Lenten cuisine, orchestrated by a master musician

by Florence Avakian

Published: Monday April 09, 2012

Mr. Arzruni speaks with guests at this week's event.

Master pianist and ethnomusicologist Sahan Arzruni recently gave a bravura performance of different kind, displaying his extraordinary, creative knowledge of Armenian Lenten cuisine at the Diocesan Center in New York.

From start to finish of the evening of March 13, Mr. Arzruni had impeccably executed the preparations, including the food shopping, the cooking, and serving. The evening's unique presentation-a food preparation exhibition with a witty and informative running narrative-he performed with his typical exuberant personality.

Diocesan communications director Chris Zakian welcomed the more than 50 attendees who took places at covered tables adorned with several of the foods that were to be served. "Like all great artists, Sahan's creativity extends to all fields, including being an ingenious cook," said Mr. Zakian.

With obvious enthusiasm, Mr. Arzruni delved into his subject, explaining that Armenian fasting traditions involve not only the six-week Lenten period, but also week-long fasts preceding each of the dominical feasts (Christmas, Easter, Transfiguration, Assumption, and Exaltation).

"Growing up in Istanbul, my grandmother, who was very religious, observed the strict Lenten menus every Wednesday and Friday," he said, noting that those weekdays were marked for strict observance by the church.

In a quest to learn about Armenian Lent customs, Mr. Arzruni explained, "I learned a great deal from Professor Abraham Terian, from Fr. Krikor Maksoudian, and Fr. Daniel Findikyan."

The original vegan diet

Mr. Arzruni said his renewed interest in the Armenian Lenten food tradition was piqued a few years ago, when a friend recommended he adopt a "vegan" diet as a sure-fire way to lose weight. "I'll find my own way," a skeptical Arzruni replied at the time; but his eyes were opened to the creative possibilities of the cuisine at a dinner party given by famed Armenian composer Edvard Mirzoyan, whose wife had prepared a surprisingly delicious beet spread. Arzruni decided to adopt the same principles of Lenten cuisine-the "original vegan diet," he called it-to create his own dishes.

The result was on display at the March 13 gathering, where in the manner of a live "cooking show" Mr. Arzruni showed how he prepared each item in a diverse and surprisingly contemporary menu, while expounding on their consonance with the centuries-old Armenian traditions of Lent.

Lenten cooking in the authentic Armenian tradition tolerates no meat, fish or dairy, said Mr. Arzruni with emphasis. "The only permitted ingredients are legumes, vegetables, fruits and grains. And even though oil is permitted in theory, they didn't use oil in Armenia, since there were no olive trees." He noted that olive oil came into wider use beginning in the 9th century, in the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, where the trees grew in abundance.

Demonstrating before the crowd, he combined beets, walnuts, cilantro, garlic, sea salt and cider vinegar, which he ground coarsely in a food processor, and asked the attendees to spread the mixture on crackers. "I want to taste the texture, so I grind it coarsely," he commented, adding that he has created recipes for eight separate spreads using root vegetables and walnuts.

As the evening continued, what had been billed as a "tasting" turned out to be a full five-course dinner, replete with a Swiss chard soup of red onion, celery, turnip, Swiss chard stalks and leaves, and canned whole tomatoes, served by Mr. Arzruni's cadre of enthusiastic volunteers.

This was followed by a ragout of pinto (or cranberry) beans, strewn with chives, and flavored with garam masala (an Indian spice combination). Then came quinoa (a relative of beets and spinach which comes only from Peru, "the most complete protein," our chef explained) with sautéed cremini mushrooms, fresh thyme and shallots, all placed tastefully on the tables with radishes, cucumber slices, and leaves of romaine lettuce leaves placed in tall vases like a floral centerpiece.

In a nod to the modern pioneers of Armenian cooking technique, Sahan Arzruni paid tribute to the late Alice Antreassian, whose daughter Elise Antreassian Bayizian was among the attendees on the evening. For two generations of Armenian chefs, Alice Antreassian's cookbook "The 40 Days of Lent" has been the seminal resource for authentic Armenian Lenten recipes, and it remains a "best-seller" to this day.

At last, the feast was topped off with a delectable dessert of dates and other dried fruits, almonds, walnuts, and halvah with pistachio nuts, to be downed with several varieties of herbal teas.

Mr. Arzruni graciously expressed his thanks to a number of people who had worked behind the scenes to make the event possible, especially Talin Ipek and Gregory Manuelian. The superbly organized evening came to a close with a Rest Service in the sanctuary of St. Vartan Cathedral, led by the cathedral dean, the Rev. Fr. Mardiros Chevian.

Some of the recipes from the evening can be found on Sahan Arzruni's website: www.sahanarzruni.com.

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Maria Mehranian.

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Maria Mehranian will speak on California's high speed rail on October 23 in Pasadena; for details about this and other upcoming Armenian happenings in America, consult the Calendar of Events.






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