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On Being Armenian, Project S.T.I.R., and how to make Authentic Armenian Rice Pilaf

Armenian cookbooks, measuring cup of rice, and vermicelli


So, in case you guys didn’t know, I’m half Armenian. You might not know what that is, but here’s where we come from:

Talk about an exciting neighborhood. Map found at HistoryPlace.com
Marked in red. Talk about an exciting neighborhood. I’ve never been there before, but I’d love to visit if I could. Map found at HistoryPlace.com

And hailing from a small, lesser-known country, we cheer super loud for our tiny Olympic team during the Parade of Champions and freak out over the slightest offhand mention of Armenia in any sort of media. Like Conan O’Brien going to Armenia with his Armenian assistant! Better believe I’ll be watching that!

People might not realize it, but Armenians are all over the place in pop culture, like Dave Seville (a.k.a. Ross Bagdasarian), creator of The Chipmunks, and The Kardashians, who need no introduction, as well as all four members of the band System of a Down, the Zildjian family, (yes, the drum cymbal company), Andy Serkis (originally Serkisian), Anita Sarkeesian and Cher (born Cherilyn Sarkisian), who apparently all basically have the same last name, haha! And in case you were wondering, traditional Armenian last names often end in “-ian” or “-yan,” which means “son of.”

Armenian Flag
This is our flag.

Growing up, my family would go with my grandma to her Armenian apostolic church on special holidays. I’ll never forget the beautiful, haunting chants, or the jingling sound of the swinging censers, sending out the strong, spicy scent of incense.

In high school, I took Armenian lessons here and there, and I learned to write my name!

Proof! (Written in Paint)
Proof! (Written in Paint)

I grew up hearing my grandma tell us stories about her childhood on the island of Cyprus, and how her mother, father, and husband (my grandpa, who I never met) survived the harrowing Armenian genocide. Knowing that history, it’s encouraging to know that I come from a long line of survivors, and it really puts my First World Life into perspective.

What I love most about being Armenian is seeing that despite going through a genocide and some mass-migrations, we’re still strong in our faith and our desire to appreciate the good things in life. We’re warm, generous and love to laugh, we’re bright and creative, and we make amazing food! Attending Armenian church for special occasions also meant giant church lunches or dinners with Armenian food. It’s a staple of healthy, flavorful meat and veggie dishes that fill you up and make your taste buds sing with yummy textures and flavors.

Every Thanksgiving at our house, rice pilaf, fassoulia (tomato string beans, which I’ve also posted a recipe for) and pita bread were served alongside the turkey, cornbread and pumpkin pie. And every time I visit home, we stop by the local Mediterranean store to stock up on freshly made lahmajun (flatbread pizza), tabouleh, and Armenian string cheese!

Our most recent stash. I really need to find a place like this near me.
Our most recent stash. I really need to find a place like this near me.

So when I heard about Sarah Shott’s Project S.T.I.R.: Storytelling Through International Recipes, naturally I LOVED the idea, and it made me think about my own family history.

I know my great grandma made kofta (stuffed meatballs) and other intricate, time-consuming recipes by hand. My grandma used to do some of that as well, but my mom and I are too practical, so we never really learned. I’m so grateful for cultural markets that still put the time and love into difficult, delicious foods, but I want to be able to absorb some Armenian food culture and pass it on myself. It’s so important that we keep lesser-known food arts from dying out, especially if we could learn it from people we love so much!

My grandma taught me how to make rice pilaf one Thanksgiving when I was in college, and I’m almost positive my dad filmed it, but who knows where it is now. My grandma is 94 now and doesn’t do her own cooking much anymore, and I’m longing to get a hold of that video. As I thought about how important that footage was to me, I realized what it would mean to the families included in the film Sarah is planning to make. In fact, I want everyone to be able to remember and immortalize a beloved family recipe, so it becomes a family heirloom in its own right, for teaching and nostalgic purposes. That’s what motivated me to back Project S.T.I.R. the most, and I put my money where my mouth is!

ProjectSTIR-150px—-EDIT: October 2018—-

Sadly, Project S.T.I.R. is on an indefinite hiatus, but all the more reason to take matters into our own hands and not lose our precious family recipes!

If you’re interested in learning more about Project S.T.I.R., check out the info page. Also, check out the Kickstarter Sarah’s running, so she can film more heirloom family cooking sessions in homes around the world. Please consider supporting her, as she’s lagging behind on her goal, BUT SHE MUST SUCCEED! We have to preserve these amazing heirloom recipes for the future! Sarah is awesome, and she really has some cool perks when you support the Kickstarter, so please give it a look and consider passing it on to interested parties. It would mean a lot to me, and especially Sarah.


And now, in the spirit of keeping tasty, traditional recipes alive, I’m going to share one of my favorites with you, courtesy of my grandma:

Armenian Rice Pilaf

Ingredients ~ 4 servings (2 cups)

  • 1 cup long grain rice
  • 1/2 cup vermicelli, broken into small pieces
  • 1/8 lb butter (half a stick) // My mom uses 1-2 tbsp to keep it lighter on fat.
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • salt to taste (optional)

1. Melt butter in a small cooking pot on middle heat. If you turn it up too high, the butter will start to froth.

2. Dump the broken-up vermicelli into the pot and stir constantly until the noodles begin to look light brown, or “pink,” as my grandma says.

Butter & vermicelli3. Add the rice to the vermicelli and butter, and stir until the butter coats all the rice.
Adding rice to butter and vermicelli4. Add the chicken broth to the mixture, and wait til it reaches a rolling boil (about 10 minutes).

Added chicken stock, waiting to boil
Pre-boiling point

5. Turn the burner to low, cover the pot, and let it cook slowly for 20 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed all the liquid.

OMNOM buttery goodness
OMNOMNOM! I probably could have made the vermicelli a little darker, but it’s only for color. It will still taste the same!

6. Take it off the burner and let it cool for a few minutes before serving! Enjoy your warm and buttery pilaf!

Pilaf with salmon and asparagusI made salmon over asparagus with lemon, garlic, and dill to go with the pilaf. (You can find the AMAZING recipe here. Plus, her photos are much prettier than mine!)

Well, now I want some bastirma (cured, dried beef strips).

Ooooh yeah, baby...
Ooooh yeah, baby…


—–EDITED 10/25/15—–

Want More Armenian Food Traditions?

Check out my family recipe for Fassoulia (Tomato String Beans) I mentioned above, or watch this demonstration of the Easter tradition of an Egg Fight! (Sorry, no eggs actually get thrown.)


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