Venn Food Diagrams: L.A.'s Idea of Armenian Food Vs. What Armenians Eat
The Venn Food Diagram train has ventured west of India and landed in Armenia, the ancient landlocked country wedged between Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey, which recently produced the world's earliest leather shoe and wine-producing facility. Steady immigration from Armenian communities in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Greece and Armenia to Los Angeles have made the city home to its largest diaspora in the U.S., adding multiple cultural layers to the concept of Armenian food, and in the process introduced it to L.A.'s masses.
Moral of the Story: From Zankou Chicken, whose shawermas and mouth watering garlic sauce, created in Beirut's Bourj Hammoud neighborhood have emerged with cult-like status among foodies, to Persian-influenced Raffi's Place, where diners flock for charbroiled succulent beef and lamb entries served on beds of basmati rice - L.A. loves its Armenian food. While the cuisine's true origins are often debated within Armenian circles, in L.A, it's been more than just a plate of kebab- revealing a glimpse into Armenian history, culture and tradition.
Methodology: A multiple choice, six question survey that garnered over 100 responses (112 to be exact), several fact-finding trips to various Armenian eateries over a two week period, interviews with Armenian food connoisseurs like cookbook author Barbara Ghazarian, ArmenianKitchen.com bloggers Robyn and Doug Kalajian and Zankou Chicken's Director of Marketing Dikran Iskanderian. Facebook posts thanks to the generosity of pages like Los Angeles and Hidden L.A. Foodie Page, an informal Twitter question and answer session and perhaps most potent of all - insider information from a bevy of Armenian mothers and grandmothers.
Conclusion: Broadly speaking, Angeleno knowledge of Armenian food is praiseworthy, overlapping at least somewhat with items those of Armenian ancestry consider part of their cultural cuisine, and while the fare has blossomed throughout the years, the surface has only just managed to be scratched - underneath the pita bread, hummus and baklava made with speed and efficiency to fit the needs and wants of the American dining experience are dishes like Harissa [also known as Haleem or Keshkeg], khash and eetch to name just a few.
To be fair, Armenians themselves, who have spent a significant portion of their history moving around the world for one sordid reason after another, causing the cuisine to change according Doug Kalajian of the TheArmenianKitchen.com, need a bit of guidance in covering the outskirts of their own cuisine as well.
"What one Armenian thinks of as Armenian food may be significantly different from what another Armenian thinks of as Armenian food - and neither one is wrong," he says.
Over the centuries, Armenian food has mingled with Turkish, Greek, Arabic and Persian cuisine - causing etymological changes and additions, leading to such pressing questions like who really invented the dolmas you're about to pop in your mouth like they're potato chips? And is that mud-like concoction that will keep you awake for days you're drinking Turkish or Armenian coffee?
Barbara Ghazarian, author of cookbook "Simply Armenian," doesn't consider many foods known as Armenian food today as truly Armenian, but says a few dishes stand out, including bulgur, quince and bastegh (fruit leather made from grape juice). Home to the second largest Diaspora outside of Armenia, Los Angeles presents the perfect opportunity for the homogenization and discovery of Armenian food by Angelenos in or outside of its immediate cultural context.
While the historical debate rages on, our survey consistently shows that in Los Angeles, the 26-year-old institution known as Zankou Chicken has come to define Armenian food for the masses, regardless of ethnic background - an honor Director of Marketing Dikran Iskanderian attributes to its early arrival on the L.A. Armenian food scene and clientele base of Hollywood professionals who popularized their signature chicken shawerma dish by word of mouth. Once immortalized in the Beck song "Debra," a film company executive raved to the New York Times in 2003 that he would eat Zankou Chicken out of the garbage can. Enough said.
Notes: In our survey we asked about opinions on Armenian food in Los Angeles and the responses were enjoyably diverse. Some said only a few restaurants truly stand out, mentioning Mantee Cafe in Studio City. Manuk Avedikyan commended Sevan Garden as having "the most high quality and delicious Adana kebab and bulgur compared to any other restaurant." Others, like Frank Garcia recognized the food's multicultural aspects. "Hard to find 'pure' Armenian restaurants, most are Persian/Armenian or Greek/Armenian fusion, not that it's a bad thing," he wrote. Josh Steichmann lamented about the lack of vegetarian options and said that even though his neighborhood of Los Feliz has many Armenian spots, he only seems to get terrible falafel when he ventures out. Aaron Keshishian said Armenian food needed a makeover. "We need some of these new young chefs to take a risk and bring the classics into the 21st century," he wrote, citing the success of the Kogi Truck. While many wished more restaurants were spread out in Los Angeles instead of just concentrated in Glendale, others couldn't pinpoint an eatery that whet their appetites. "I've yet to find a restaurant that compares with home cooking," wrote Todd K, "but that's true of any ethnic cuisine, isn't it?"