Aunt Mary's yalanchi (stuffed grape leaves) (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)
Like many women, I had a secret list of requirements that my future husband would have to meet before I married him.
At the top of the list? He had to love food.
In my Mexican family, food has always been at the forefront of our conversations, imagination and life. My parents and I will spend hours discussing a menu for any gathering, no matter how small. My grandmother and father would take an entire day preparing a family meal, shopping together, cooking together. My mother could create a fabulous meal out of anything in the pantry.
Fortunately, the man I married fulfilled my food requirement and more. I married into an Armenian family and happily discovered that Armenians and Mexicans could be the same tribe separated at birth. We are loud, clannish, musical, emotional (my father once quipped that Armenians make Mexicans look like Swedes). And we love our food.
I am ashamed to say that before I met my husband, Greg, I was totally unfamiliar with Armenian culture, had never tasted a kufta (stuffed meatballs) or muhammara (walnut and red bell pepper dip) or sou beoreg (cheese-stuffed pastry).
But since then I have discovered that there is a natural culinary connection between the two cultures. Armenians, just like Mexicans, love the comingling of sweet and sour and spicy and mild; they love strong flavors like lamb and garlic. Through the communion of food, the tradition of breaking bread, our families have gotten to know and love each other.
From the moment our families met, I knew we would mesh well. My introduction began at Uncle Tony's barbecues. Tony, I was thrilled to find, had a whole ritual that revolved around his food (including photographing his favorite meals and placing them in a special album). Every afternoon he would make himself a plate of mezze (little bites of things such as olives, nuts, Armenian string cheese, celery and carrots) to go with his requisite martini.
This was reminiscent of my father, who, every day before dinner, makes himself a plate of botanas — some almonds, olives and thinly sliced radishes with a dash of lemon and a sprinkle of salt — to accompany his glass of sherry.
At family barbecues, Uncle Tony would grill lamb shish kebabs marinated in lemon, garlic and parsley. His sister-in-law Mary made stuffed grape leaves, known as yalanchi, and a delicious pilaf with a sinful amount of butter and a mountain of dates and sliced almonds as garnish.
In our family, we would grill carne asada, marinated in garlic and cilantro, complemented by a helping of either red, white or green rice.
My father-in-law, Sam, also loved the kitchen. He would skip Mass on Sundays, but when Greg's mother and the four kids returned from church, he would be sure to greet them in a red apron, martini in hand, while the strains of a Puccini opera and the aroma of a leg of lamb and garlic filled the air.
In our home on Sundays, my father always donned his green apron, put on some boleros and cooked elaborate meals such as grilled steaks, wild mushrooms with garlic and parsley, and roasted baby potatoes with cilantro and lemon, giving my mom a much-needed break.
Before our wedding, Greg and I hosted a dinner at which my extended Mexican family met Greg's. It was catered by Carousel, the well-known Armenian restaurant in Hollywood, now expanded into Glendale. My Mexican relatives devoured the garlicky-lemon kebabs in pockets of pita bread (which served as a nice substitute for tortillas) with slices of raw jalapeños. The Armenian string cheese reminded us of a lighter, milkier version of Oaxaca cheese. Mexicans are accustomed to eating Arabic-influenced food not only because of the Moorish tradition that came from Spain but also because of a large influx of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico.
Even during the holidays we have combined customs: My family hosts a traditional Mexican dinner on Christmas Eve while we spend Christmas Day with my husband's family. While yalanchi and pilaf are a requisite on Christmas Day, this year, cousin Jeff also experimented with Mexican flavors by making a tasty grilled turkey with a habanero chile and sausage stuffing.
Sadly, Sam and Tony have died. But their influence at family gatherings is still alive. Whenever we host a family party, Aunt Mary's yalanchi are placed side-by-side with my carne asada, or a tray of lahmajoun (Armenian pizzas with lamb) sits next to a bowl of totopos (tortilla chips) or pita bread with a salty, creamy yogurt-like cheese dip called jocoque that is topped with minced serrano peppers and pomegranate seeds.
Now that we have our Armexican traditions in place, I need to think of how to incorporate the Czech side of Greg's maternal family into the mix — perhaps some dumplings and duck with a spicy habanero salsa on the side?