“We are few, but we are called Armenians
We do not put ourselves above anyone
Simply our fortune has just been so different”
— Paruyr Sevak
Ani Mahserejian likes to tell a tale about her squash soup, a classic Armenian wedding dish from Marash, where her maternal grandparents were raised. “One day,” Ani begins, “there was a wedding, and they made this soup. Everyone ate it, not realizing that they’d left nothing for the groom. Angered when he saw that none was left, he said: ‘Whoever ate the soup, let him go sleep with the bride!’”
As Ani recounts the story, there’s a sparkle in her eye, followed by a pause. Then she breaks into laughter – though to be fair, the groom had cause to be so wildly upset. Ani’s soup is incredible, and in talking about it, the power that she draws from her heritage rings clear.
In diaspora, pride in culture runs deep. Perhaps that’s even truer for those separated from their homeland twice over. The history of Armenia, after all, is one of overlapping empires. It’s also one of perseverance. Ani was raised in Beirut, like many whose grandparents fled the Turks during the Armenian genocide that started in 1915. It’s where she met her husband, Hovig.
“Living in diaspora, the main thing they don’t teach you is that it grows with you,” Hovig says, pointing toward his heart. “It’s in here.” When civil war erupted in Lebanon in the late 1970’s, the pair moved to Los Angeles, where they raised three children.
Drive around L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, and you see traces of Armenia everywhere, from bakeries and grocers stocked with bulgur wheat to famous restaurants like Carousel. Some of the best Armenian food here, however, may be at Ani’s place. It is part of her identity, near her heart – though she’s every bit as comfortable cooking Lebanese. “You never know where life is going to bring you,” she reflects. Tonight, however, she stays close to her roots.
“I don’t cook for myself,” Ani says. She does it to bring joy to others. In fact, love brought her to the kitchen in the first place. “When I was young, I wasn’t a kitchen person at all,” Ani recalls. “My grandfather would joke: ‘whoever marries Ani should have two maids.’” When she did marry, Ani wanted to learn, and called on her grandmother and mother for advice.
“If you love food, you love serving,” Ani says, who now excels in the kitchen. It’s a spirit that infuses the Mahserejians’ home, where the evening begins with of mulberry vodka. “Genazt!” voices gather in unison, as they raise their glasses to life.
A man of many talents and a deep love for Armenian history, Hovig designed special shot glasses with the saying inscribed in gold. As the vodka does its work, conversation simmers, while music from Ani’s brother Ara Dabandjian’s group, Element Band, floats from the stereo. He’s typically here for nights like these, but the is currently on tour in Beirut and Europe. Ani and Hovig’s eldest son Shant – a Ph.D. candidate in math at Notre Dame and violinist – sometimes plays with them.
As the music winds its way between people’s sentences, appetizers appear in waves. There is lean basturma, dry-cured beef fragrant with fenugreek. In Beirut, Ani remembers, it would hang to dry in the open air. There is salty Armenian string cheese, which Hovig likes on lavash with rose jam. Boreg, a stuffed bread, is savory with briny olives. Kufta made of fine bulgur and orange lentils is hand rolled and enjoyed cold, showered in parsley and green onion.
All the while, the soup simmers, and the group moves on to the dining room. As if on cue, the voice of Ani’s late mother rises from the speakers. Smooth and melodic like birdsong, it was captured when she was 70. The room shines, bright with Armenian artwork and carpets, and fine silver, a wedding gift from Hovig’s parents.
Though this is California, Armenia is very much here.
Hovig pours glasses of pomegranate wine. “There are three fruits that identify Armenians,” he says. “The first is the apricot, which the Greeks call the Armenian apple. The second is pomegranate. The third is the grape.” Above us, the fruits rest together in an oil painting. More than elements of cuisine, they are references, points of connection. On New Year’s Eve, Ani says, the household elder would go to the roof and roll a dried pomegranate about until it shattered, conferring prosperity for the coming year.
“There’s a symbolic idea behind it,” Hovig says. “As a fruit, it’s one. But if you cut the pomegranate, you see all of the seeds. It resembles the unity of the nation.”
Stories like these move through the household like postcards, Armenia kept alive across generations and borders. The Mahserejian children maintain a strong cultural foundation as a result. Sevag (Sev), their youngest son and a gifted artist, speaks only in Armenian with his father, and went to Armenian private school until fourth grade. “When you’re growing up, it doesn’t seem like it’s different,” he reflects. “It’s what’s familiar – the heritage, the traditions, the cuisine, the music. The world was very Armenian until I was thrown into a public school system.”
“Then you grow up and move away, and at that point, all of these things that were playing in the background – the music, the stories, the cuisine – they’re what’s most attached to home.”
These themes run through Sev’s art, icons like pomegranates transformed into patterns, abstract yet personally resonant. Though the women in his family did much of the cooking, one memory involving his father stands out. “If it was raining, we would have tea with cinnamon and cloves,” he says. “Then we would take Armenian bread and fill it up with cheese, mint, and red peppers, and throw it into the oven. It was like Armenian grilled cheese.”
“I forgot all about that,” Hovig says, moved. “That’s how we used to do it at home too.”
Ani’s friend Karineh Andrikian, born in Armenia but raised in L.A., shares Sev’s perspective, and sent her own children to Armenian school. “You have to respect yourself before you can respect others,” she says. “Whatever you teach them at the beginning, it stays with them. I feel so fortunate to live in this country, but I’m happy to be Armenian.”
Impossibly, more appetizers appear. There is nivig, a bright dish made of chickpeas and chard from Ani’s garden. Often, she serves it on the Saturday before Easter. Lahmajoon, Armenian pizza, is tangy with ground meat, tomato, and garlic. As we eat, laughter mixes elegantly with the abstracted percussion of busy silverware.
Then it comes time for the wedding soup. Ladled into flower-patterned bowls, it is indeed festive enough for a celebration. Vibrant reddish orange in color and punchy with tomato and pepper paste, it evokes the summer sunshine. Years ago, Ani says, peppers were mixed with oil and then cooked under the sun to make the paste.
Though it’s Lent, Ani also serves preserved beef from Dikranagerd, one of three so-named cities in an ancient Armenian kingdom that spanned from the Mediterranean to the Caspian seas. Top sirloin is cut and salted over days, the blood strained. Then it’s washed, combined with water, and cooked for hours. At the end, Ani adds quince, red apple, and coconut oil – a modern twist. Over bulgur pilaf mixed with cooking liquid, it’s pure comfort.
Bulgur and lentils. Chard and chickpeas. Even without beef, the meal sings. Houri, a wardrobe stylist, vegetarian, and Sev’s twin, appreciates that their culinary tradition extends beyond meat. “There are so many friends I have who say they’re struggling to go vegetarian or vegan,” she says. “I’m definitely lucky to have been raised in a culture that places a lot of importance on food.”
She jokes, though, about the complexities of bulgur wheat. “For each dish, there’s a different size,” she laughs, gesturing towards her mother. “When I go to the pantry to get her one, she says “No, that’s the small one, bring me the other one.’ When you get older and become an expert, you know what size of bulgur you’re going to use.”
Ani smiles at her daughter.
“In most of the dishes in the Middle East, and in Armenia in particular, you don’t find a lot of meat,” Hovig says. Given that it’s Lent, that makes this a lovely time for a vegetarian-Armenian feast. Savor the meal with friends. Then pour some Armenian coffee, savor sweets and warm conversation, and toast the beautiful memories made when history comes alive at the table.
Nivig: Aremenian Chard & Chickpeas
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer
Recipe by Ani Mahserejian
Total Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Active Cooking Time: 20 minutes
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large bunch of Swiss chard, chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon red pepper paste (Cook’s Note: If you can’t find red pepper paste, Ani recommends using an equivalent amount of tomato paste. That being said, it’s well worth seeking out.)
- ¼ cup water
- ½ cup of cilantro, chopped
- 1 cup chickpeas, cooked or from a can, drained
- Tablespoon lemon juice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
In a large pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onion until transparent, about 3-4 minutes. Add the chard and sauté for three minutes more, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Add the tomato paste, red pepper paste, and water, and stir to combine.
Add the cilantro, chickpeas, and cayenne. Cook on medium-low for 10-12 minutes until the chickpeas are tender. Continue to stir every few minutes.
When the chickpeas are tender, remove from heat. Add the lemon juice, and season to taste. If you prefer a bit of spice, add cayenne. Serve alone or over rice.
Armenian Wedding Soup
Recipe by Ani Mahserejian
Total Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Active Cooking Time: 20 minutes
Cook’s Note: In a pressure cooker, this comes together in a flash. Reduce the cooking time on the squash to about ten minutes. Ani’s secret ingredient here is leek, which adds a depth of flavor without meat. She jokes that this soup has zero calories.
- 1 leek, chopped
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1.5 tablespoons dried mint
- 1 cup fresh tomato, chopped
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons red pepper paste
- 6 cups water
- 2 pounds butternut squash, cubed
- ½ cup chickpeas
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a large soup pot, sauté the leek and onion on medium-low heat until the leeks are soft and the onion is transparent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and mint, and continue cooking until the garlic is fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add the chopped tomato, tomato paste, and red pepper paste, stirring to warm it through.
Add 6 cups of water and stir until the paste dissolves. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the soup to a simmer. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the squash is tender, about 10-15 minutes in a pressure cooker, or 30 minutes otherwise.
When the squash is soft, remove the pot from the heat. Add the chickpeas and the juice of one lemon. With an immersion blender, blend just slightly to smooth out the texture, taking care to leave some chunks. (If you do not have an immersion blender, process just part of the soup in a regular blender. Season to taste and serve.
Photos by Ginny Naumann – Photo of Hovig by Ani Manserejian