KATE: The initial conversation about writing an Armenian cookbook came about in an unlikely place—the first leg of an endless journey to Yangon. John came on as the photographer for a cookbook I was writing with the Burma Superstar restaurant group in San Francisco.
The thing was, John's mind was still on Armenian time when we boarded the flight. He had been home only long enough to hug his wife and kids, do some laundry, and repack before joining us at the airport for our trip to Myanmar.
"I can't believe I'm saying this right before this trip, but I miss Armenia," he said as we lugged our stuff onto the plane.
"What were you doing there?" I asked. I studied Armenian food and cultural identity in America for a year-long college project several years ago, but it had been years since I heard anyone else who wasn't Armenian talk about Armenia.
"You wanna see the photos?"
Yeah, I did. Plus, we had a lot of time to kill before arriving in Taipei for a layover.
While the rest of the economy cabin got into the quiet, sleepy-time mode you do when you get on a red-eye flight, I got a visual tour of Armenia. This is when I realized the Armenia of today had nothing to do with what I thought I knew about the country, which was the Armenia of the diaspora. In John's photos, I saw medieval monasteries that looked like sets from Game of Thrones. Old soviet trains. Fish drying along Lake Sevan. And jingalov hats. I didn't know about Soviet engineering or Lake Sevan or a flatbread filled with a million different greens, but I was into it. These images looked like they belonged in a book.
JOHN: The first time I went to Armenia, I found myself standing in front of two dozen Armenian teenagers at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, outlining the itinerary of our two-and-a-half week food photography workshop. We would travel throughout the country—to home kitchens, restaurants, farms, the countryside, lakes, and eventually Nagorno-Karabakh (also called Artsakh), a war-torn territory that that the United Nations does not recognize as part of Armenia. (Google Maps geotags this area as Azerbaijan.)
The reason TUMO exists at all has a lot to do with the country's unsettled past. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Armenia emerged as an independent state with a population that still relied on the old Soviet structure to provide for them. The concern about how Armenian kids would be able to compete in a global economy was not lost on the Armenian diaspora. This is how TUMO came to be. Armenian-American philanthropist Sam Simonian and his wife, Sylva, founded the learning center in 2011. Led by Marie Lou Papazian, TUMO's director, the founders sought to close the education gap, especially in fields of technology, providing after-school free education for Armenian kids. Today, TUMO invites everyone from Google engineers to film directors, musicians....and even the occasional food photographer, to teach at its center in Yerevan.
During my workshop, I began to fall in love with the food, the people, culture, and terrain in Armenia. (Here’s a deeper dive into the story.) I began hatching this idea of a cookbook based off of the foods that I had eaten on this trip. When I got back to San Francisco, I kept up correspondence with TUMO, letting them know that I had met Kate, and she was interested in exploring an Armenian cookbook.
While the concept of the book was still vague, what I quickly realized was that the food I had in Armenia was decidedly different from Armenian food in the States. One afternoon, I popped into a food festival at a local Armenian church near my house, only to find that what was being served there was completely unlike what I experienced in Armenia. That was my first big lesson into the difference between Armenian food in America—which is more Mediterranean-based—and the food specific to “Hayastan," what Armenians call their country.
I expressed this revelation of mine to Tania Sahakian, who had coordinated my TUMO workshop before moving back to California. I happened to be in Los Angeles when TUMO head Marie Lou Papazian was in town, soTania suggested that we all meet up for dinner at Carousel, a popular Western Armenian restaurant in Glendale. Knowing that I was thinking about an Armenia cookbook, Tania invited a local Armenian-American chef she knew. That’s how I met our third cookbook collaborator, Ara Zada.
ARA: I grew up in an Armenian-Egyptian household in Southern California, which meant spending a lot of time in the kitchen cooking and eating. As a child, everyone I was surrounded by was Armenian. I attended a private Armenian school from pre-kindergarten to seventh grade. Everyone spoke Armenian, had Armenian families, and ate Armenian food. I don't think it crossed my mind that not everyone talked about food as much as we did until later, when friends from high school who weren't Armenia stayed for dinner and were amazed at how well we ate, even on weeknights.
When I first went to Armenia I was a little surprised that most of the food in the country wasn’t anything I was familiar with. There were several dishes I had never heard of, like panrkhash, khashlama and jingalov hats. The dishes had been around forever, but no one outside of Armenia really knew about them. Being a chef, I was a little taken aback: I made a career in food, but I hadn’t even heard of the majority of these traditional Armenian dishes. So I started digging in some more.
My cousin Harry asked to meet his friend Tania Sahakian because she worked for a school named TUMO in Armenia—which I had never heard of—and they were looking to start a cooking program and to have me do a workshop. After our meeting, she insisted on introducing me to her boss, Marie Lou, a few weeks later.
Marie Lou invited me to dinner at Carousel in Glendale with Tania and brought along a photographer that had recently run a food photography workshop at TUMO. That guy was John. Throughout our dinner, John talked about Armenian food and how he was thinking of putting together a book. We loved the idea! Soon after, Marie Lou invited me to do a cooking workshop in Armenia, and John and I exchanged phone numbers to talk in more detail about a book.
When I was a kid if a friend or family member wanted to make a certain Armenian dish, they'd pull out an old copy of The Complete Armenian Cookbook. Here's the thing: what I learned from my travels in Armenia is that this book is not "complete." I wanted to showcase the food of Hayastan and learn the real food of my heritage. So when I got back home from my workshop and John again brought up the cookbook and asked if I'd like to meet his friend Kate, I was all in.
KATE: So in true post-modern style, the three of us connected over Skype, saw that we got along, and started trying to brainstorm ideas for a book centered around Armenia. TO BE CONTINUED…