BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
No doubt you heard about Azerbaijan’s recent bellicose pronouncements about “cuisine plagiarism” by Armenia, i.e. we are “stealing” their food. As if that weren’t enough, Armenians stand accused of doing all that Azerbaijan ACTUALLY DOES by way of cultural destruction (think-khachkars in the Julfa cemetery), changing place names (think-Gandzak becoming Gyanja), and misappropriating national values (think- the Azerbaijani invented history of Armenia). These people must have psychologists drooling over a potential study of the psychological phenomenon call projection.
All that is pretty cheeky for a country that never existed before the birth of the Soviet Union. Not only that, but there was never a recognition of the people living there as a nation. They were just called Turks or Tatars. So how there could have been a “national” cuisine attributable to these people is really a mystery. But, it all fits the pattern of behavior— using any and all excuses to defame, vilify, and beset the Republic of Armenia and Armenians —that Baku has adopted as state policy. How ridiculous it is that the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan is spearheading this ridiculous campaign.
Contemporaneously, you probably also learned of Turkey’s effort in the halls of Europe to register sarma/dolma (mispronounced by Eastern Armenians as tolma) as its national food. Again, this is pretty cheeky for a country whose origins stem from a bunch of murderous horsemen arriving on the Armenian plateau and Anatolia from Central Asia. Is it really plausible that they carried with them a food as complex and requiring agriculture— not something nomads engage in —as sarma?
While admittedly the word dolma is Turkish, and is prevalent throughout much of the territory occupied by the Ottoman Empire, there’s a reason for this phenomenon. It turns out the Ottomans had a policy of spreading the food of the lands they occupied throughout the empire, but exclusively under Turkish names. Now, it’s hard to tell where any of these foods originated as a consequence. I had this experience in college. My freshman year, I’d brought some sarma to the dorm. I shared some with a sophomore who was a Croat. We were both surprised to learn we had the same name for it. Gee, I wonder if Croatia ever suffered Turkish misrule…
This vying over the ownership of food is not unique to Armenians and Turks. For a while, I was getting videos or other forms of news about what can only be described as food “wars” between Lebanon and Israel. People there were making outsized versions of what they considered their “own” dishes. The example that stands out the most is the 5 meter-wide, 233 kilogram (16 ¼ feet, 513 pound) seenee koefteh (again, the Turkish name for it), kibbeh in Arabic, cooked in Lebanon. This is how people are vying to retain ownership over “their” cuisines.
It’s no surprise that something so viscerally important as food triggers such emotion, energy, and even jealousy.
That’s why it’s galling, on one level, to learn, from the Turkish Cultural Foundation’s newsletter that it held a lecture Constantinople (renamed Istanbul as part of Turkey’s cultural destruction practice) about Armenian food, then served up some of it. On the other hand, this might also be good in that it helps reestablish the Armenian presence where it was brutally ripped out by the Genocide.
That fervor is also why a cookbook such as Armenian Cuisine, by Aline Kamakian and Barbara Drieskens, published last year, is so important. These ladies went to occupied Western Armenia and other areas of pre-Genocide Armenian habitation to gather recipes for various dishes, compared them with the traditions handed down to us from our great/grandparents from the same locales, and served them to us in this very well done book.
All this is the best response to Gustavo Arrellano who, writing in the Orange County Register two years ago, reacted almost contemptuously to one of my pieces in which a criticized the usurpation of Armenian dishes through the teaching of “Turkish” cooking classes in Orange County under the auspices of the Pacifica Foundation (one of the Gulen Movement’s front organizations).
Let’s proudly retain and regain what’s rightfully ours, despite what the murderous cousins— Azerbaijan and Turkey —might say and do.