Armenian cuisine is one of the cuisines that has most influenced and been influenced by cuisines of neighboring peoples. The Armenians have lived in Anatolia for at least 1,500 years, during which time they have learned to live in harmony with this land cultural exchange with surrounding with the peoples they lived among is inevitable. However because of differences in religious belief between them and surrounding peoples, there are some foods for special occasions, most of which also show similarities with the local cuisines. It is at least safe to say that it is a cuisine shaped by the common ingredients available in the Anatolian region.
Cuisine of İstanbul Armenians
The cuisine of İstanbul Armenians differ quite a lot from the rest of the Armenian population around the world. Even in Yerevan it would be impossible to find a cuisine similar to the İstanbul cuisine.
Armenians have a very special place among all the other ethnicities found in Anatolian region. They have emmigrated from the East, all the way into Europe, some have stayed within the Ottoman borders and settled in Istanbul. Once they settled, all of their habits including their culinary culture have changed and adapted to the surrounding environment.
Looking back in history, Armenians are known to be the first community to have accepted Christianity. Based on segregation of doctrine in 451 between the Byzantine Church, the Partiarch, and Armenian churches based in Istanbul, Catholic world parted ways with Orthodox.
The small Catholic Armenian community that surfaced in 17th century, is now living in several parts of the world including Provence in France, İzmir and Antakya in Turkey. It became imposible to speak of an Armenian country with the fall of the Armenian Kingdom in 5th century, therefore the most important indication for the Armenians became the Apostolic Church. Armenian Apostolic church was established by Saint Gregory, therefore their sect is known as Gregorian, which is the name of the calender that we use today.
Today in Turkey there are approximately 45,000 to 60,000 Armenian population mostly living in or around İstanbul and most of them belong to the Armenian Apostolic church that is a branch of İstanbul Armenian Patriarch. Based on Loussane Peace Agreement they have gained a minority status.
There are different dialects of Armenian being spoken between the Armenians of Istanbul, Yerevan, Moscow or Marseilles. The difference between the dialects can lead to miscommunication between the different communities. This also shows in the names of the foods. As a side note, based on UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Western Armenian, spoken in İstanbul, is in danger of being completely lost.
To learn a little bit more about the culinary culture of the Armenians we have done two interviews. The first one is with Mr. Garo Halepli, he is the fifth generation silversmith in Grand Bazaar area. The second one is Mr. Sabri Koz, a scholar who is researching Armenian cuisine based on old cookerybooks and scripts, written with Armenian alphabet and translated them into Turkish.
Excerpt taken from the interview done with Mr. Garo Halepli:
“My late father, used to always make fun of my mother, by teasing her about the ‘topik’ (A popular Armenian meze made from caramelized onions, currants, pie nuts and spices wrapped inside chickpea mash) cloths that she brought in her dowry chest. In the old days, traditionally all young Armenian girls would pack a bunch of topik cloths. These cloths were actually nettle cloths. Once the topik is made they are wrapped inside the cloth and boiled. This would allow olive oil to remain inside the topik and retain its flavor. Over the years these cloths would have soaked up all the olive oil, and change color.
The cuisine of Istanbul Armenians mostly consist of meze type foods. As you know we have travelled from the east towards west. Once we have arrived in the west we were introduced to olive oil and incorporated it into our cuisine. We are a community that likes to drink therefore when we were creating the cuisine we have made mezes to accompany drinks. For example I remember from my youth, a stew made with lungs, it was delicious. The offals were bought as a set from the specialty offal shops.
A classical Christmas dish was stuffed spleen. My grandmother used to make the best one, I haven’t eaten it since she passed. When stuffed spleen was cooked, first the cooking liquid would be served as soup, followed by the stuffed spleen. As this was a very filling and heavy dish, one could not eat anything else afterwards.
The night before easter, we would eat fish for dinner. Since easter almost always fell in the month of April, we would mostly eat turbot. Turbot is a very big fish and you need really big oven space in order to cook it as a whole, as they did in the older days. With modern day kitchens it was impossible to cook the fish as a whole, so we would cut the turbot into strips, place whole red mullets in between and fry together. This was a technique devised by my mom to prevent the cut turbot strips to soak up the extra fat. It was delicious.
When speaking of Istanbul Armenian cuisine, the first dish that comes to mind is stuffed mackarel. The reason why mackarel was used quite frequently and could be found in almost every household was because it was the cheapest fish that was available everywhere. At the households the ladies of the house would either stuff it or dry it to make ‘çiroz’ (salt cured dried fish). When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I used to go visit my father’s workplace and he would always send me to get some ‘çiroz’ around 3:00pm. In the shop he sent me to, there would be lots of ‘çiroz’ hanging from ceiling, Mannik Dudu, who was a very large lady, would hand me a string full of çiroz and I would take it back to my father’s shop. At the end of the day, we would take the ferry to Moda, and nobody would sit next to me. Then when we reached home my mother would get cross with my father for making me get ‘çiroz.’ Apparantly I would stink because of the çiroz. It really did have a strong but wonderful smell.
Armenian taverns are very famous in Istanbul. My personal favourite is ‘Minas’ın Meyhanesi’ (Minas’ Tavern) located in Kumkapı area. Across the street from ‘Kör Agop’ which makes the best fish soup. If you are going to eat braised or grilled fish then you go to Minas, and rakı always accompanies the food. Another tavern that I cannot forget is a very small one in Sarıyer. The owner is said to have invented ‘paçanga böreği’ (a fried savoury pastry with cheese and pastrami). He also made wonderful white bean salad. These taverns were frequented by not only Armenians but by almost everyone.
My favourite food to make is chickpeas. I make a very simple meze to accompany rakı. I leave the boiled chickpeas in the fridge for one day. Then re-heat them in boiling water, then cool to peel off the skin. Then mash with the help of a fork and mix with lots of olive oil and red pepper flakes. This is the perfect rakı meze as olive oil and legume covers the organs and prevents rakı from doing its damage to the body so to speak.”