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Going Vegan For Lent, Armenian-style, In LA

An overhead view of four white ceramic plates against a white tablecloth. Each dish contains a different vegan Armenian food item.
The eech, manti, kbbeh, and sarma at Carousel are all vegan.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez
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I’m eating lunch with my husband at Carousel in Hollywood, and the bounty in front of us quickly disappears. We start with a small mountain of sarma, the stuffed grape leaves found throughout various Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, served with a lemon wedge, a drizzle that tempers the jolt of heat that hits about a second after biting into one. Then we dig into a bowl of the red tabbuleh that Armenians know as eech, a mix of bulgur, sautéed tomatoes, onions and herbs.

Between spoonfuls of eech, we bite into three different types of kbbeh (or kibbeh), or what I grew up knowing as kufteh. One is fried and shaped like a small football made of bulgar and vegetables. Another, small and shaped like a half-moon, is a potato mixture with a peppery kick. The third is a two-bite-sized lentil patty with a smooth texture. It was a meal that was instantly filling and 100% vegan.

At Carousel, the 40-year-old Lebanese-Armenian restaurant with outposts in Hollywood and Glendale, meatless items have always been on the menu. But in recent years, vegan diners' offerings have grown in variety and popularity. Where once the restaurant might have had just a couple of vegan customers a day, “today, let’s say 25% are vegan,” says Hovig Derrbedrossian, manager of Carousel Hollywood.

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While I don’t follow a vegan diet, I grew up in an Armenian family, and my favorite dishes were always plant-based. If my grandparents made tabbouleh or yalanchi sarma or eech for the holidays, I would likely stuff myself on that before dinner was served. Eating at Mediterranean or Middle Eastern restaurants makes me more likely to order meatless items from the mezze menu than any of the entrees. The food is colorful, flavorful and so carefully prepared that it never feels like an afterthought.

Being faithful to the vegan diet

It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I started to think about why Armenian vegan food — and, really, the cuisines of the entire region — taste so good. In the case of Armenians, these foods are tied to fasting traditions. Religious fasts mean adherence to a vegan diet for those who follow the Armenian Apostolic faith. The most common fasting period is Lent, which, this year, began on Feb. 19 and will end on March 31, the Friday before Holy Week. (Other orthodox Christian faiths have similar, although not necessarily identical, traditions.)

“During Lent, we get down to a bare minimum, what is essential to live,” says the Rev. Vazken Movsesian of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church in Burbank. The origin of the practice, he explains, is the New Testament story where Jesus fasts in the desert and is tempted to change stones into bread, and the vegan fast goes back to the early days of the church.

A diptych: On the left, a vertical image of stacked rows of stuffed grape leaves. Towards the back of the image there's a big metal bowl full of green, red, and beige filling. Two hands wearing blue surgical gloves tick out from the right of frame and spoon filling. On the right, a vertical image of an older Armenian woman wearing a dark red sweater and red apron. She stands at a metal table with a large green cutting board. There's a spread out grape leaf with a dollop of filling she's starting to roll.
Workers at Carousel make sarma, a vegan dish of stuffed grape leaves.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

And like the plant-based menu items at Carousel, adopting a vegan diet for Lent is gaining popularity among L.A. Armenians. “Every year, it seems like there are more and more, especially this year,” says Movsesian.

Porter Ranch resident Derik Ghookasian has given up animal-derived foods for Lent for the past decade.

“As a child, we were told that you give up one thing that you like for Lent. It was chocolate or sweets or meat, steak,” he explains.

Finding community through food

After his first vegan Lent, Ghookasian says, he felt good physically and spiritually. “I’ve been going to church all my life,” says Ghookasian. “We’ve always been very close to church, and knowing that this is one of the teachings that we learn at church — to fast, to observe Lent — and be able to do it, I’m glad that I have that opportunity to do it.”

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And, sticking to the fast hasn’t been all that difficult, he says. It helps that Ghookasian works as the chief operating officer of the Ararat Home, the Armenian senior home in Mission Hills, where he has co-workers who similarly observe Lent.

“It makes it easier to have a support group that you’re working or living with every day. Do it together,” he says. “It makes it more meaningful.”

“On holidays, we always fasted,” says Dikranouhi Kirazian, who was raised in Lebanon. She notes that, while growing up, vegan fasts were part of the preparation for Christmas, and her family also fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Over the years, San Diego-based Kirazian amassed a collection of vegan recipes and, in late 2014, she published them in the book Armenian Vegan. Her main mission in releasing the book was preserving the recipes passed down orally by her mother, grandmother and aunts.

“I wanted to keep their legacy alive and make some of those dishes that I learned from them,” she says. But it’s also inspired by a life of experimenting with food. Kirazian includes traditional Armenian vegan dishes, like the lentil-based vospov kufteh frequently eaten during Lent, and recipes that use more common ingredients in modern U.S. kitchens.

A diptych: On the left a vertical image of a colorful strip mall sign with the various businesses in the strip mall. There are palm trees surrounding the sign. On the right the back of a woman faces the camera. She wears a maroon shirt with the words "I heard (heart symbol) Hummus"
The East Hollywood location of Carousel, a Lebanese-Armenian restaurant.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

The merging of traditional and contemporary lifestyles

When Kirazian first considered publishing her recipes, she hadn’t seen any cookbook focused on Armenian vegan meals. In the near-decade since Armenian Vegan was released, interest has grown in these foods.

“It’s becoming more popular,” says Kirazian of vegan meals. “People are changing their eating habits.”

You could consider it a merger of traditional and contemporary lifestyles, especially as more people shift to vegan diets for ethical, environmental or health reasons.

After moving from Texas to Southern California five years ago, Glendale-based Taleen, who asked that her last name not be used, was excited for Lent.

“I was excited to go to the bakeries,” she says, knowing that vegan pastries would be available. Taleen, who has been adhering to a vegan lifestyle for nearly a decade, found other tasty Armenian options in Los Angeles, like the vegan mantee at Carousel, and Zhengyalov Hatz, the Glendale restaurant named for the handmade lavash and herbs wrap that’s a specialty of Artsakh.

Taleen got involved in her community too. She set up an information booth on vegan foods at a local church for a Lenten event and founded Armenian Vegans of L.A., bringing together those who follow a plant-based diet year-round. Before the pandemic, they hosted a potluck at Glendale bookshop Abril.

“It showcased how much great food there was,” she says.

A close up of a white plate full of beige flour dumplings stuffed with a dark brown filling and covered in white yogurt sauce, decorated with parsley leaves.
Manti, traditional Armenian dumplings, are usually made with meat but at Carousel they have a vegan version topped with non-dairy yogurt.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

Aside from foods like eech and vospov kufteh, some have been experimenting with veganizing Armenian specialties that traditionally require meat and dairy.

Practicing culinary customs at home

As a young teen, Sarah Sabounjian worked with her grandmother on making mantee, a small dumpling, filled with mushrooms or spinach instead of meat. Later on, she adopted a vegan diet for ethical reasons and, not long after that, her sister, Sosse Sabounjian, and their mother joined the journey. Then, gradually, the menu at Man’oushée, the family’s restaurant in Santa Clarita that closed last year, evolved into a fully vegan one.

“My mom never made meat the star of the show,” says Sarah, surmising that’s why she didn’t have much difficulty transitioning to a vegan diet. Plus, since cooking is important in their family, they were even able to find solutions for meat and dairy dishes, like madzoon ov kufteh, a yogurt soup with meatballs.

A yellow plastic bottle on a marble countertop that reads "JUST EGG" and "Made from plants." In front of the bottle there's a small glass bowl with yogurt and a piece of romaine lettuce.
Ingredients for a vegan version of KooKoo Sabzi, an Iranian herb frittata.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

“The madzoon ov kufteh was something that we had to work a few times on with my mom,” says Sosse, noting that the challenge was finding the right mixture of ingredients to keep the kufteh intact in the soup. And the results allowed them to indulge in an old favorite. “That was the only thing I missed,” says Sarah.

Despite cultural traditions, though, those who are vegan year-round face many of the same issues that people from across cultures do.

“It can be a challenge,” says Burbank-based vegan food coach Tenny Minassian on navigating events like family meals. “For my mom, it took her a while to realize that I’m not going to be participating in family dinners in the same way.”

But, for Minassian, that changed over time.

“Now, at holidays, my aunts are always cooking something separate for me, making sure that I have something to eat. My mom is more aware,” she says. She’s now collaborating with her mom on a vegan cookbook of Persian-Armenian dishes.

A diptych: On the left, a vertical image of two green frittata pieces cut in triangular shapes. A hand sticks out from the top of the image and sprinkles red barberries onto the pieces. On the right, a white bowl full of a yellowish and green mixture of bulgur with herbs. A hand sticks out from the left of frame holding a slice of yellow lemon, squeezing the juice onto the food.
Left: A vegan version of KooKoo Sabzi, a Persian herb frittata. Right: Eech, a mixture of bulgur, red pepper paste, tomato, onions, and herbs.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

Regarding culinary traditions, Minassian says to start with those already plant-based.

“You want to focus on what it is you can already have and celebrate that,” she says. “Also, you can make vegan versions of some other things and bring that to share and show everyone that, hey, you can still have this food from your culture.”

Sharing what you’ve learned or made is key. Says Minassian, “Those experiences of making it a family thing, like cooking together or passing recipes down, that’s really important too.”

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