On one end of the culinary spectrum, traditional cookbooks are often a hodgepodge of recipes arranged by ingredient (a particular meat or spice), meal type (breakfast or dinner, appetizer or dessert) or geographical provenance (Chinese, French). They may be cross-referenced or listed alphabetically, but you pretty much know what you’re getting ahead of time. Alice Bezjian’s Complete Armenian Cookbook is one such trusted classic. At the other end of the spectrum, are learned disquisitions on culinary history, that link history proper or some aspect of it to the recipes being presented. The recent Lavash (Leahy, Lee and Zaga) falls into a relatively new category: the sleek cookbook that we’ve come to expect at the local Barnes and Noble. There are also restaurant-specific books such as Aline Kamakian’s recipes from Mayrig restaurant in Beirut. And now from historian Mari Firkatian, we have something wonderfully new, a history book and family biography that is also a fine cookbook. Home again: Armenian Recipes from the Ottoman Empire first traces the history of Firkatian’s family in historic Armenia followed by its post-Genocide existence in Bulgaria and then America.
Curiously, the recipes also come at the end, although she does include some of the foods eaten by her family in the text preceding the recipes proper. On the food side of things, as Firkatian herself notes, Bulgaria presents an interesting example, since some of the food eaten in this Balkan country like dolmas, sarmas and paklavas, overlaps with Armenian cooking. So delightfully enough in the present volume we learn the history of not one but two remarkable countries: Armenia and Bulgaria. Firkatian tells us for example, that the Byzantines often sent Armenians — accused of the Paulician heresy or simply considered too powerful or numerous — to the outskirts of the empire in Bulgaria, so that large populations of Armenians existed in Bulgaria since well before the Middle Ages. They eventually intermarried with the local populations. Similarly, in later centuries, the Ottomans often sent Bulgarians into exile to Anatolia, particularly to the Armenian city of Diyarbakir. There the only other Christians were Armenian, so that Armenian clergy were often called to provide succor the newly-arrived Bulgarians. A wonderful expression even arose in Bulgarian: Otid se oplatchina armanskiat pap! Or “Go complain to the Armenian priest!”
In the first one hundred and twenty pages or so of Firkatian’s text, we also become knowledgeable in the positive and negative aspects of life in Communist Bulgaria. There are remarkable passages — such as a grandfather who fishes by throwing dynamite into the Black Sea, and warm anecdotes as well, such as hunting for mussels along the Black seashore. Firkatian returns to Bulgaria as an adult to find a quickly modernizing country, so that the text reads a bit like a primer in 20th century Bulgarian history. But it’s specifically the traditions of Bulgarian Armenians that Firkatian spends the most time on — the churches, clubs and women’s groups, many of whose ranks were swollen with refugees after the Armenian Genocide of 1915. These are all things that she will find again when the family emigrates one last time to Connecticut — a local Armenian family that puts them up until they can find a place to live, another that helps her mother find a first job. In an age in America when hummus and yogurt were considered exotic, so too were most of the foods that her family prepared. Meanwhile, Firkatian is an avid reader and straight-A student who eventually earns a PhD. And through this all, it’s the stories and food of her grandmother Medzmama Mariam — a remarkable cook, rug maker and woman of seemingly endless talents and love — that shine through. Paeans to a lost relative or friend are sometimes overdone, but here it is all to the author’s credit, as she lays her book out from the beginning as a love story to food, Armenia — and her grandmother!
The cookbook section of Home Again is equally compelling, with easy-to-follow recipes and elegant pictures to accompany them. Some of the recipes are easily recognizable: manti, tanabour and vospov yalanchi dolma, for example. But others were discoveries as well, such as Tutmach abour (Malgara chicken soup) or silivri khavurma, a well-spiced version of potted meat. There are salads, soups, kebabs, pilafs and desserts galore but also delicious preserves (sour cherry, a favorite!) and pickled meat recipes as well. But most of all, Home Again provides an elegant mix of biography and food—read the history like you would any other well-written family memoir. Then when you are hungry one night, turn to the back and Egoor djan, gera, hamov eh, votch?
Buy Home Again: Armenian Recipes from the Ottoman Empire: https://www.amazon.com/Home-Again-Armenian-Recipes-Ottoman/dp/172264429X