In May and June 2021, I had the opportunity to share in food, fellowship, and history with members of the Armenian community at St. Peter’s. The relatively secluded church is a thriving cultural center for many Armenians in the Upper Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. As I drove up Assepian Avenue on the way to the Church, I felt that I was leaving my world behind, as the busy highways and traffic were replaced with a welcoming committee of trees and greenery, which opened to reveal the magnificent church building. In front of the church is a small memorial garden and monument erected in the memory of those who died in the Armenian Genocide, a tragic holocaust that remains an indelible and defining aspect of Armenian identity and heritage.
As soon as I got out of my car, I could hear the sounds of community. The men, who are members of the Knights of Vartan fraternal organization, began to prepare the large pit grills for cooking chicken and Hye burgers. In the distance, the tinkle of dishes and excited voices sounded from the kitchen in the lower floor of the Church building. The sounds mingled with the perfumes of cooking spices, baking sweets, and charcoal smoke, as the grills were warmed to start the festivities for the Friday Flavors of Armenia.
According to Paulette Doudoukjian, wife of St. Peter’s Church pastor, Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian, this is the church’s second year of running the Friday Flavors of Armenia series. Since 1910, St. Peter’s has put on an Armenian festival every June, as a celebration of summer, Armenian food, faith, and culture. In normal years the festival would run for two days, and would feature vendors, musicians, dancers, and an incredible variety of foods both savory and sweet. Like many other church and cultural celebrations, the festival was shut down for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, just shy of the festival’s 110th anniversary. As a testament to Armenian perseverance, Paulette and the other members of the Women’s Guild came up with a novel idea: a drive-thru festival that would allow them to continue serving the Armenian and non-Armenian communities, while maintaining social distancing and mitigating the spread of the virus as much as possible. The new variation, Friday Flavors of Armenia, was a success, and the drive-thru option may remain as a fixture after the pandemic is over.
Although the menu was somewhat reduced, the flavors and the quality of the food were still top notch. Each week featured two entrees: an Armenian Chicken Dinner and a Hye Burger Platter.
The Hye Burger is made from a mixture of beef, lamb, spices and aromatics. According to Sonya Moroukian, a master baker and one of the cooks for the festival, this dish is a great way to introduce people to Armenian flavor profiles, especially for those who may not like an all-lamb main course. The Hye Burger is a fusion version of the Losh Kebab, which in normal years would be grilled right alongside the burgers. What makes this burger extra special is that it is served with an Armenian coleslaw of purple cabbage, carrots, and a proprietary dressing that adds a kick to the burger itself. The Armenian Chicken is marinated in a yogurt sauce, similar to tzatziki.
To accompany these dishes, the Women’s Guild makes an incredible rice pilaf. The secret, according to Paulette and her colleagues, is in its simplicity. The pilaf is made with butter, pepper, rice, chicken stock, and egg noodles. As Paulette was explaining the process of how to make the pilaf, she and her son Jonah were mixing the dish in large industrial-size pans—large enough to feed an entire village.
Aside from the entrees, the women also put together incredible desserts and a la carte items. For this year’s festivals, the women, under the direction of Sonya Moroukian, have made trays upon trays of Paklava (also spelled Baklava) and Kadayif. These classic desserts are staples of Armenian food culture.
For the Paklava, the bakers roll out and layer phyllo dough, nuts, and spices in large sheet pans. Depending on who is baking them, there can be multiple layers of nuts. After baking to a golden brown color, the Paklava is then doused with a simple syrup made of water, sugar, and lemon juice that brightens and highlights the rich flavors of the pastry.
According to Serena Moroukian and her mother Sonya, making Paklava together as a family is a rite of passage for a young woman, given the difficulty of folding and preparing the pastry dough, and layering everything together. Depending on the occasion, the dough is sometimes store bought, or it may be made from scratch, an arduous process. Leftovers from the baklava trays are sometimes crushed up and mixed with ice cream to make Baklava Sundaes, which are another major treat.
Kadayif is a creamy dessert made with a sweetened, cream cheese-like filling, shredded phyllo dough and simple syrup. This dessert takes patience to bake and also freezes well.
The last dish on the menu is Eech (pronounced similarly to the English word each). It is a hearty food that is made of cracked bulgur wheat, onions, tomato sauce, (occasionally) stock, spices, and a topping usually made from sweet and/or spicy peppers and parsley. This dish demonstrates a part of the wide variety of food that is found in Armenia, based on the terroir and availability of ingredients in different regions. Each is a vegan dish and can be enjoyed hot, cold, or room temperature. It can be eaten alone, as a salad accompanying a meal, or as Raffi Moroukian lovingly described, as a breakfast dish mixed with scrambled eggs.
I am incredibly grateful to the members of St. Peter’s Armenian Church community for allowing me to talk to them, to learn about their culinary culture, and to share in the enjoyment of food with them. A special thank you to Lori Payette at the parish office, Fr. Stepanos and Presbytera Paulette Doudoukjian, Sonya, Serena and Raffi Moroukian, and the members of the St. Peter’s Women’s Guild for their generosity, friendliness, and willingness to talk about their culture.