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The Armenian Kitchen Hits One Million Views

By Tom Vartabedian

BOYNTON BEACH, FL — What’s cooking in the Armenian Kitchen these days?

Chief cooks Doug and Robyn Kalajian happen to be celebrating an auspicious occasion with another delectable meal and perhaps a bottle of champagne.

They’re toasting a happy marriage as well as a happy website that has caught the attention of its one-millionth page viewer.

“Raise the glasses and bring out the special tableware for this occasion,” bubbles Robyn. “What a milestone! You could knock us over with a feather.”

You’re all invited to dinner with Robyn and Doug Kalajian inside their Armenian Kitchen online.

You’re all invited to dinner with Robyn and Doug Kalajian inside their Armenian Kitchen online.

The big day arrived May 27 when the website registered 547 hits, a tad less than the previous day, which received 931. Over May, the site registered 27,580 views, and passed the million mark by 331.

It has anything and everything you wanted to know about Armenian food a million times over and still counting.

Among the latest queries was from Mark Gavoor with his oud in hand. He represents the voice of Chicago with an appetite to match, especially when it comes to such delectables as perper salata, Kharpert kufteh and topig. Just like medzmama’s cooking!

He has this to say about the Kalajians:

“Their Armenian Kitchen blog is an Armenian-American treasure. Their passion for the preservation and dialogue of our culinary roots is nonpareil. I wish I were more of a cook than simply an avid fan of results of Armenian cooking pros like Doug and Robyn. If I were, I’d certainly take advantage of their wonderful and voluminous collection of recipes. Maybe one day.”

Whether it’s their concoctions, a friend’s, or from another’s cookbook, it’s all up there for people to enjoy, says Gavoor.

“The Kalajians provide great stories and give ample credit to wherever the recipes may originate from,” he adds.

Their website——shares everything you want to know about Armenian food one recipe and story at a time, whether it’s Aunt Arpie’s deviled eggs or Gavoor’s amazing cheese puff/bourag called “penerli.”

Put on an apron, wash your hands, and join the Kalajians on their epicurean journey.

“Armenian recipes are as varied as their regions and dialects,” agrees Robyn. “No two choreg recipes are alike. Food connects us across all boundaries. We like to think we’re preserving our heritage one recipe at a time.”

We caught up with the Kalajians in the comfort of their kitchen. No doubt, it’s their favorite room. And with the electronic era, they share it with the world.

Doug, too, is absolutely dumbstruck by the overall popularity of his nutmeg. As he understands it, the stats mean his website has been clicked on over a million times by almost 300,000 different readers.

“It tells us that people keep coming back,” he says. “We know this because Google tracks visits automatically and tells us what stories they read and where they may live, right down to the village in China, Africa, or the Middle East. It’s been an amazing journey over these past five years.”

Other remote areas include Mongolia, Laos, Iceland, Uzbekistan, and United Arab Emirates. A man from Australia was so desperate for the taste of basterma, he sought the recipe. A woman from Canada sent along an easy method of making madzoon in a microwave. Others are hoping to find lost family recipes.

Doug worked as an editor, reporter, and feature writer for over 16 years with the Palm Beach Post before retiring in 2008 from what he calls “a sadly shrinking newspaper industry.”

Along the way, he wrote a non-fiction book called Snow Blind about a crusading public defender caught up in Florida’s cocaine insanity of the 1980’s.

Robyn, a retired culinary arts teacher, remains the chief cook with this production duet; her husband calls himself a sous chef. Dining with them in an elaborate Florida restaurant is quite the appetizer.

“I’m absolutely dumbstruck by the overall popularity of YouTube, which has displaced traditional TV for so many people,” Doug points out.

Most popular so far is how to make shish kebab with more than 65,000 views. More so than the website, the videos seem to draw a diverse audience that includes many non-Armenians. The reaction has been powerful and sometimes overwhelming.

“Our cooking videos have been watched more than 230,000 times by viewers from around the world.” Doug notes that some videos have also become a lightning rod.

“There’s a furious international food fight being carried out among various groups claiming the identity and origin of dishes from throughout the Near and Middle East,” he confirms. “Armenian cuisine is under heavy fire, particularly from Azerbaijan and Turkey. The comments get downright nasty sometimes, but I rarely feel the need to reply because Armenian viewers jump in quickly with their own response.”

The Kalajians remain content to leave questions about the food industry to the experts while they try to satisfy a clear desire among Armenians to share their recipes and the traditions they represent.

One lesson that’s been driven home is that the Armenian menu is incredibly varied because it reflects the far-reaching experiences and travels of the Armenian people over centuries.

“Our cuisine is still evolving as Armenians adapt to the changing world,” he agrees. “Ask Armenians from Yerevan and Lebanon to describe a typical meal and you may get very different answers. But you might find the same divergence between two Armenians from New Jersey if one family came from Dikranagerd and the other from Van.”

After starting the website in March 2009 with nothing more than the thought of sharing recipes with an unknown global audience, it’s become an evolving turnstile.

“We always wanted to work on something together,” they said. “Robyn’s knowledge of food and cooking with my writing skills was an obvious conclusion.”

The Kalajians are based in Boynton Beach, where they cook and write. Both are involved with St. David’s Armenian Church and piped into the Armenian community. They’ve connected people with recipes, specific ingredients, and other curiosity-seekers. Through their website, they found a cousin named Maro Nalabandian, a noted pastry chef.

“I’d heard about her family over the years but we’d never met until this past April,” said Robyn. “The passion for food must be in our genes.”

Baking the distinctive cheese bread recipe that Robyn learned from her grandmother not only brings back memories, it gives the Kalajians a small taste of the little village in the shadow of Musa Dagh, which her ancestors left nearly a century ago.

A plea for assistance came from Tigran Shahverdyan, a scientist from Moscow participating in the International Space University’s studies program at Florida Institute of Technology.

He didn’t have a car and needed to know where the nearest Middle Eastern store was located. He wished to buy lavash for a cultural project to which he was committed. Being the only Armenian in the group, he wanted to do an Armenian-style barbeque.

Using her computer, Robyn located a store near his school that sold lavash and passed on the information diligently, much to the delight of the faculty and students.

“We’ve posted recipes related to certain Armenian traditions, celebrations, and holidays,” she brought out. “Our main purpose continues to find and preserve Armenian family-style recipes. Sometimes, it’s a challenge with regional dialect and recipe name/spelling differences, but we’re always up for that. At times, we turn to readers for help and someone usually comes to the rescue.”

The Kalajians would love to publish their own cookbook but the idea always seems to find “the back burner.” Yet, it’s not out of the question. A calendar has been suggested and that’s another possibility. It’s just a matter of time and timing.

As for television, that’s highly unlikely. They’ll stick to their YouTube videos for now. In the meantime, they’ll focus on being an interactive site that reaches far beyond their wildest dreams.

This article has appeared in various Armenian-American publications and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

Armenian Bible Study, Khashlama Luncheon at St. Mary’s Armenian Church This Sunday

This Sunday, October 7, St. Mary Armenian Church in Hollywood, Florida is pleased to invite you to attend their Bible Study. All children and parents will be listening to a Bible story shared by Fr. Vartan Joulfayan.  Following the Liturgy, a special Armenian dish, Khashlama/Խաշլամա, and hot dogs for kids, will be served in Davitian Hall.  The luncheon will be sponsored and served by Arayik & Armine Kocharian family and friends.

Earlier this year, FLArmenian Cuisine Contributors Robyn and Doug Kalajian shared their Khashlama recipe with our readers and we sure hope you enjoyed it.

FLArmenians encourage you to make a special effort and join them on Sunday. Bon a petit!

Kalajians Cook Up a Storm Inside Their Armenian Kitchen

Kalajians Cook Up a Storm Inside Their Armenian Kitchen

By Tom Vartabedian

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla.—Want to know the perfect recipe for vosbov kufteh? How about the ideal bourma? Looking for a new and different pilaf recipe?

Doug and Robyn Kalajian offer their home to you as collaborators and connoisseurs of ‘The Armenian Kitchen’.

Take it from Doug and Robyn Kalajian. It all starts with the best ingredients, plenty of time, a sprinkle of patience, and a measure of love.

“A well-stocked pantry doesn‘t hurt, either,” they agree. “It’s all in the way you delve off the beaten path. Explore. Experiment. Enjoy. Paree akhorjag. Have a good appetite!”

Doug and Robyn Kalajian offer their home to you as collaborators and connoisseurs of ‘The Armenian Kitchen’

The Kalajians don’t consider themselves epicureans by any stretch, just a fun-loving couple who enjoy sampling good Armenian food and sharing recipes with others—whether their own or from others.

Log on to their website and you’ll find a heritage of Armenian recipes with a personal touch, whether it’s French toast, chicken soup, or Christmas pudding.

It’s where you will be inspired by an ancient cuisine, experiment with exotic ingredients, master cooking techniques you were afraid to attempt, and much more.

It doesn’t matter where you live, what your ethnic background happens to be, what degree your food preparation skills are, or your finances. Everybody has to eat.

“Armenian recipes are as varied as their regions and dialects,” says Robyn. “No two choreg recipes are alike. Food connects us across all boundaries—generational, national, physical, social, nutritional, and cultural.”

They each have their roles. Robyn, a retired culinary arts teacher, is the chief cook. Doug remains the sous chef. He’s an author and retired journalist who spent 16 years at the Palm Beach Post. He worked as an editor, reporter, and feature writer during that stint before retiring in 2008 from what he called “our sadly shrinking industry.”

Over the years, Doug hunkered down to cover a few hurricanes, chronicled the annual outbreak of spring break madness, sneaked into a mob funeral, and came nose-to-nose with an alligator or two while crisscrossing the state.

Along the way, he wrote a non-fiction book called Snow Blind about a crusading public defender caught up in Florida’s cocaine insanity of the 1980’s. His favorite assignment?

“Going to France and walking Normandy’s Utah Beach with a veteran who landed there on D-Day in 1944,” he recalls. “When I’m not cooking, or more likely eating, I do freelance editing and writing.”

He and Robyn discovered a common interest in Armenian cooking the night they met back in 1976. He was working at the New York Daily News while she was teaching at a high school by the New Jersey shore.

“We were immediately struck by our similarities and backgrounds,” said Doug. “Not only were we both Armenian, but our fathers’ families both came from Dikranagerd. We had many friends in common and had experienced similarly Armenian-intensive childhoods. Talk about destiny!”

They wed the following year and moved to Florida when Doug took an editing job at the Miami Herald. Although they suspected Florida to be a short-term engagement, they’re still in the Sunshine State after 31 years. A daughter Mandy lives in New York where she’s a marketing executive.

Robyn studied home economics at New Jersey’s Montclair State College. She taught in New Jersey and Florida public schools for more than 30 years. During that time, she honed her cooking skills in a variety of classes at such noted institutions as Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.

Before retiring nearly three years ago, she taught in the culinary academy at Olympic Heights High School in Boca Raton.

The idea for “The Armenian Kitchen” evolved while discussing retirement plans.

“We’ve always wanted to work on something together,” added Doug. “Robyn’s knowledge of food and cooking with my writing skill was an obvious conclusion.”

They discussed a number of potential projects, including a cookbook and a theme calendar.

Every idea they hatched involved Armenian food. Using the internet was something that would have intimidated both of them not long ago. But friends who were avid bloggers suggested they give it a try.

“It was daunting at times,” Doug admitted. “But we were both delighted and amazed at how quickly we reached a large and enthusiastic audience. So many people are interested in Armenian cuisine and willing to help by contributing recipes, photos, even videos.”

They started their project with a gut feeling that many folks shared an urge to preserve the recipes and cooking techniques of their parents and ancestors. The reaction they get each day proves them right.

Many requests come from around the world and start with the phrase “I remember…” and go on to describe some wonderful dish they haven’t consumed since grandma died.

“A non-Armenian gentleman from Queensland, Australia, who was so desperate for the taste of basterma, asked for a recipe to make it at home since there were no stores near him to purchase it,” said Robyn. “A woman from Canada sent us an easy method of making madzoon in a microwave. Others write us hoping to find lost family recipes.”

The most unusual request had nothing to do with food. A reader asked the Kalajians if they could translate an English saying into Armenian (including the lettering) for a family member who wanted to have it tattooed on her arm before her upcoming wedding. The request was fulfilled.

Since the first item appeared in March 2009, the Kalajians have reached more than 70,000 readers in 160 countries.

“You can attribute much of it to digital magic,” Doug maintains. “The internet makes it possible to keep track of every computer that clicks its way to our site. The analytics even tell us where they are. What a thrill it is to discover that someone in Armenia, or even China and Africa, has taken the time to read one of our posts.”

Posting videos on YouTube has carried them to an even broader audience, including many non-Armenians.

“I’m amazed that more than 20,000 people around the world have watched me make Armenian coffee,” Doug reveals. “Judging by the comments, it’s clear people take their coffee seriously. Even more rewarding is the fact we hear from readers every day.”

It’s not for the money because there isn’t any. The website is a labor of love. Advertising on the site is provided by Google through an arrangement available to all bloggers.

“Our income from this is what I would call modest, but only if I were bragging,” says Doug. “It doesn’t actually cover the cost of ingredients. Our goal from the beginning was to preserve and share the recipes Armenians have carried around the world and the stories behind them. The reaction we’ve received is incredibly positive and far-reaching.”

Growing up, Armenian food was on the default menu. Doug’s parents worked long hours in the dry cleaning store, but that never stopped Mom from making fresh madzoon to spoon over her kufteh.

“I can’t match her energy, much less her cooking style,” he admits, “but making her kind of food is a way of remembering and honoring her. Sharing our food with family and friends is a gesture of love and respect that’s missing from today’s microwave society.”

Baking the distinctive cheese bread recipe that Robyn learned from her grandmother not only brings back memories, it gives the Kalajians a small taste of the little village in the shadow of Musa Dagh, which her ancestors left nearly a century ago.

Their ultimate Armenian dinner would start with cheese beoregs and a hefty plate of mezza, including basterma and yalanchi. The main course would include bulgur pilaf, any type of kebab, kufteh, vegetable geragoor, and chopped salad. Finally, dessert would be baklava with Armenian coffee.

“None of that is particularly fancy or exotic,” Doug notes. “But it’s the food we know and love, and that makes us happy.”

One thing that may surprise people about Doug is that he can’t taste much of what Robyn or anyone else cooks.

Last fall while on a freelance writing assignment, he took a tumble and cracked his skull. As a result, he completely lost his sense of smell. Doctors say it’s unlikely to return.

“I’ve since discovered just how closely smell and taste are related,” Doug says. “I can still sense sweet, sour, hot, and a few other basic tastes. But most herbs and subtle flavorings are just a memory. Just as bad, I can’t smell what’s cooking.”

The good news is, he hasn’t lost his appetite. But any epicurean pretense is kaput at the moment.

“All this would be annoying under any circumstances, but it makes food blogging even more of a challenge,” he points out. “Luckily, Robyn has always had the more refined palate. She’s more than capable of maintaining the lead role in the kitchen as well as on the web.”