BY TOM VARTABEDIAN
BOYNTON BEACH, Fla—What’s cooking in The Armenian Kitchen these days?
Chief cooks Doug and Robyn Kalajian happen to be celebrating an auspicious occasion with another delectable meal and perhaps a bottle of champagne.
They’re toasting a happy marriage as well as a happy website that has caught the attention of its 1 millionth page viewer.
“Raise the glasses and bring out the special tableware for this occasion,” bubbles Robyn. “What a milestone! You could knock us over with a feather.”
And that it should be. The big day arrived May 27 when the website registered 547 hits, a tad less than the previous day which received 931 showings. Over the month’s time, make it 27,580 views which passed the million mark by 331.
It’s anything and everything you wanted to know about Armenian food a million times over and still counting.
Among the latest queries was from Mark Gavoor with his oud in hand. He represents the voice of Chicago with an appetite to match, especially when it comes to such delectables as perper salata, Kharpert kufteh, surum and topig. Just like medz-mama’s cooking!
He has this to say about the Kalajians:
“Their Armenian Kitchen blog is an Armenian-American treasure. Their passion for the preservation and dialogue of our culinary roots is nonpareil. I wish I were more of a cook than simply an avid fan of results of Armenian cooking pros like Doug and Robyn. If I were, I’d certainly take advantage of their wonderful and voluminous collection of recipes. Maybe one day.”
Whether it’s their concoctions, someone else’s, or from another’s cookbook, it’s all up there for people to enjoy, says Gavoor.
“The Kalajians provide great stories and give ample credit to wherever the recipes may originate from,” he adds.
Their page – The Armenian Kitchen.com— shares everything you want to know about Armenian food, one recipe and story at a time; whether it’s Aunt Arpie’s deviled eggs or Gavoor’s amazing cheese puff/boureg called “penerli.”
Put on an apron, wash your hands and join the Kalajians on their epicurean journey.
“Armenian recipes are as varied as their regions and dialects,” agrees Robyn. “No two choreg recipes are alike. Food connects us across all boundaries. We like to think we’re preserving our heritage one recipe at a time.”
We caught up with the Kalajians in the comfort of their kitchen. No doubt, it’s their favorite room and with the electronic era, they share it with the world.
Doug, too, is absolutely dumbstruck by the overall popularity of his nutmeg. As he understands it, the stats mean his site has been clicked on over a million times by almost 300,000 different readers.
“It tells us that people keep coming back,” he says. “We know this because Google tracks visits automatically and tells us what stories they read and where they may live, right down to the village in China, Africa or the Middle East. It’s been an amazing journey over these past five years.”
Other remote areas include Mongolia, Laos, Iceland, Uzbekistan and United Arab Emirates (UAE). A man from Australia was so desperate for the taste of basterma, he sought the recipe. A woman from Canada sent along an easy method of making madzoon in a microwave. Others are hoping to find lost family recipes.
Doug worked as an editor, reporter and feature writer for over 16 years with The Palm Beach Post before retiring in 2008 from what he calls “a sadly shrinking newspaper industry.”
Along the way, he wrote a non-fiction book called “Snow Blind” about a crusading public defender caught up in Florida’s cocaine insanity of the 1980s.
Robyn, a retired culinary arts teacher, remains the chief cook with this production duet while her husband calls himself a sous chef. Dining with them in an elaborate Florida restaurant is quite the appetizer.
“I’m absolutely dumbstruck by the overall popularity of YouTube which has displaced traditional TV for so many people,” Doug points out. “Our cooking videos have been watched more than 230,000 times by viewers from around the world.”
Most popular so far is how to make shish kebab with more than 65,000 views. More so than the website, the videos seem to draw a diverse audience that includes many non-Armenians. The reaction has been powerful and sometimes overwhelming.
Doug notes that some videos have also become a lightning rod.
“There’s a furious international food fight being carried out among various groups claiming the identity and origin of dishes from throughout the Near and Middle East,” he confirms. “Armenian cuisine is under heavy fire, particularly from Azerbaijan and Turkey. The comments get downright nasty sometimes but I rarely feel the need to reply because Armenian viewers jump in quickly with their own response.”
The Kalajians remain content to leave questions about the food industry to the experts while they try to satisfy a clear desire among Armenians to share their recipes and the traditions they represent.
One lesson that’s been driven home is that the Armenian menu is incredibly varied because it reflects the far-reaching experiences and travels of the Armenian people over centuries.
“Our cuisine is still evolving as Armenians adapt to the changing world,” he agrees. “Ask Armenians from Yerevan and Lebanon to describe a typical meal and you may get very different answers. But you might find the same divergence between two Armenians from New Jersey if one family came from Dikranagert and the other from Van.”
After starting the website in March 2009 with nothing more than the thought of sharing recipes with an unknown global audience, it’s become an evolving turnstile.
“We always wanted to work on something together,” they said. “Robyn’s knowledge of food and cooking with my writing skills was an obvious conclusion.”
The Kalajians are based in Boynton Beach where they cook and write. Both are involved with St. David’s Armenian Church and piped into the Armenian community. They’ve connected people with recipes, specific ingredients and other curiosity-seekers. Through their website, they found a cousin named Maro Nalabandian, a noted pastry chef.
“I’ve heard about her family over the years but we’d never met until this past April,” said Robyn. “The passion for food must be in our genes.”
Baking the distinctive cheese bread recipe that Robyn learned from her grandmother not only brings back memories, it gives the Kalajians a small taste of the little village in the shadow of Musa Dagh her ancestors left nearly a century ago.
A plea for assistance came from Tigran Shahverdyan, a scientist from Moscow participating in the International Space University’s studies program at Florida Institute of Technology.
He didn’t have a car and needed to know where the nearest Middle Eastern store was located. He wished to buy lavash for a cultural project to which he was committed. Being the only Armenian in the group, he wanted to do an Armenian-style barbeque.
Using her computer, Robyn located a store near his school which sold lavash and passed on the information diligently, much to the delight of the faculty and students.
“We’ve posted recipes related to certain Armenian traditions, celebrations and holidays,” she brought out. “Our main purpose continues to find and preserve Armenian family-style recipes. Sometimes, it’s a challenge with regional, dialect and recipe name/spelling differences but we’re always up for that. At times, we turn to readers for help and someone usually comes to the rescue.”
The Kalajians would love to publish their own cookbook but the idea always seems to find “the back burner.” But it’s not out of the question. A calendar has been suggested and that’s another possibility. It’s just a matter of time and timing.
As for television, that’s highly unlikely. They’ll stick to their YouTube videos for now. In the meantime, they’ll focus on being an interactive site that reaches far beyond their wildest dreams.