Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sonia Tashjian celebrates the foods of Dikranagerd, helping preserve culture and memories

We’ve all experienced a rush of emotion while eating foods familiar from our childhood. For immigrants, especially those who escaped misery, this experience can be profound. Food can obscure our worst memories while evoking the best.
A view of Diyarbekir (Dikranagerd) - Source: Lamec Saad, "Zestien Jaar als Quarantaine-Artsin Turkije", De Aarde en haar Volken, Haarlem, 1917).
I learned this from observing my father, Nishan Kalajian, while I was growing up. Dad was born in 1912 in the city Turks call Diyarbekir and Armenians call Dikranagerd. He survived the first wave of Genocide but fled from renewed terrors in 1922.

He had no desire to return, except at dinner time.

Beyli Baghli
That meant our dinners in 1950's New Jersey were often like a journey to a far different place. We ate our share of steak and pork chops, but our daily fare was more often beyli baghli,or douzma. Or moutfouna (see recipe below), or sud keebah
Sud Keebah
Does that sound familiar? Maybe some of it does, or maybe none at all. 

The names of many Armenian recipes morphed as they were carried across the mountains and valleys of the homeland. But the foods of Dikranagerd not only sound different, they taste different. 

The city’s history as a trade center and crossroads delivered a bounty of seasonings and ingredients that made the local cuisine as distinctive as the local dialect.

As a boy, I learned all the names while watching my mother cook because she delivered a commentary in the language of her own Dikranagertsi mother. None of this seemed exotic at the time because I heard the same language and ate the same food in the homes of many relatives and friends.

Of course, that was a very long time ago and nearly all of those wonderful people are gone. With our widening circle of Armenian friends nowadays, dinner is more likely to feature hinkali or khachapouri than yekhni (recipe below) or kavourma. 

So I was particularly excited and more than a bit nostalgic when Robyn showed me a recent article on the foods of Dikranagerd by Sonia Tashjian. Sonia, as our regular readers know, is one of Armenia’s most valuable culinary resources, working tirelessly to explore, document and preserve the many facets of Armenian cooking.

Appropriately, Sonia’s story appeared on, an ongoing project to recreate the village life and culture of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Reading her comments and recipes sent me on that long-ago journey once again, recalling the ever-present scent of allspice and coriander in our family kitchen while viewing photos from the rocky paths my father followed as a boy.

Most startling for me: one of the historic photos accompanying her article is a portrait of the Deriklian family, including my father’s aunt and cousins.

Of course, no story about Dikranagerd would be complete without noting the great troubadour, Onnik Dinkjian, who continues to celebrate everything about the Dikranagertsi life. Sonia offers a sample of Onnik’s ode to the foods he loves, sung in the distinctive Dikranagertsi dialect.

Mir mootfoonan boolghoorov
O yardele yardele
Mechuh sokh booghdoonoosov
O yardele yardele

You may well may have heard this and wondered what sort of dinner was worth singing about. Reading Sonia’s story will help explain. If you’re curious to know even more, check out Charles Kasbarian’s 'The Dikranagerd Mystique Armenian Cookbook' (in process).

I’m biased of course, but I think there’s a good chance you’ll find much to like no matter where you trace your family’s roots.

Moutfouna (Lamb and Eggplant Stew) from Charles Kasbarian

Serves 4 - 6


2 lbs. lamb neck bones, or 1 lb. boned, cubed lamb for stew

1 large eggplant, washed, unpeeled, and cut into 1-inch thick cubes

1 cup sumac seeds (sold in Middle Eastern stores)


1 lemon

4 cloves garlic, crushed, and mixed with 2 teaspoons of water

salt and pepper to taste

*small loaf of crusty bread for dipping


1. Place meat in a stockpot, and cover with water.

2. Heat over a low flame until most of the water evaporates, and the meat is detached from the bones.

3. Strain contents of the pot through a sieve or colander

4. Remove the bones from the sieve, and discard.

5. Place the meat back into the washed stockpot and add 3 cups of water.

(NoteIf served with bulghur pilaf in lieu of bread, reduce water to 2 cups in step 5.)

6. Heat over a low flame.
7. Add eggplant, and cook until tender
8. In the meantime, place sumac seeds with 1 cup of water in a small vessel and let soak until eggplant is cooked.
9. Strain out sumac seeds and add the water to the meat in the stockpot, discarding the seeds.
Add juice of 1 lemon and garlic and cook for 1/2 hour.

Serve with bread, which may be broken into chunks, and dipped in stew gravy.

Yekhni with Eggplants from Sonia Tashjian

2 lbs. ground lamb or beef, 85% lean/15% fat 
2 lbs. eggplant cut into 1-inch cubes
red and black pepper, to taste
allspice, to taste
salt, to taste

Cook the meat in its own fat until no longer pink; do not drain. Add the spices, to taste. Add the eggplant cubes and a small amount of water. Cook until eggplant is tender.
Serve with sliced onions, chopped green peppers, and garnish with parsley. 
Note: Yekhnis of green beans, squashes, and quince were prepared with the same ingredients following the same directions.

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