Hard to find
Turkish versions of Armenian cuisine aren't as widespread as they once were.
By Joan Obra / The Fresno Bee
(Updated Wednesday, April 20, 2005, 6:50 AM)
In a small deli, Richard and Gerry Hagopian cling to a fading cuisine.
Gerry Hagopian stands over a bubbling pot of tomato broth to stir
kufta, meatballs of spiced, ground lamb encased in a crust of bulgur
and beef. She then mixes the toorshi, plunging her hands and arms
into a large vat of cabbage and carrots pickled in vinegar.
And she shows off a package in the dining-room freezer. It's sou
bourag, a dish with 12 to 15 layers of thin noodles, butter, cheese
and parsley. Making the noodles is so time- consuming that hardly
anyone cooks them from scratch anymore. But Gerry Hagopian still does.
This is Turkish-Armenian cuisine, made from the recipes of those
who survived the Armenian genocide and fled to the United States. A
handful of central San Joaquin Valley shops still offer this type
of food, including Hagopian's International Deli in Visalia, Uncle
Harry's restaurant in Reedley and Valley Lahvosh Baking Co. in Fresno.
For these old-timers - direct descendants of genocide survivors
- cooking their parents' meals defies the Turks' destruction of
Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Though Turks still deny the genocide
ever happened, Armenians say the ruthless campaign started 90 years
ago, on April 24, 1915. These Valley cooks also have another reason
to preserve their versions of Turkish- Armenian food: Their cuisine
is different from the food of genocide survivors who settled in the
Middle East, says Barbara Ghazarian, the Monterey author of "Simply
Armenian: Naturally Healthy Ethnic Cooking Made Easy."
In the Middle East, foods such as hummus, a chickpea dip, and baba
ghannouj, a spread of roasted eggplant and sesame-seed paste, crept
onto Armenian tables.
The regional cuisines stayed separate until the 1970s, when civil
war erupted in Lebanon. Once again, Armenians escaped to the United
States, bringing the tastes of Middle Eastern-Armenian dishes.
And as this Middle Eastern influence grows in the Valley and elsewhere,
Turkish- Armenian food from the time of the genocide becomes more
rare. The survivors' children, now in their 60s, 70s and 80s,
"We're really limited in Armenian restaurants with recipes from the
old days, recipes from people at the turn of the century," says Harry
Horasanian, owner of Uncle Harry's. "Since the massacres, a lot of
Armenians were living with a large Arabic influence and seasoning
Wars change a cuisine
It's not the first time a war has transformed the food of
Armenians. Said to be descendants of Noah, Armenians populated the
area between the Black, Caspian and Mediterranean seas - the trade
route between East and West. Conquerors in Europe, Asia and the
Middle East constantly fought over this territory, subjecting Armenian
kingdoms to their rule.
Amid this turmoil, Armenian food changed again and again. In A.D. 301,
Armenians became the first people to adopt Christianity as their
official religion. Decades later, when Armenian church leaders
were centered at Constantinople, the flavors of the Byzantine Empire
colored their cooking.
"The combination of rice, currants, onions and pine nuts is a
legacy from that era, a legacy which, in fact, belongs to those of
the Orthodox faith, be it Armenian, Greek or Eastern," writes Tess
Mallos in "The Complete Middle East Cookbook."
In the 13th century, the Mongols invaded India, Afghanistan, Persia,
Armenia and Russia, introducing pasta and noodles, Mallos adds. As a
result, mante - an Armenian dish of small pasta pockets filled with
spiced meat - has Russian and Turkish variations.
By the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks had conquered most of Asia Minor
and Armenia. In the late 1800s, economic and religious differences
between Turks and Armenians led to mass murders, then the genocide.
Valley Armenians share terse stories of this time.
Horasanian talks about the years just before the genocide, when
his paternal grandparents gradually helped their children leave the
Ottoman Empire - before the Turks killed them.
Richard Hagopian's father was a third-grader when the Turks shot his
father and brother. They pushed the young boy on a death march into
the Syrian desert. Of his family, only three people survived.
Even after years of living in the United States, genocide survivors
didn't reveal many more details of the murders.
They "didn't like to talk about it much," Richard Hagopian says.
Lamb, vegetables and more
Wars aren't the only factors that shape Armenian cuisine.
For these deeply Christian people, vegetarian dishes are a must. The
Armenian Orthodox Church requires its followers to fast for 180 days
"When they broke the fast at sundown," author Ghazarian says, "they
were not allowed to eat any animal product."
The fast days are one reason Armenians in the Middle East adopted
the vegetarian dishes of their new countries, she adds.
The mountainous, landlocked terrain of Armenian lands also influenced
"Even today, you can be completely cut off due to blizzards," Ghazarian
says of rural Armenian towns. Foods that kept well became staples,
including bulgur, the flat cracker bread called lahvosh and spicy
meat jerky called bastirma and soujouk.
"Basically, you're living off the land," Ghazarian says. "So the
canning, the pickles, all that stuff â~@¦ that's about surviving
Lamb, the traditional meat, also figures prominently in the
cuisine. In addition to shish kebab, lamb appears in kheyma, a dish
of finely-ground, raw meat kneaded with spices and bulgur. Ground,
spiced lamb also tops lahmajoon, a thin Armenian pizza. It forms the
filling, and at times the crust, of the stuffed meatball called kufta.
Yet despite tradition, Armenians born in the Middle East are more
likely to eat beef.
"Beef is the meat of preference for most Armenians born in the
Middle East because they say the lamb available there 'smelled' odd,"
Ghazarian writes in "Simply Armenian."
Similar, yet different
These tenets of Armenian cuisine play into the food prepared by the
Valley's old-time cooks.
Vegetarian dishes such as yalanchi sarma â~@" grape leaves rolled
around a filling of rice, onions and tomato â~@" are popular at
Hagopian's International Deli.
At Uncle Harry's, customers clamor for Horasanian's fried eggplant
slices or his roasted-eggplant spread flavored with liberal amounts
of red-wine vinegar and olive oil. It's similar to the Middle Eastern
baba ghannouj but doesn't contain the sesame-seed paste in that dish.
Indeed, many of the Turkish-Armenian dishes from the early 1900s
also appear in other cuisines. The variations lie in flavorings
and spices. And even among different regions of the Ottoman Empire,
foods can taste different.
For example, when Horasanian mixes his version of kheyma, he flavors
it with tomato sauce, black pepper and paprika. But when Ghazarian
makes it, she reaches for cayenne, cumin and cinnamon.
Ghazarian's family was from the Harpout region, which is now in the
Elazig province in central-eastern Turkey. By contrast, the dominant
culinary influence in Horasanian's food comes from his father's
family, who hailed from Tomarza, a city in a mountainous region west
The differences continue at Hagopian International Deli. There, the
kufta is made by Gerry Hagopian, whose family lived in Chomaklou, a
village in the Kayseri province of central Turkey and known to Turks
as Comaklu. Her kufta filling of spiced, ground lamb is different
from the pomegranates and nuts used in Erzurum, the city in Eastern
Turkey that was home to Richard Hagopian's family until the genocide.
Over the years, these cooks have introduced other changes. Beef is
widely used now, partly because lamb is expensive and partly because
Americans prefer beef to lamb.
At Uncle Harry's, the kheyma is made with ground beef, as is the
lahmajoon topping. And at Hagopian's International Deli, beef forms
the crust of the kufta.
But these differences are slight. For the most part, Valley cooks
stay true to their parents' food.
"It's been 90 years since my father came from the old country,"
Horasanian says. "These recipes haven't been changed in about 100
The more things change
The food may remain the same, but the rise and fall of Fresno's
Armenian Town shows how much has changed since the genocide.
The neighborhood started in the early 1900s, with Armenians who
escaped the Ottoman Empire before the genocide. In 1914, these new
Fresno immigrants built the existing Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic
Church at M Street and Ventura Avenue. And in 1922, Gazair Saghatelian
opened the California Baking Co. at M and Santa Clara streets.
"You had the church and the bakery," says Janet Saghatelian, Gazair's
daughter. "Those were the two most sacred things in Armenian culture."
The neighborhood grew, eventually filling the area between Inyo,
O and Los Angeles streets and Broadway. From the late 1920s to the
early 1940s, this neighborhood was the hub of Armenian life in Fresno,
Janet Saghatelian says.
"Then all the boys went to war," she adds, "and families started
The bakery lived on. Janet Saghatelian took it over, and now her
daughter, Agnes Saghatelian, handles day-to-day operations.
Time brought other changes. The bakery expanded to become the Valley
Lahvosh Baking Co. The Saghatelians now sell their lahvosh throughout
the United States and Canada. Also, the lahvosh no longer is made by
hand. Machines shape and bake it into a variety of sizes and shapes.
But some things didn't change. Older Armenians still prefer the
traditional 15-inch-wide lahvosh to the smaller rounds of cracker
"Her generation doesn't want to mess with these small crackers,"
Agnes Saghatelian says, pointing to her mother.
It's these large rounds of lahvosh that inspired the term "breaking
bread together," Janet Saghatelian says. At dinner, Armenian families
would pass around the large lahvosh, and everyone would break off
These old-time Armenians also soften cracker bread the traditional
way: They place water-soaked lahvosh between two damp kitchen towels
for 45 minutes or until the cracker bread is pliable enough to roll.
There always was a supply of this softened lahvosh on Armenian
tables, called dahnhatz, or "bread of the house," Janet Saghatelian
says. Family and friends would tear off a piece and eat it with
parsley, basil and homemade Armenian cheese.
Another of the company's traditional products is peda, a soft bread
with a milk wash and sesame seeds sprinkled on top. It's still made
from Gazair Saghatelian's recipe, which came from Moush, his hometown
in Eastern Turkey that is called Mus by the Turks.
For Janet Saghatelian, one of the best ways to enjoy peda is with
shish kebab, skewered lamb roasted over burning grape vines.
"A wedge of fresh peda would be used to pull the meat off the skewers,"
she says, "and that wonderful juice-laden piece of bread would be
handed to our honored guest or fought over by children in the family."
It's a complex bread that takes eight hours to make, from mixing
to hand-shaping to baking. And it's available only at the company's
"You don't rush that peda," Janet Saghatelian says. "It's pretty
She admits that she loses money on the bread, but she doesn't care.
Like other cooks of her generation, she has only one reason to continue
making her father's dishes: "We do it because it's my heritage."
The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or (559) 441-6365.