Reflecting on the Armenian genocide: Embracing roots and ancestral food

Armenian culture continues to stand strong post-genocide.

Personal essay by Nina Rodriguez

Today marks the 108th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Throughout 1915, 1.5 million Armenians, including some of my ancestors, were killed by the Ottoman Empire during World World I. Armenia was the only Christian nation in the Caucasus region, and it was the mission of the Ottoman Empire to annihilate all Christian Armenians. To remember this devastating time, I reflect on my roots and culture.

Many of my ancestors emigrated to the United States during and after the genocide. My great-grandmother, Helen Tashjian, became an orphan after her parents were victims of the genocide. Fortunately, she taught herself to cook and bake Armenian delicacies.  Luckily for us, she passed down her expertise through her recipes.

Like many countries, Armenia has several popular dishes, many of which consist of lamb, eggplant, lavash (a thin flatbread,) and bulgur (cracked wheat,) topped with herbs. The country’s cuisine has influences from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Western Asia. The Armenian Highlands is known for its fertility—growing wheat, lentils, apricots, and pomegranates.

During family gatherings, we enjoy homemade dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice and herbs,) bulgur or pilaf (rice and egg noodles cooked in broth,) shish kebab (grilled meat and vegetables,) tabbouleh (finely chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion, soaked uncooked bulgur, olive oil, and lemon juice,) eech (bulgur, onions, tomatoes, and parsley,) mujaddara (lentils, rice, and sautéed onions,) Shepherd’s salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, olives, and feta,) and labneh (Greek yogurt with shaved cucumber and zaatar.) Family gatherings are a fun time to connect with my roots.

In the summer of 2017, I traveled to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. The small, quaint city sits near Mount Ararat and Lake Sevan. On a hill called Tsitsernakaberd stands the Armenian Genocide Memorial which names the victims and displays family artifacts and mementos. Every April 24, Armenians gather at the memorial to remember the victims and place flowers out of respect.

Flowers surrounding the memorial. Photo by Nina Rodriguez.

Yerevan has many small streets with hidden gems—family-owned shops, markets, and restaurants. My family and I frequently visited Tufenkian, a historical boutique hotel, and restaurant. My mom and I shared Shepherd’s salad, hummus, and lentil kufta (lentil and bulgur “fingers.”) Every dish tasted as if it came straight from my great-grandmother’s kitchen.

A delicious buckwheat dish in Yerevan. Photo by Nina Rodriguez.

Another favorite destination was GUM Market, where fresh produce, dried fruit, cheese, meats, bread, spices, and more were available. The beautiful and immense display of foods made my mouth water. Luckily, many of the vendors offered samples! I was so tempted to buy all the fruit leathers, dried fruit, and spices! Needless to say, I walked away with tons of goodies.

Dried fruit galore at GUM Market. Photo by Alex Rodriguez.

Visiting Armenia is a memory I will cherish. Immersing myself in my ancestors’ homeland gave me an incredible opportunity to appreciate both the sad and happy history that defined the Armenia we see today. I look forward to sharing my Armenian heritage with my children.

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