Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s Armenian Grape Leaves (Sarma)

Recipe Corner: Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s Armenian Grape Leaves (Sarma)


SAN FRANCISCO — Shake Antaramian, 85, a former employee at Sloat Garden Center in San Francisco makes this traditional Armenian recipe for her family, and says it is one of their favorite dishes. Born in Baghdad, Shake enjoys a variety of Middle Eastern dishes from her family’s past, and particularly likes this recipe adapted from Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s, the classic 1944 cookbook by renowned San Francisco restaurateur, chef, author, and philanthropist, George Mardikian, America’s first celebrity chef.

Shake came to the United States over 60 years ago, and studied medicine and chemistry at the University of Nebraska, Kent State University, and UC Berkeley Medical School. She settled in Marin County north of San Francisco, married, and had two children. She worked at Sloat Garden Center well into her 80s.

“These grape leaves are so tasty and well worth the time and effort to make,” she says. “They’re filled with great flavor, and are a perfect accompaniment to main dishes or served as appetizers at your next party or celebration.”

George Mardikian was born in Bayburt, Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) in 1903. Mardikian grew up in the city of Scutari, an Armenian community in Constantinople. Mardikian’s paternal family was one of warriors-hence their family name: in Armenian, Mardik translates to martyr or freedom fighter. His maternal family, the Amirians, was an influential and powerful family in Bayburt. Mardikian’s mother also was the eldest sibling of his idol, Krikor Amirian.

“Mardikian’s father was of one of the approximately 250 ethnic-Armenian intellectuals and community leaders arrested on April 24, 1915, known as Red Sunday. After his arrest, the Amirians were driven out of their homes and marched to Erzincan. Mardikian’s maternal grandmother, Vartanoush Amirian, committed suicide by jumping in the Euphrates, while the rest of the Amirian family was either beaten to death or burned alive. Witnessing the massacre of his mother’s side of his family, Mardikian wanted to avenge their deaths and prove to his mother that he was a true warrior. As a result of his ambition, Mardikian ran away from his home and joined the Armenian volunteer units, in which his uncle, Krikor Amirian, was a high-ranking member.”

“After the First World War ended, Mardikian returned to his mother as a war hero. In 1918 the First Republic of Armenia was established but was short-lived due to fighting between Turkey, Russia and the fledgling country. He went to fight again but was quickly captured and imprisoned. He served two years before a friend of his from the Near East Relief told the prison commandant that George was an American and demanded his release. Upon his return to his mother Haiganoush and relatives he was advised that he must quickly go to the United States like his older sister Baidzar. Right after his ship sailed, the Turkish police came to his mother’s house demanding the return of George. His family said he was dead. After ransacking their house, the police left.”

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The chef who brought shish kebab to America arrived at Ellis Island on July 24, 1922. During his entire journey by train to San Francisco, he often said he ate only potato salad, as that was all he could read in English. He vowed to one day open a restaurant of his own. After arriving in San Francisco, he found a job as a dishwasher at Coffee Dan’s and later at Clinton’s Cafeteria. He was named restaurant manager by Eugene Compton. In 1928, he was given United States citizenship. For the next two years he worked learning recipes and cooking techniques on cruise liners, working for a master chef in Egypt, and reading manuscripts at an Armenian monastery in Venice, Italy. “It was through these musty, old manuscripts that I came to realize that Armenian cuisine goes back 3,900 years,” he wrote.

Mardikian married Nazenig Arakelian on June 1, 1930. She was born in Fresno in 1904. Their home was at 2960 Divisadero Street in San Francisco. In 1930, he moved to Fresno where he joined the vibrant and growing Armenian immigrant community. Alongside his wife, he opened a popular Fresno lunch counter called Omar Khayyam’s in 1932, named after the famous Persian poet.

In 1935, Mardikian arranged the arrival of his mother from Bucharest, Romania, where she lived with her brother, Krikor Amirian. Shortly after, in February 1936, Haiganoush contracted pneumonia while in surgery and died days later. She was eventually buried at Ararat Cemetery in Fresno.

He opened his second restaurant (Omar Khayyam’s) in San Francisco in 1938. He moved his restaurant to two large buildings in Fresno, and then to San Francisco in the old Coffee Dan’s building, where he earned praise from critics and locals alike. Despite the Great Depression, customers filled his diner to enjoy his clam chowder, chili con carne, roast turkey and pot roast. As he frequently said, his dream was to teach Americans how to eat well. He opened a chain of sandwich shops, called Chestnut Tree, in 1940.

Mardikian was significant in popularizing Armenian cuisine and tastes in the United States. He eventually bought Clinton’s Cafeteria and built it into a world-famous restaurant, Omar Khayyam’s, where he hosted many notable people including President Dwight Eisenhower and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mardikian stood at the helm of Omar Khayyam’s in downtown San Francisco from 1938 to 1980.

The menu’s traditional shish kebab and bulgur pilaf were the main attraction for a large clientele largely unfamiliar with such food. But the restaurant drew its life force from, as novelist and playwright William Saroyan called him, “the big man with the bright face coming over to your table.” The menu was exotic (for the time), featuring a mix of Armenian, Middle Eastern and African cooking adapted for American palates. Mardikian always emphasized the nutritional benefits of his homemade yogurt, that at the time was not part of the American diet.

Mardikian’s expertise, enthusiasm and love for his adopted country motivated him to offer his services to the U.S. military in 1942. Concerned for the welfare of American soldiers, he became a food consultant and set about remaking the military’s diet. His efforts improving food served to U.S. soldiers in combat during the Korean War won him several presidential citations and ultimately the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1951 from President Harry Truman, the nation’s highest civilian award. Mardikian would close his restaurant every Christmas so he and his wife could serve dinner to his entire staff. It was a custom he brought from Armenia that he commented on in an essay for the “This I Believe” radio series.

“George Mardikian donated his services as caterer for the United Nations Conference on International Organization held in San Francisco in 1945, that led to the establishment of the United Nations. After World War II, with thousands of Armenian refugees scattered over a devastated Europe, it was an Armenian grass roots organization, the American National Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians (ANCHA), that rescued and resettled compatriots in need. Starting in 1947, a handful of organizers led by George Mardikian and Suren Saroyan, a San Francisco attorney, founded ANCHA and mobilized a large segment of the Armenian community to raise travel funds, lobby the U.S. government, send food and clothes to over 3,500 Armenians in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Europe, and ultimately provide shelter to compatriots in distress. With 62 ANCHA offices around the U.S., staffed by 300 to 400 volunteers, ANCHA set the foundations that would rescue and assist the Armenian DPs. Over the span of half a century ANCHA rescued and assisted tens of thousands of Armenians, including those from Eastern Europe and the Middle East,” says Shake.

“In Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s, Mardikian reveals the culinary secrets which had made his establishment so famous. The recipes are for Armenian food, prepared in the Armenian fashion, but seasoned to the American palate. The dishes described are exotic and different, but thrifty, healthful, and easy, even for amateur chefs, to prepare. His food is sophisticated enough for parties, but economical and well balanced enough to serve to the whole family.”

Katherine Kerry called Mardikian “undoubtedly America’s best known and best loved restaurateur” in her 1953 restaurant guide, “Look What’s Cooking.” She described the menu as “genuine Armenian delicacies, cooked up to American tastes, rather than down to American conceptions.”

Mardikian didn’t just appeal to tastes — he made them, too. When he promoted the “Omar’s Delight” cocktail to help his friend sell more Southern Comfort, the restaurant accounted for more sales of the liquor than the rest of San Francisco combined, according to a 1951 San Francisco Chronicle story.

“Somehow, George Mardikian channeled the pain and hunger from his survival of the Armenian Genocide: He went from a dishwasher to a world-famous San Francisco restaurant owner who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and dedicated his life to feeding people,” says Greg Keraghosian, at SFGATE.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was among the many dignitaries who visited chef George Mardikian’s San Francisco restaurant, Omar Khayyam’s. Roosevelt regularly dropped in with wounded service people, who ate for free. Archival / San Francisco Chronicle


1 cup olive oil

5 cups onions, chopped

1 cup uncooked rice

1 cup fresh parsley chopped finely (Shake adds chopped cilantro and mint leaves)

1/2 cup currants (optional)

1/2-3/4 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup tomato sauce (Shake uses fresh tomatoes, peeled and seeded)

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice, to taste

2 1/2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 16-oz. jar grape leaves in brine (about 50 to 75 leaves, such as Orlando brand), rinsed OR fresh grape leaves

Thinly sliced fresh lemons and parsley as garnish

Note: Shake says, “Please remember when using fresh grape leaves, it’s important to blanch the leaves briefly in heavily salted boiling water before stuffing.”


Pour olive oil in a large pot, and cook the onions until tender, stirring. Add the rice, currants, pine nuts, tomato sauce, lemon juice, and spices, stir, and bring to a low boil. Turn heat to low, cover, and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring. Add the parsley and stir. Remove the pot from the stove and allow to cool completely.

If using fresh grape leaves, not jarred: Add 1 teaspoon of salt to two quarts water and bring it to a boil. Immerse grape leaves (a few at a time) in the hot water for 30 seconds or until the leaves change color. Take grape leaves out of the boiling water and allow to cool.

When ready to assemble: Place 1-2 teaspoons of rice stuffing on each grape leaf and roll it up like a package. Arrange them side by side into a large pot or casserole lined by three or four layers of torn grape leaves (in order to prevent the grape leaves from burning).

Add the 2 1/2 cups of water over the grape leaves. Place a crockery plate over the top of the grape leaves, and bake in a preheated 350ºF oven until water has almost absorbed, for about an hour (or a little longer).

Check if rice is fully cooked, and remove pot or casserole from oven; allow grape leaves to cool completely. Cover and refrigerate overnight in the same pan. Serve grape leaves on a platter and garnish with fresh lemon slices and parsley. Drizzle with olive oil, if desired.

Jarred grape leaves may be purchased at Middle Eastern markets and grocery stores or online at Amazon.

For this recipe, go to: https://sloatgardens.com/recipes/recipe-dolmas/

Sloat Garden Center began in 1958, and is a premier garden center in Northern California. Sloat Garden Center has become the largest independent pottery importer in the U.S., with strong ties to many other independent garden chains that purchase their pottery through Sloat. For information, go to: https://plants.sloatgardens.com/#

Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s: This indispensable cookbook by George Mardikian, an Armenian-American restauranteur, chef and author, was originally published in 1944 and has provided generations of Americans with basic Armenian recipes. It has been reprinted several times which is a testament of the cookbook’s great popularity. For decades George Mardikian was the chef owner of the celebrated San Francisco restaurant, Omar Khayyam’s. The original foreword was by William Saroyan. Available at Sophene Books. To order, go to: https://sophenebooks.com/products/dinner-at-omar-khayyams

For George Mardikian’s Famous Chicken Tchakhokbelli recipe, see: https://mirrorspectator.com/2022/06/09/george-mardikians-famous-chicken-tchakhokbelli/


See George Mardkian’s Favorite Recipes at:


George Mardikian was a member at large of Boy Scouts of America; San Francisco Opera Association; Save the Children Federation; Armenian Gregorian Church; California Writers’ Club, Olympic Club of San Francisco, Commonwealth Club of California, California Historical Society and The Press Club of San Francisco.














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