Magazine Nov/Dec 2012 Tasty Contemplations

01 November 2012, 11:00
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Tasty Contemplations

For many of us, some of our fondest memories are associated with food. A certain flavor or aroma can take us back to a special time in our lives – the first time we tried something new or exotic, memories of family dinners. These preferences are often shaped by our upbringing, the place where we grew up and the traditions that were passed down to us. At Yerevan, we wondered: What is national cuisine, what factors influence and change it? Yerevan’s Mery Khatchatrian was joined by Andrea Fehring, Gevork Kazanchyan and Lenore Tolegian Hughes in a discussion about our culinary traditions and modern-day trends.

Andrea Fehring is a Senior Account Director for Hospitality Sales / C&S Sales. She is a board member of AIWA and past president of Westside Guild for Ararat Home.

Gevork Kazanchyan is a Professor of Food Safety and Sanitation for College of the Canyons’ Culinary Arts Program and a Professor of Environmental Health at CSUN.

Lenore Tolegian Hughes is author of the novel Cups of Fortune (2012) and the forthcoming cookbook Come on to My House.

Mery: Is there such a thing as national cuisine, or it is determined by the available regional food resources and climate?

Kazanchyan: I think cuisine is a dynamic concept and its traits or categorizations are contingent upon how we choose to define the parameters. I feel our definitions of national cuisine morphs from era to era. A myriad of factors will impact what arrives as a commonly offered food for a nation or region. One can invest in an illusion that a certain dish truly captures the essence of a people or tribe. But, then if you pan back long enough in time, some of them can get smeared by or be attributed to influences and contributions from collaborative civilizations, conquerors and co-minglers. A national cuisine can be read like a diary, as it catalogues impressions of what took place and what the nation’s people experienced. I feel it is loosely similar to our colloquial inference of “vital signs,” as in it really depends on when you decide to pop in and try to define how things are. Much like blood pressure, countless environmental factors can impact it and it can change drastically depending on when and where you decide to take your reading. Certainly, what grows in a region at any one point and recent patterns of climate will affect it, but also other things like socio-political elements that inject a lasting influence even if from a brief occupation.

Tolegian Hughes: I’m sure there is a national cuisine for Armenians – maybe khash, madzoon, dolma and kufta, rank up there as foods most Armenians think of as their national favorite, but for me, an American born, second-generation Armenian, I think of pilaf, shish kabob, Armenian salad and soft chewy lavash filled with string cheese, as our national cuisine.

Fehring: For most Americans many dishes, like mac n’cheese, hamburgers and hot dogs usually labeled as “comfort food” are deemed as “national cuisine.” However, contrary to popular stereotype, there are many innovative chefs in the U.S. that are making some very creative regional dishes. For example, we always thought grapes would be grown in Napa, yet we see many other places that are growing grapes successfully and producing some interesting wines – even from the steep sandstone hillsides of Southern California (including a vineyard overlooking one of the busiest freeways in the United States).

Mery: Have our attitudes, expectations and perceptions towards food changed due to globalization and integration of Armenians into the local cultures?

Tolegian Hughes: Due to the pace of American life, our foods have become specialty foods instead of everyday, homemade offerings. When we have a party we go to the Armenian deli and buy lahmajun, cheese bouregs and baklava already made. Besides not having the time needed to make everything at home, many Armenians haven’t had the opportunity to watch and help in the kitchen alongside grandmas, and moms to learn how to make our dishes. As I wrote in my book Cups Of Fortune, “Secret recipes forever hidden in the grains and cracks of her wooden bowl long to be told.” When I make my grandmother’s tender blini perashki with my young grandchildren, they not only are learning how to make great great grandmother’s specialty, but they are developing a yearning for perashki they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. That passionate craving for the taste of perashki will make sure that they will re-create it in their own kitchen when they are grown and teach their children to do the same. That’s one of the very special ways we keep being Armenian alive.

Fehring: I like to think that people today are more concerned about what they should eat; and of course to limit sugar; eat green and also everything else in moderation. I think as you get older you want to savor more flavors and also learn to eat foods that are different since you might have eliminated them from your diet just because your parents might not have wanted you to have them. I can’t remember having sticky rice at all until I was introduced to Japanese food after the age of 30. Yet, I love the simple aspect of Japanese food and that most Japanese chefs strive for very fresh ingredients. I think as you experience different cultures and their foods – you can come to like those things that your parents just didn’t consider due to the fact that our world was isolated in the fifties and sixties – which is the time that I grew up in.

Kazanchyan: I agree. It seems availability and awareness tends to foster change in general. In our collective pursuit of what to consume, I believe the broadening of options due to globalization and integration undeniably piqued our interests, expanded our selections and set us on an exploratory pursuit. Another element that supports this is the claiming of the origin of strikingly similar foods. For the sake of avoiding a dissertation, we can look at a commonly adored dessert involving caramelized dairy; the English will erect their flag into their burnt cream, the Spanish have their crema catalana and of course, the French tout innovation with their crème brulee. This particular debate originated in the middle ages and I’m sure “flan” or “crème caramel”, a first cousin to the others, strikes heated conversation in lands spanning from Mexico to Eastern Europe. Aside from re-thinking whether a said culture “invented” any certain recipe or technique, an altered perception which comes with broadened global awareness and interaction is that peoples of different lands may have arrived at some similar ideas perhaps completely independent of one another. Conversely, some may perceive that increased travel “cross-pollinated” our respective cuisines. In either case, our “take” on food in general changes, and when received in a rational fashion, it will encourage some from being too “myopic” about their own cuisine.

With regards to altered attitude, expectation and perception, I can share a personal example. I am far from unique in that I enjoy eating lobster. I used to think that a simple lobster tail with a butter dip was a decadent treat. Although I will rarely ever turn away that offering now, I will share the following: When I first experienced lobster prepared at an un-westernized Chinese seafood restaurant, I then realized how relatively “pedestrian” our New England-style lobster presentation can seem sans the crispy batter, broth of sautéed herb medley and drizzle of a tangy, sweet and spicy sauce. That experience has me currently and completely appreciating the classic American-style akin to an excellent, classic film in Black and White while also expanding my attitude, expectation and perception of what that crustacean’s culinary potential holds when opted for in “full-color HD”.

Mery: How have traditions influenced our approach to cooking? Has history influenced our cuisine?

Tolegian Hughes: The most dynamic family tradition is gone in most Armenian homes today – the stay at home Armenian mother. When I was growing up in 1950s Los Angeles, all the Armenian grandmothers and mothers I knew were homemakers, none of them worked outside the house. Instead they worked inside the house, mostly in the kitchen, the center of the Armenian home. Our traditional meals required traditional, stay-at-home moms to prepare them because of the time consuming nature of the recipes and the fact that two people were needed to roll, stuff and fold to make the preparation faster. In those days there was no such thing as dolma in the frozen section of the grocery store and even if there had been, it wouldn’t have tasted the same as my Russian-Armenian grandmother’s cabbage leaf dolma she made with the dried basil she grew in her herb garden, tomato sauce, prunes and dried apricots. Nothing can take the place of traditional Armenian grandmothers and mothers making traditional Armenian food. Nothing.

Fehring: Personally I don’t consider myself a cook or anything close to that due to my work schedule. But my father and his mother were the king and queen of Armenian food in our home. Not only did I have a family dinner every Sunday night with my grandparents; but my dad and my grandmother did all the cooking. My dad and grandmother also did all the holidays meals with shish kabob at Christmas with my dad personally selecting the leg of lamb at the store. Then cutting and preparing it on the skewers with additional skewers for tomatoes and green peppers alternating with onions. They also made tourchi, sourg beragi, kutfta and also our own lavash. So I do believe that growing up in an Armenian household you do have the family traditions that influence not only the cuisine but your whole life. As you get older you realize how they influenced what you like today.

Kazanchyan: Food and eating can be, in many regards, a very intimate and emotional enterprise for those fortunate enough to be eating for reasons beyond pure biological need. The process of arriving at and experiencing a meal holds endless potential to sculpt a person as they develop and thereby anchor feelings and principles that are summoned later upon recollection. Whether it is harvesting fruit with grandfather, making sauce with grandfather or the priceless communal dining ceremony with the family, many attach feelings and “inner places” to these traditions and maybe even hinge some personal identity elements with entailed experiences. I believe our history influences our cuisine in countless ways. I think in some instances it is due to an elective process and other times out of simple necessity.

Mery: Recent studies claim that the entire niche of organic food products is nothing more than a myth. What is your opinion on that?

Fehring: I do not think it is a myth – there are many stories by farmers that are working to strive to grow better foods that are not subject to traditional pesticides and therefore have a much better taste. We lived in the city, but my dad put aside a small part of our backyard for his vegetable garden. He grew his own tomatoes and cucumbers because he thought (this is in the fifties before organic was considered “in”) most of the store-bought vegetables had no taste. Personally, I love the fact that you can go to the store and see organic vegetables and note where they are coming from in the country. A great example of this is the small cherry tomatoes. If you can get a good box at the store that is organic… or just grow them yourself.

Tolegian Hughes: I’m not impressed with the findings. I believe the purer the food the healthier it is to eat. It’s just common sense to me that if food is produced using industrial solvents, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives and irradiated that it’s not safe to eat. I won’t cook with ingredients that aren’t wholesome, especially when there’s a choice of purchasing the same food that’s been raised organically. A large part of the unique taste of Armenian foods is from the fact that we use only the freshest ingredients and best produce and meats to make our foods. I agree with my aunt who used to say to vendors who tried to sell her obviously inferior produce, “You tink I’m crazy?” What saddens me about many young families is that they have developed a “fast-food/take-out” mentality. Some Armenian dishes take longer to prepare, but that’s not a reason for serving foods that are loaded with poison. That’s why I love producing our ancient recipes today, so people can see they are not beyond their ability to make at home. And so they can also understand the benefits of simply prepared, nutritious and delicious Armenian food. Stuffed vegetables – tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, squash, onions – are just examples. They can be prepared in so many different ways and they are extremely healthy, easy to make and more delicious than you could ever imagine. I want to share with you something about which I feel very deeply. The Genocide took everything from us. We lost families, friends, our great scholars, musicians, artists, clergy and treasured possessions. I’m committed to spending my life teaching and recording our recipes so we do not lose them, too. If we lose our recipes, we lose what nurtured us for centuries and what will continue to feed our souls, as well as our bodies, in the ancient tradition of what it means to be Armenian.

 

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