There’s a restaurant in Chicago called Sayat Nova, which is named for the Armenian 18th century poet Arutin Sayadyan whose pen name means “King of Songs.” The food is so good I used to fly it back to San Francisco and got into fights with the TSA about whether the yogurt-laden dishes were technically considered liquid or not.
I had the pleasure of meeting Armenian chef and TV personality Ara Zada when I was down in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. We had a great chat about what is so unique about this cuisine. All answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liza B. Zimmerman (L.B.Z.) : What excites you about Armenian food?
Ara Zada (A.Z.): Food in Armenian isn’t as meat heavy as people lead on to believe. It a mixture of grains, greens and a lot of lavash! Highlighting simple ingredients smashed with tons of herbs is probably what was most exciting.
L.B.Z.: Where is your family from and how often do you go back?
A.Z.: My mom and grandparents are Armenian but both were born in Egypt. The first time I went to Armenia in 2016 and I was going back about every six months until the Covid pandemic hit.
L.B.Z.: Where did you study culinary arts?
A.Z.: I did my culinary studies at Le Cordon Bleu.
L.B.Z.: When did you first experience Armenia wines and how have they evolved?
A.Z.: The first time I had Armenian wine was my first trip to Armenia. Since then, there has been a massive wine revolution. Tons of wine makers from around the world have come to buy vineyards. They have evolved the wine making processes and techniques. I’ve been told by several wine makers in Armenia that their best vintage is next one to come, since the winemaking process is in constant evolution.
L.B.Z.: What have some of the biggest challenges been for the Armenia wine industry?
A.Z.: For wineries just getting their name out has been tough. Armenia has long history of wine making that dates back 6000 years. However, during Soviet domination Armenian winemakers were encouraged to make brandy instead. Also, most people at that point were making their own wine in their backyard and it wasn’t that good.
L.B.Z.: Do you think the fact that many of these grapes are hard to pronounce have been an issue for them?
A.Z.: The indigenous grapes of Armenia can be pretty difficult to pronounce but it’s just a matter of people saying it a few times. What is also notable is that the indigenous grapes of Armenia don’t suffer from phylloxera and are grown on their own rootstock, which is very unusual in the wine world today.
L.B.Z.: What are some of the most traditional Armenian dishes?
A.Z.: Some of the most recognizable would be Khorovats which is Armenian BBQ, skewered up chunks of meat cooked on an open flame; Lavash-wrapped Trout; Harissa, wheat Porridge; and my favorite Khash, cow foot soup. The cuisine features lots of traditional Lavash bread, cheese and an abundance of herbs.
L.B.Z.: How has the Armenian wine scene been evolving in Yerevan?
A.Z.: The wine scene is incredible in Armenia. There is a whole street dedicated to cool wine bars and restaurants in Yerevan, the capitol.
L.B.Z.: You are involved in creating modern Armenian food. What does that involve?
A.Z.: I love creating modern Armenian food by taking classic cooking methods and making them easier for more people to enjoy or mixing ingredients from different cultures to bring new life to classic dishes.
L.B.Z.: Does fine-tuning the food allow younger people to understand it better?
A.Z.: Absolutely! Your people tend to be afraid of old Armenian dishes because they saw their mothers and grandmas slaving for hours in the kitchen. When I show people an easier way to prepare them, it inspires people to get in the kitchen and get creative.
L.B.Z.: You said you did a Mexican-Armenian pop up? What was that like?
A.Z.: I have been fusing Armenian and Mexican dishes for some time. We take Armenian dishes and add Mexican spices or vice versa and it’s been blowing up on social media. We call it Arm-Mex Fusion. We did a few kitchen/comedy pop-ups and the feedback has been incredible. Each event has had the tickets sell out in the first few hours.
L.B.Z.: How did you combine the flavors of the two cuisines?
A.Z.: Most of the time we come up with video ideas on the spot and they turn into magic on the camera. We took lahmajun—meat flatbread—and cut it up into chips, baked them and made nachos out of them. We made tacos using lavash, khorovats-spiced pork and a pepper sauce.