The Crunchy Armenian Walnut Pastries That Tell a Story
Roberta Kochakian preserves Armenian recipes so essential to the culture, they're almost museum pieces.
As a young woman, Roberta Kochakian knew that if she wanted to preserve Armenian recipes that had been passed down orally for generations, she needed to do what many often neglect to: ask a lot of questions and write down detailed directions. That foresight cemented her role as a rare chronicler of familial culinary heritage, a documentarian of a cuisine with a timeline cut short, derailed, and fused together again due to transformative events like genocide, forced migration, and war.
Roberta wanted to know things like exactly which side of the leaf the filling should be wrapped in for proper yalanchi, or stuffed grape leaves; how many ounces the demitasse used to pour olive oil in the pot actually held; the exact proportions for the spice mix known as chemen, a carefully guarded recipe used in the making of basturma, an air-dried cured beef her family had perfected over generations before arriving in the United States.
"Nobody knows how to do this," she recalls thinking. "Even if I never make it in my life, at least I'll have it written down." But as it turns out, the opposite happened. A lifelong cook, she hasn't been able to stop making the dishes she wrote down.
Descended from a family of Armenian Genocide survivors, Roberta was born in Detroit. It was there that her grandparents found refuge, after leaving their homeland in present-day Turkey, and where they established a tiny restaurant that helped fill the bellies of hungry factory workers coming off their shifts during Detroit's car-manufacturing heyday. While one set of grandparents was serving food to the masses, Roberta would sit in her paternal grandmother's kitchen and watch her cook all day, learning the essentials of Armenian cookery.
I first met Roberta when I moved from Los Angeles, where I grew up, to the Midwest. As a member of the women's guild at St. John Armenian Church, she was one of a dozen people who graciously welcomed me into their space as I sought to do what Roberta had done decades before: chronicle Armenian recipes and techniques—and the stories that go along with them—before they are lost to history forever. "I almost feel like they're museum pieces," Roberta says of the dishes. "We've just preserved a way of life from 1915."
For several years, I have been cooking, baking, and documenting the rituals of the guild as they have prepared for their annual bazaar, an event that draws large crowds who spare no time in eating and buying the food lovingly made by volunteer members over the course of several months.
Roberta has been a big part of that process. In her, I have found an auntie, a cooking confidante, and a guide. She has shared her expert knowledge with me, passing on, like so many members of the guild, an edible heritage that I continue to treasure. With my family far away, every conversation or cooking session with Roberta brought me closer to feeling comfortable in a new city and finding home again.
Many of the food items made by the guild have also been collected in a cookbook called Treasured Armenian Recipes. One of them is Roberta's recipe for bourma, a phyllo-based dish filled with walnuts that is baked and then doused with sugar syrup.
When working with phyllo, Roberta says, it's important to keep the dough from drying out. For her bourma, she clarifies her own butter, an essential part of many Armenian pastries, after she toasts the nuts. The most critical part of the process is wrinkling the dough with a thin dowel, an heirloom often passed down in Armenian families.
The action is so automatic for Roberta that when she teaches it, she has to spend time deconstructing the entire process to figure out the minute details of what she's doing. Making bourma and teaching someone how to make bourma are two different things, she says, but it's the continued practice of dishes like this that gives Armenian identity an opportunity to continue existing.
"If we have to keep together with our food, if that's what's going to keep us together, then so be it," Roberta says. She will continue to cook, to preserve, and, most importantly, to teach.