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Searching For My Grandfather's Perfect Armenian Pilaf

Rice pilaf.
(Ignat Kushanrev/Getty Images)
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In a light-filled San Fernando Valley kitchen, my Cleveland-born mother is teaching me how to make pilaf using American boxed rice and skinny noodles that are a staple in Mexican soup. When it's done, it will taste like 100 years of Armenian-American life.

There's debate in my mom's circles over which rice makes the best pilaf. "Some say you have to use Mahatma and some say blue rose," she tells me as she places a saucepan on her stovetop. "Going back to my grandmother, it was always Uncle Ben's."

"Which grandmother?" I ask.

"Both," she answers.

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Before she gets to the rice, Mom will brown the noodles. Today, she's using fideo, since that's what she found at the store. She'll add a pat of butter and cook them on medium heat until the noodles are tan. A "dab" of water stops them from overcooking. Then comes the rice, the chicken broth and the rest of the stick of butter. "If you don't have all the butter, it's not pilaf," she says.

Lizs Mom Horizontal640.jpg
The author's mother (center) as a young girl with her grandparents in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Liz Ohanesian)

Pilaf isn't specifically Armenian. Its origins are rooted in India and Iran but variations on the dish are served throughout Central and Western Asia and beyond. Every ethnic group has put its own stamp on it. Pilaf wasn't the only Armenian food we ate. Our big family meals could include anything from yalanchi sarma (meatless stuffed grape leaves, served cold) at mezze to boreg (typically made with filo dough and filled with cheese or another savory item) served alongside the main course to boorma (a type of baklava) for dessert. Pilaf, though, was the constant.

It's not as time consuming as the small, meat-filled dumplings known as manti or harissa, a porridge made of chicken and cracked wheat (not to be confused with the spicy red Tunisian paste of the same name). It doesn't require any trips to Middle Eastern specialty stores. It's something that my family could make often. On that plate of buttery, chicken broth-tinged rice and noodles is the history of our lives in the United States. It's the story of my great-grandparents fleeing the Ottoman Empire and ending up in the Midwest, of my grandparents building distinct Armenian and American identities. It's my parents reclaiming their roots in 1960s and '70s Los Angeles. And it's me, the eldest of their three kids, trying to make sense of it all as anti-immigrant and anti-Middle Eastern sentiments reach a fever pitch in the U.S.

Black and white image of about two dozen sacks of dried herbs.
A medicinal herb stand in Armenia sells herbs and treatments including rose petals, dried starfish, quinine bark and chalk in plaque form with religious symbols on it for pregnant women to eat. Circa 1955.
(Three Lions/Getty Images)

My great-grandparents were the kind of immigrants that many people don't want in the U.S. now. They showed up with help from siblings who had already made the journey. They spoke no English when they arrived. That language would come later. They found work after they arrived but they didn't come to the U.S. to be someone's employees or because they were people of "merit." They came because, if they had stayed home, they most certainly would have died during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Nearly 1.5 million people died in a campaign led by the nationalist Young Turks for reasons that could be summarized as distrust and hatred of ethnic minorities.

"Desperate times take desperate measures," Mom says before heading back to the stove to check on the pilaf.

She would probably side-eye anyone who suggested she use a rice cooker. She recalls her maternal grandmother (technically, my grandma's stepmom) making pilaf in a large pot — "the kind you would use to wash dishes in, in those days," she says — with a plate that doubled as the lid. Pilaf is about resourcefulness and my family, like thousands of others, had to be resourceful.

As Armenians fled the Ottoman Empire, diaspora communities popped up. Boston, Detroit and Fresno became hubs for Armenian immigrants. My mom's family ended up in Cleveland and not many of our people were there.

A cross sits at the top of a copper lined octagonal church dome against a cloud streaked blue sky.
St. Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church in Los Angeles, California, seen in 2005.
(Clinton Steeds/Flickr Creative Commons)
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I often think about my grandparents' hybrid identities. My mom's parents were and are simultaneously very Armenian, very Midwestern and very Californian. As a kid, whenever my siblings and I would go to their house in the Valley, we were immediately told to grab a "pop" before we suited-up and jumped into the swimming pool. They had a refrigerator in the garage stocked with orange, grape and cream soda. They, however, usually drank coffee while chatting at the kitchen table, switching from English to Armenian whenever the conversation veered towards something we weren't supposed to hear.

Armenian was their first language. English was what they learned so they could attend school in Ohio but they never lost the connection to their mother tongue. When my parents sent me to Armenian language classes, my grandfather, who died in 1999, would practice with me, teaching me how to make wisecracks. Even now, my grandma will slip in an Armenian word here and there, mostly when she's talking about cooking and always with a trace of a Cleveland accent. While my grandparents were raised bilingually, they didn't teach their kids Armenian. Monolingualism was seen as an advantage, a way to assimilate and become totally American.

Mom doesn't follow a recipe for pilaf. The gist of it was passed down to her via my grandma. While the dish may seem easy enough to make, it's not. It requires precision to make sure the noodles don't get too brown and the rice doesn't get mushy. It took Mom about a decade to hone her skills. She made small batches for dinner after she got home from work and larger pots for the holidays, tweaking the measurements as she went along. For years, my grandpa critiqued the results. Grandma may have shown Mom how to make the rice dish, but Grandpa was the pilaf master. Even now, nearly two decades after his death, people remember his pilaf. He was the go-to guy for picnics, cooking 30 cups of rice in an electric roaster to feed 150 people when Armenian-American groups would gather in parks.

Grandpa was given an Armenian first name at birth, Bedros, and changed it to an American one, Peter, after his time in the army. During World War II, he caught the wave of patriotism spreading across the U.S., lied about his age and left high school to join the military. My mom recalls him saying that he was asked who he would fight for if the U.S. declared war on Armenia. Armenia wasn't a country at that time but Grandpa answered the United States. We don't know much about his service — it's not something he discussed — but we know that he served in the battles of Anzio and Monte Cassino. While Grandpa was in the service, his dad died and his mom wrote to her congressman to try and bring her son home to Cleveland. It didn't work. Grandpa's time in the military didn't end until the war did.

It's because of this American event that my family became more embedded in the Armenian community.

In 1962, when Mom was 10, her family moved to the San Fernando Valley. They were part of a surge of young families motivated by GI Bills and national advertising campaigns. Among those new residents were Armenian-American families like Mom's who had previously been scattered throughout the East Coast and Midwest. Back in Cleveland, Mom had gone to Sunday school once a month at someone's house and attended occasional Armenian picnics with extended family. In the Valley, her parents got involved with an Armenian Apostolic church being built in Van Nuys. Mom joined its youth group and went to its summer camp. She met other kids who looked like her and came from families like hers. Mom had two lives. During the week, she had her American life at school. "Weekends," she says, "it was all Armenians."

With other Armenians, pilaf was essential. "By the time I was a teenager, it was a source of pride," she says. My ancestors came from a place where they were nearly erased by murder and ended up in a country where assimilation is often seen as an all-or-nothing enterprise. Pilaf was one way to hang onto our identity when doing so in public wasn't acceptable.

"The people of my dad's generation, they blended in so much. Everything was so homogenized, being American. You lived in the suburbs. You had your car. The wife always wore a pretty dress. It was like the 'Leave It to Beaver' life that everyone strived for," Mom explains. By the time she graduated high school, in 1969, things were starting to change. "We were rebelling against our parents' way of life and we decided that it was good to flaunt who you were and not to blend in."

Between the multiple political movements sweeping the United States and an all-too-brief moment when the Middle East was considered chic, my mom met my dad at a Middle Eastern-themed coffee house in the Valley. Dad was from East L.A. and had grown up in an Armenian-American community that started in Boyle Heights and spread out to Montebello and neighboring areas. He was a member of an Armenian student group at Cal State L.A. and marched for Genocide recognition. Their American and Armenian identities were merging and, ultimately, that's how they raised their kids.

"Dad and I both thought that it was good to be proud of who you were," she says.

It wasn't always easy in the Valley during the '80s and '90s. The local Armenian community swelled after a string of global events triggered migration from Iran, Lebanon and the former Soviet republics but Armenians still weren't well known in Los Angeles.

I knew I was different mostly because people told me I was. My last name was strange, people stumbled over the first two syllables before giving up. My looks — big nose, dark eyes, thick eyebrows, a mess of black hair — made me a target for bullies. I didn't understand. Mom had a better grasp on the tension that existed in the Valley. She remembers overhearing a woman say that our grade school was getting "dark."

Six men sir a massive vat of rice with a long paddle. Plates are stuck into the sides of the vat.
Men cook a rice pilaf during a food festival in central Moscow on August 31, 2013.
(Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

Mom checks on the pilaf. She looks for holes in the pot of rice, a sign that the liquid has dissipated. When she's confident it's done, she lets it sit. Typically, she'll leave it alone for 15 to 20 minutes, enough time to finish preparing the rest of a meal.

A little rice makes a lot of pilaf. Three cups can technically feed 10 to 12 mouths, although it's also the amount Mom once regularly cooked to feed a family of five. Today, she divides the final dish between us and the portion she gives me to take home will make three dinners for my husband and I. In the old days, when Easter brought more family to the house, she would up the recipe by a cup of rice. The end result was a mountain of pilaf in the center of the table.

As a kid, I felt a pang of jealousy when classmates talked about their family trees, with American lineages that linked them to celebrated figures of the 1800s and events that marked the founding of the United States. I'll never have that deep knowledge of my roots although the history of the Armenian people goes back to ancient times. We know next to nothing about the generation before my great-grandparents and even my great-grandparents' lives are shrouded in mystery. When you make the journey they did, fleeing death and traveling thousands of miles to a country where you know few people, you lose more than possessions. You can rebuild that history and reshape your identity but it will be with different materials. I don't know how pilaf would have been made over a century ago but I know the tradition of Armenian resourcefulness, filtered through the American Midwest and refined in Los Angeles. It's a taste of a homeland I've never seen, versatile enough to go with anything from shish kebab to Thanksgiving turkey.

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