new,” Maro told me. Their enthusiasm more than made up for their inexperience: “We don’t know nothing,” Maro recounted. Drawing on their heritage, they decided to bake lahmadjoune, which they billed as “Armenian pizza.” (The word means “meat in dough.”) They fashioned the thin-crusted pie from flatbread and topped it with chopped meat and tomatoes. They seasoned their creation simply with garlic, onions, parsley, salt, and pepper. The shop’s drawing card, her late husband told writer Philip Sporzer, was a wood-fired oven. Building it would generate excitement: “In order for this to take off, I needed something so people would go ‘Wow!’ I wanted to please them and get customers. So we built the brick oven.”

Brick oven at Chez Apo, Montreal. Photo by Fadi Sakr

They complemented their pizza with other items, many also turned out from the oven. Customers drove to the shop to pick up maneesh za’atar, a flatbread sprinkled with a blend of thyme and sumac that is a popular Lebanese breakfast repast. They also baked spinach pizza accented with feta cheese and fatayer, a kind of Middle Eastern turnover filled with meat or spinach. The Esrabians also offered the region’s classic appetizers, hummus and baba ghanoush.

I quickly turned my conversation with Maro to the question that preoccupied me: Who created lahmadjoune? While acknowledging that the word was Arabic-Turkish, her pizza, Maro said, was distinctive: “The name is the same but the taste is different in Arab countries.” The Armenian pie was “lighter” and not as “spicy.” It was the stronger, more pungent flavor of the Arabic flatbread product that distressed her. Similarly, she felt that the taste of Lebanese za’atar was too intense.

Compared to the passionate convictions of some ethnics about lahmadjoune, Maro’s views on the pastry were measured. Opposing sides have laid exclusive claim to it. When two Armenian restaurants recently opened in Russia, Turkish loyalists were enraged by their campaign to promote the pizza as uniquely “Armenian.” Assailing the alleged imposters, Turkish television commentators declared that the lahmadjoune belonged to their country. Interestingly enough, even in Turkey, different regions have squabbled over the pie, each claiming to be its rightful parent.

'Middle Eastern Cookery' by Arto der Haroutunian

Otherwise disinterested Middle Eastern food writers of Armenian background can become defiant when it comes to pizza. Arto der Haroutunian weighed in on the debate in his book, 'Middle Eastern Cookery': “I have never much cared for things chauvinistic, but even I, who have been brought up amongst people who, next to death, regard patriotism as a taboo subject, are obliged to scream, ‘Stop! Enough is enough!’” Lahmadjoune, he insisted, isn’t Arabic—and “that is final.” The author further argues that “to call this dish Arab because it has an Arabic name is ridiculous. The reason for its name was commercial. By that I mean when a minority lives among a majority, the former invariably uses the latter’s language for commercial purposes.”

'A Book of Middle Eastern Food' by Claudia Roden

For some perspective on this culinary conflict, I decided to check in with two authorities on Middle Eastern food, two neutrals, neither of whom has a dog in the fight. In an email, Claudia Roden, the author of the groundbreaking 'A Book of Middle Eastern Food', reflects on the difficulty in assigning ancestry: “It is Turkish but also Syrian and Lebanese and you find it in other Middle Eastern countries. Some of my relatives made it at home. Jewish bakers in Egypt made it. Armenians make it too but I don’t think it originates from them.”

Cover of 'A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Culture of the Middle East', by Richard Tapper and Sami Zubaida.

Sami Zubaida, a Middle Eastern food scholar and expert on the politics and culture of the region, points out that the area’s diverse groups eat similar foods. The pie “is common in a wide region of Anatolia and the Arab Levant, until recent history inhabited by many ethnicities, Turk, Arab, Kurd, Greek, Assyrian, and Armenian,” he wrote me. “They shared a roughly common food culture.”

Their responses made me reexamine my own preconceptions. I knew from my own writing and research that food is often a product of a jumble of cultures rather than of one land or nationality. Even though I understood this argument intellectually, I frequently (as in my conversations with Maro Esrabian), looked for convenient pigeonholes for foods. I began thinking of another way of illuminating “Armenian pizza”—it belonged to the Armenians only in the sense that they put their own imprint on a shared pastry.

Armenians may not be its parents but because they were prominent bakers as well as purveyors of lahmadjoune and other Middle Eastern specialties, it was natural for many to think so. The association was an easy one to make. The Armenians, for example, controlled the “bread and pastry” trade in Aleppo, Syria for three hundred years, Sonia Uvezian, a culinary historian of the Middle East, notes.

To attempt, then, to pin down the exact genealogy of the pizza is to ask the wrong question. Zubaida puts it well: “Armenians were, and are, renowned in the region as fine cooks and caterers. As such they have excelled in many culinary fields. But that is different from attributing ‘ownership,’ which is impossible to determine. I have argued that it is geography rather than ethnicity.”

The Armenians came from a long trading tradition. Outsiders in the Middle East, they capitalized on their ancient nation’s position as a “Christian island in a Muslim sea,” to use historian Philip Curtin’s image. These “cross cultural brokers,” Curtin argues, carried goods to distant destinations. In the eighteenth century, Armenian merchants processed caviar from sturgeon eggs and shipped it to Russia. Goods from the East, like Persian silk, were transported west, to Amsterdam and other towns. They were also pioneers in the popularization of coffee. In the 1670s, an Armenian from Marseilles opened the first coffee houses in Paris and other towns, Curtin points out. They also operated most of France’s early cafés. Because of their prowess, Armenian Christians became the consummate traders and artisans in the Ottoman Empire.

Arax Market, an Armenian grocery in Watertown, Mass.

The Armenians have been especially adept in merchandising foods, whatever their origin, to receptive customers. New York City’s Kalustyan’s, as noted earlier, morphed into a grocery that targeted both Middle Easterners and Indians. In their early settlements, Armenian grocers attracted shoppers with a varied assortment of goods, without neglecting their own favorites. Historian Robert Mirak uncovered a fascinating description of one early store in Chelsea, Massachusetts: “There was merchandise strewn everywhere. Long, rigid baloneys and sausages hung from hooks in the ceiling; barrels of nuts, flour, cracked wheat, and squash seeds lined the walls. Tubs of olives and swimming Greek cheese had been shoved under tables on which rested tins of Armenian pastry, herbs and all sorts of canned stuff.”

Armenians continue to play an influential role in the food business. Most of the Lebanese restaurants and groceries that Middle Eastern food scholar Charles Perry profiled in a 1992 Los Angeles food guide were owned, he said, by Armenians. Today, the cluster of Armenian grocery stores in Watertown, Massachusetts, a town near Cambridge, attracts buyers from many backgrounds, with its cornucopia of Arabic and Mediterranean products. Her experience running Chez Apo has taught Maro Esrabian an important lesson. If she catered only to her own people, she told me, “long time ago I closed.”

Unconstrained by any and all ethnic boundaries, some Armenians have burst into the American fast food arena. In 1992, two brothers, Aro and Allen Agakhanyan, opened Big Mama’s and Papa’s Pizzeria in Los Angeles. From this early shop, they built a chain of more than twenty businesses. The brothers concocted a Giant Sicilian Pizza, a 200-slice pie, which they claim is the largest ever to be delivered. Their outlets sell pizzas along with such standbys as Philly cheesesteaks, Greek salads, chicken wings, and potato skins. Big Mama’s gained national fame at the 2014 Oscars when Ellen DeGeneres ordered their pizza to share with the luminaries.