Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A banner day for Armenians in the Catskills

We recently visited the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum in Upstate New York to see the first-ever major exhibit of works by the late but recently discovered painter Ashot (Art) Pinajian.
The exhibit runs through Oct. 11 before moving on to Watertown, Mass.

After touring the museum and dropping off the Armenian-themed cartoons that we're lending to the exhibition, we continued on to Windham, N.Y., about 30 miles deeper into the Catskill Mountains.

Windham is a quaint little ski town, mostly quiet this time of year, which makes it perfect for weekend getaways for high-powered New Yorkers like our daughter Mandy.

There's only one main street through town,  a short stretch of shops that hardly ever changes -- except for the surprise we spotted in the above photo.

The Armenian flag fluttering over Route 23 is one of several banners outside a new Greek-owned grocery store. (Of course, there's a Greek flag, too.)

Mandy had scouted this place on a previous visit, but the store had just opened and had few items. She wasn't hoping for much.

But this time, we found a surprisingly substantial array of specialty ingredients for cooking and baking, including mahlab (ground cherry pits). Mandy scooped up an armful of goodies and promised to be back soon.

I thought this was pretty cool: The flag meant to attract curious Armenians did just that, and our curiosity was rewarded. Better still, Mandy now has a place to shop for our kind of groceries in a town where there isn't even a regular supermarket.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Marian Amiraian’s Yogurt Soup (Tahnabour)

Tahnabour (Yogurt Soup)
Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be in the right place, at the right time. Recently, neighbor Marian Amiraian called to say her children weren’t able to visit and she made a giant pot of Tanabour that she didn’t know what to do with, so would Doug and I be interested in having some.

Interested? Was she kidding?? Of course we were! We live a hop, skip, and a jump away, and were only too happy to help Marian out. After keeping a small portion for herself, we were treated to the rest. It made the perfect lunch, and boy, was it DELICIOUS! Thanks, Marian!

How did Marian make it? Here’s what she said:

Place 1 can (14.5 oz) chicken broth in a large saucepan, toss in a handful of quick-cooking barley, and cook until barley is tender. Set aside to cool.

In a separate bowl, place ½ of a large container of plain yogurt, and whisk in one whole egg until well combined. Set aside.

Meantime, in a skillet, melt 2 Tbsp butter, and saute ½ an onion, finely minced, over a low heat. When onions begin to caramelize, stir in about 1 Tbsp dried mint. As soon as the onion and butter turn a light brown, remove skillet from heat.

Once the chicken broth has cooled, vigorously whisk the yogurt-egg mixture into the saucepan, then stir in the onion-mint mixture. Heat ever-so gently, stirring constantly, until a slight simmer has been reached.
Serve immediately.

NOTE: When reheating, use a low heat, stirring often, to prevent curdling.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Paklava ice cream! An artisinal creation worth the price

Paklava ice cream!
Artisinal foods are all the rage in New York City these days. You see the signs (literally, signs) everywhere.

I was a little perplexed by this during our summer visit with our daughter Mandy. Artisinal is just a fancy way of saying something was made by the hand of someone with special skill.

It's kind of a hoity-toity way of distinguishing the good stuff from factory-produced food, but what's new other than the name? Any decent, neighborhood restaurant or bakery seems to fit the bill -- but slap an "artisinal" label on just about anything and it seems you can really bump up the price.

Without going out of our way, we encountered (and consumed) artisinal bread, artisinal beer, artisinal pickles (!) and even artisinal doughnuts -- all of which were fine but nothing to write home (or even a blog item) about.

Then we encountered artisinal ice cream from an outfit with the amusing name of Melt Bakery at a street fair on the Lower East Side.

Standing beside heat-resistant mock-ups of their creations in a shaded kiosk at Seward Park, Kareem Hamady and Julian Plyter looked more like contestants on Top Chef than Good Humor Men.

Their ice-cream sandwiches all looked great, the baked part being outer layers of chocolate chip cookies or brownies or...pakhlava!

Although Plyter is the pastry chef, the fillo concoction was Hamady's idea
-- and appropriately named The Kareem.

Not only was it a great idea, it was impressively executed. The baked dough, drizzled with rose-water syrup, yielded gently to the bite so that the ice cream didn't squirt out the sides.

Beneath the dough was a layer of crushed pistachio nuts -- and inside, a generous filling of very rich pistachio ice cream.

These were high-quality ingredients, and the result tasted great. Considering what Ben & Jerry charge, Kareem and Julian's creation was definitely worth the $4.

The portion size was generous, too -- easily sharable, although Robyn was absent so I was forced to eat the entire thing myself. Anything less would have been unfair to you, the readers.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Armenians in China? You bet!

Armenians are everywhere - even China.

About 200 Armenians are living and working in China - a VERY tiny minority considering China’s population of over 1.3 BILLION as of mid-2008. Undeterred by the size of their community, Armenians are becoming an important part of the world’s most-populated country.

I was reading the eNewsletter of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church when I came across an article about the first Armenian baptisms in China held on July 9th of this year. The elaborate event was hosted by Harout and Liza Sert, to celebrate the baptisms of their children Enza and Aaron. Originally from France, the Sert family came to China to run a number of factories that produce jewelry for the European market.

The Very Rev. Fr. Khoren Hovhannisyan, pastor of the Armenians in India and manager of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, officiated.

The family posted photos of the event on a site, http://www.chinahay.com/. I was curious to see what was served at the dinner. Armenian cuisine? Chinese? Unfortunately, there weren’t enough food-photos to tell.

                         But, there was one picture of the “chefs”.

                            What do you think the menu was?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Armenian Honey Cakes

Author Jane Haddam
Have you ever heard of Oldways - a nonprofit in Boston interested in helping people learn to enjoy foods related to the Mediterranean Diet? Or Jane Haddam, author of the Gregor Demarkian series of mystery novels?
I hadn’t... until recently.

I became acquainted with Oldways, when Georgia Orcutt, their program manager, wrote to me asking for a recipe for Armenian Honey Cakes. She was contacted by a woman who is an avid reader of Jane Haddam novels.

Apparently, the avid reader was intrigued by a line in one of Haddam’s recent books: “He had eaten an entire cookie tin full of honey cakes, and another cookie tin full of some hard cookie that he didn't know the name of.”
The reader was interested in finding a recipe for these “honey cakes”.

This is one determined person! The reader contacted the author, who directed her to the book, “Complete Armenian Cooking” (or something like that). The reader then checked with the Library of Congress to find that there was no recipe for honey cakes in that cookbook. Not wanting to bother the author again, Avid Reader found Georgia Orcutt at Oldways. Georgia didn’t have an appropriate recipe, began her own search and found ...... TheArmenianKitchen.com!

It was at this point that I began communicating with Avid Reader directly. I scoured through my cookbooks, including “The Complete Armenian Cookbook” by Alice Bezjian, which I thought might be the one she referred to earlier. I found nothing. Continuing my search, I came up with three possible recipes which I adapted for home preparation, 2 Armenian Honey Cookie recipes, and one for Spicy Armenian Honey Cakes. I did warn Avid Reader that none of these were tested in our kitchen, so I couldn’t vouch for their quality.

Here are the recipes I sent:

Recipe #1:

Armenian Honey Cookies

3/4 cup butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
1 egg
2 tsp baking powder
2 cups flour

additional sugar for rolling
1. Melt butter in a saucepan or microwave oven.
2. Place melted butter in a mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients (except additional sugar), and mix until well blended.
3. Chill for about 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
4. Shape dough into balls about the size of a walnut.
5. Place additional sugar in a bowl. Coat each ball in sugar.
6. Place balls on a lightly greased sheet. With your fingers, gently press each cookie to slightly flatten.
7. Bake in a preheated 375ºF oven for 8 to 10 minutes.
8. Cool on wire rack. When completely cooled, store in an airtight container.

Recipe #2:

Armenian Honey Cookies
Yield: about 4 dozen


½ cup honey
½ cup sugar
2 large eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour (approximately)
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
dash salt

1 egg white, beaten
walnut halves, optional


1. Combine honey and sugar in a large bowl, mixing well. Add eggs; beat well.
2. Sift flour; set aside.
3. Sift baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and salt into honey-sugar mixture; stir well.
4. Add enough of the sifted flour to make a stiff dough.
5. Shape into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 min. to 1 hour.
6. Remove ball of dough from refrigerator; on a lightly floured work surface flatten dough with your hand. 
7. Lightly flour a rolling pin and roll dough to about 1/4 inch thickness. Cut with a round, two-inch cookie cutter.
8. Place each round on a greased cookie sheet about 1 inch apart. Brush top with beaten egg white, and press a walnut half in the center of each, if desired.
9. Bake in a preheated 375ºF oven for 12 to 15 minutes.
10. Cool completely on a wire rack.
11. Store in an airtight container.

Spicy Armenian Honey Cakes
Yield: 20 to 25 cakes

Cake Ingredients:

4 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 ½ cups olive oil
½ cup sugar
3/4 cup orange juice
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground cardamom
dash salt

Filling Ingredients:

1 cup chopped walnuts
1 tsp cinnamon

Cake Directions:

1. In a medium bowl, sift flour with baking powder and baking soda; set aside.
2. In a large bowl beat olive oil and sugar; stir in orange juice, cinnamon, cardamom, and salt until well combined.
3. Gradually add flour mixture to oil mixture, mixing well until a soft dough has formed.
4. Cover bowl and let rest about 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
5. In the meantime, prepare the walnut-cinnamon filling ingredients and set aside.
6. After 20 minutes, shape dough into walnut-sized balls, then flattening each.
7. Place ½ tsp walnut-cinnamon filling mixture in center of each.
8. Enclose the filling with the dough, pressing to seal.
9. Place on ungreased baking sheet; bake about 20 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Cool.

Syrup Ingredients:

½ cup sugar
1 cup honey
½ cup water
2 tsp lemon juice
1 small cinnamon stick

Syrup Directions:

In a medium pot, combine all syrup ingredients and bring to a boil, skimming any foam that comes to the surface. Cook about 5 minutes. Remove cinnamon stick; allow to cool a bit.


Assembling Instructions:

Dip each cooled honey cake in warm syrup briefly and allowing excess to drip off. Place on serving platter.

Topping Ingredients:

1 cup ground walnuts
½ tsp ground cinnamon
dash ground cardamom

Topping Directions:

Combine topping ingredients and sprinkle on each honey cake before serving.


Avid Reader appreciated the recipes and decided the Spicy Honey Cakes seemed more like the small-formed cakes as described in Jane Haddam's book. She plans on giving it a go.

Once she does, I’ve asked her to report back with photos, if possible.

By the way, if any of you have another Armenian Honey Cake recipe, we would gladly post it. Avid Reader might prefer yours!

Monday, September 13, 2010

If it's an egg, does that mean it's breakfast?

Except for her delicious parsley-and-onion eggs, my mother usually favored a plain omelet. Nothing but beaten eggs cooked in butter until slightly brown, then flipped and cooked some more until mottled on the other side.

Clearly, this was a culinary failure by the standards of today's celebrity chefs, who seem to like their omelets as soft and soupy as chowder.

But here's the real twist: Mom always topped her plain omelet with a generous sprinkle of sugar. She said that's how her mother ate eggs, so it was obviously a Dikranagerdsi thing.

I have no idea how her Kharpertsi father ate eggs, or if he ate eggs at all. But my father, who was born in Dikranagerd, like his eggs over medium -- and he said his father ate them with hot peppers.

So, who knows?

I do know that Mom and her Dikranagerdsi aunts also put sugar on cheese borags and ate them as dessert.

Does any of this ring a bell?

I wonder if any other Armenians like to sweeten their eggs or any other dishes that most leave savory?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Medical breakthrough: How an Armenian fruit may save the world

Pomegranates, beloved by Armenians, have been getting marvelous press all over the world in recent years for their extraordinary health-boosting properties in warding off heart disease, cancer and others ills.

Now comes news that the fruit also possesses a natural shield against bacteria that may in turn shield the rest of us from one of the world's most vexing scourges.

National Geographic magazine reports that researchers in London have found that a mixture of pomegranate rind, copper salts and vitamin C "can significantly reduce the growth of some common hospital bacteria."

After decades of decline, hospital infections have soared in recent years. The increased use of antibiotics to combat their spread has in turn spawned even tougher germs that don't respond to traditional treatment.

The encouraging new research shows that pomegranate rind contains natural antimicrobial agents that protect the fruit inside.

Scientists hope to develop a pomegranate-based ointment for cuts or surgical wounds that would keep nasty bugs from getting into patients' blood, where infections are most dangerous and difficult to defeat.

Best of all, researchers say there would likely be no side effects to this natural treatment.

Just for the record: Armenians have used pomegranates, including the rind, in folk medicines for centuries.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The language of food continues to stir debate

We got yet-another thought-provoking message recently on the topic of Armenian food terms that may not be Armenian in origin.

Reader Antranik posted his comments as a reponse to our blog item from last March in which we relayed Tom Merjanian's thoughts on the subject.

Tom was particularly troubled by the common use of Turkish words for Armenian dishes, and he suggested a number of Armenian alternatives.

Unless you happened to look back at that post, you missed Antranik's comments -- and we thought they were definitely worth sharing.

Antranik writes that Tom's comments "made me think about the Armenian language and how it had to be repurified. It had taken so many Persian words that at one point it was considered a dialect of Persian."

Like us, Antranik learned many Turkish words for Armenian foods because his grandparents used them -- although sometimes, they did offer Armenian suggestions. Zailou, for example, instead of choreg.

"The thing about food is that it will always have foreign names because each type of food has a discrete center of origin," he continued.

 "For example, eggplant -- a fruit much loved by Armenians, is originally from India. there it is called baingan (among other things). As it traveled through trade routes the name changed slightly as different ears heard differently. But it is clearly still rooted in the Indian word. It went something like this: India-Persia: bademjaan. Perisa to Arabia: bathinjan. Turkey: patlican. Moors to Spain: berenjena, to France: aubergine.

"You can see these are corruptions of the original Indian name. Interestingly, the Armenian word, which I'm not sure Armenians are aware of, is simpoog, which is unique."

Antranik goes on to note the difficulty -- maybe impossibility -- of assigning a single ethnic identity to any dish we eat today because they've all evolved as ingredients and people traveled.

"Still, I'm a proud Armenian (sometimes too proud), and I take pride in the ownership of certain dishes. Lavash pops up in fancy restaurants all over the country, which warms the cockles of heart. I always tell whoever I'm with, 'Hey, that's Armenian.' "

He makes other fascinating points, too, about the origin of pakhlava and other terms. Check out the full text along with other insightful comments.

Antranik ends with the most important point of all.

"Everybody just keep enjoying Armenian Cuisine and everything will be alright."

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The coffee's still boiling over!

Our item on How To Make Armenian Coffee continues to draw interest.

And the companion YouTube video continues to draw viewers -- it's far and away our most popular -- as well as comments, many of which I wouldn't repeat here.

People apparently have really strong feelings about really strong coffee!

The good news is most of those who've responded seem to love Armenian coffee. It brings back the sort of memories for them that it does for us, the warm feeling we get from making and eating all the recipes of our parents and grandparents.

Reader Shant Meeroian, for one, remembers that his grandmother bought raw, green coffee beans because "they were cheaper." She roasted them until they were "almost brown/black but not black because then it's bitter."
She ground the roasted beans into powder, and then added spices: "cardamom, baharat (allspice) and sometimes a pinch of cinnamon."
What a heavenly smell -- and that's even before the coffee's on the stove. 

Thanks, Shant, for sharing that great memory!

My grandparents were all long gone before my time, but I'd have to guess they roasted and pulverized their own beans, too. My father, the chief coffee maker in our house, bought the coffee already ground at the Armenian grocery store.
He added no seasonings to the pot, but always placed a whole cardamom pod in each cup and poured the steaming coffee over it. 

What an aroma!
I can smell it now -- or will soon. I'm heading to the kitchen for a coffee break.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The lost recipes of George Mardikian, a great Armenian chef

George Mardikian
A century ago, and for centuries before that, Istanbul was a vital center of Armenian cuisine as well as Armenian culture in general.

Armenian chefs served up the finest fare in the city's finest restaurants, as well as the sultan's kitchen. They are gone, along with much of the city's once-robust Armenian community, but they have left their imprint on the entire region's menu.

In his biographical Song of America, the late San Francisco restaurateur George Mardikian (in photo at left) shared an indelible memory of the city's greatest chef, Ashji Mugurdich.

Before the Genocide, Ashji was head chef at the glittering and famous Hotel Tokatlian. His food was so devine that husbands who wanted to flatter their wives after dinner would say, "Ashji Mugurdich himself could not have cooked such a meal!"

As an aspiring chef, Mardikian drew inspiration from Ashji but he never hoped to meet the man -- much less taste his food -- until a chance encounter in Egypt in the late 1920s.

Mardikian was working his way around the world on a steamship when he found himself docked in Alexandria. He arranged to meet some boyhood friends for dinner at a small cafe.

Sadly, Mardikian did not describe the meal in detail, but he wrote that it was so delicious -- and so clearly Armenian -- that it was "a masterpiece." Mardikian insisted on meeting the chef.

"Out of the kitchen shuffled an old man with white hair," he wrote. "He wore a white chef's apron and a cap, and glasses that magnified his eyes strangely."

It was Ashji Mugurdich!

Mardikian felt overwhelmed, like a young artist suddenly in the presence of a great master.

He told Ashji that he dreamed of introducing Armenian food to Americans. He begged Ashji to share his recipes, but the old chef refused to reveal his secrets.

Mardikian finally offered to abandon ship and stay in Alexandria as Ashji's apprentice. The master turned him down -- but he softened enough to promise that he would commit his recipes to writing and send them to Mardikian later.

They sealed the deal over a cup of Armenian coffee.

Indeed, Chef Ashji kept his word. For years after, Mardikian received letters laying out "page after page of his priceless recipes."

We'll never know how they tasted.

Ashji's handwriting was "like the tracks of a chicken," Mardikian wrote. "I could never make it out."