By Bridget Gleeson & Ignacio de Barrio
For thousands of Armenians who resettled in Argentina, comfort food and community were key to keeping cultural traditions alive.
Waves of immigration
New York had Ellis Island; Buenos Aires had the Hotel de Inmigrantes. For waves of immigrants arriving in Argentina between 1911 and 1953, the stately waterfront building was a place to stay while working out plans for employment and accommodation. The majority of those immigrants came from Spain or Italy, seeking opportunity during times of economic depression and conflict in their native countries (and later, particularly for Italians, during the rise of Fascism). But Argentina’s door was also open to those fleeing violent turmoil in their native countries, including significant numbers of European Jews – and Armenians escaping mass killings by Ottoman Turks.
Many Armenians left in a hurry and spent time in European refugee camps before traveling to South America, arriving in Argentina with few material possessions. What they carried with them was intangible. A cultural identity. Collective trauma. A language with its own alphabet. And, of course, food traditions.
Arrival by boat
Lucy Balassanian de Dergarabetian, 91, is keeping those food traditions alive. She was one of the 10,000 Armenians who settled in Buenos Aires in the mid- to late 1920s – at least in a manner of speaking. Her mother was pregnant with her when she arrived in South America in 1927. The port of Buenos Aires was temporarily closed to new immigrants at the time, making it illegal to enter, so Dergarabetian’s parents initially disembarked in Montevideo, Uruguay.
But the young couple was eager to get to Buenos Aires, where they’d heard an Armenian community was already taking shape. To get around the port closure, they made arrangements to enter Argentina on a clandestine 12-person fishing boat, travelling under the cover of night.
It’s fitting that one of the family’s favourite recipes is manti – meat-filled ravioli that are shaped like little boats, baked in a rich broth and served with garlicky yoghurt.
I learnt how to make manti with my mother, and she learnt from her mother. Then I taught my own daughters how to make it, and they taught their children,” Dergarabetian said.
A dish with history
The dish has deep roots in the Mongol Empire. As early as the 13th Century, Mongolian horsemen travelled with frozen or dried manti that could be quickly cooked over a campfire: the boat shape exposed the meat directly to the heat, meaning both the dough and filling would cook simultaneously. In their book, Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore, food historians Irina Petrosian and David Underwood suggest that the dish was first brought to Armenia during the short-lived Armenian-Mongol alliance of the mid-13th Century.
Mongolians travelling along the Silk Road also took the recipe to Central Asia. In fact, a dish very similar to Armenian manti appeared in Yin–Shan Cheng-Yao (Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink), a classic book of recipes published by a court doctor in 1330, during the Yuan Dynasty.
Today, in addition to the countless forms of dumplings found on Asian tables, versions of manti appear in many Turkic cuisines. In Uzbekistan, chuchvara is a relative of manti, but with the boat closed on the top, like a ravioli. Turkey has a manti-like dish called Tatar böreği, in which open triangle-shaped dumplings are filled with ground beef and topped with yoghurt, as well as Kayseri mantisi, which has smaller ‘boats’ and is traditionally prepared by a bride for her future mother-in-law before her wedding as a way of proving her culinary skills.
Generations in the Kitchen
In Armenia, the tiny ravioli have traditionally been hand-shaped by teams of women. And in Argentina – one of the world’s largest diasporic Armenian communities – they still are.
Making a fleet of little boats for a family feast remains a weekend tradition for Dergarabetian and her three daughters, Susana, Diana and Silvia. Several generations of the family live on different levels of the same apartment building in the city’s Caballito neighbourhood. On weekends, they gather in one of the kitchens to prepare the dish – and Dergarabetian’s three great-grandchildren, who are elementary-school age, frequently help prepare the dough and fillings. She says their little hands are perfect for the most laborious part of the process: forming the individual manti.
Traditionally, the filling is made with ground lamb – a staple in the Armenian diet – mixed with finely diced onion, chopped parsley and spices including red pepper flakes, black pepper and salt. A small spoonful of the mixture is placed on a square of dough, then pinched into tiny boats that are baked in broth and finally topped with yoghurt.
In Armenia, they always ate what the land produced. Grains, vegetables, lamb, fresh herbs, grapes for wine. We still cook that way,” Dergarabetian said.
A home away from home
Like many other Armenian-Argentine families, Dergarabetian and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren speak a mix of Armenian and Spanish at home.
“My parents couldn’t communicate with Argentine people when they arrived here,” she said. “Armenian and Spanish don’t have one word in common. My parents learnt a new language partly by listening to the radio. My father started working as a salesman, and my mother learnt to sew for extra income.”
After settling in, the family thrived in Buenos Aires. Dergarabetian’s father in particular was a pillar of the city’s young Armenian community, and her mother continued cooking traditional dishes to share with family and friends – including a wide range of desserts flavoured with rose water and orange flower water.
Hospitality is an important part of Armenian culture. Everything that we have, we put on the table. Even the poorest Armenian family puts out a big table of food,” Dergarabetian said.
Many Armenians were forced to flee their country after the start of mass killings in 1915. Those who got out were fortunate: historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians died in the massacres. Countless others, oppressed by Soviet rule and unable to make ends meet in the depressed economy, left in the years that followed – including Dergarabetian’s parents.
“They wanted to go to America – any America. They travelled in the cheapest class,” Dergarabetian said. “And my father was always looking for community. During their first weeks in South America, in Montevideo, he used to go down to the docks every day as the boats came in. He was looking for other Armenian people.”
He found them in Buenos Aires, which for many Armenians was a safe haven at the end of the world. Today, a few generations later, as many as 100,000 Argentines claim Armenian ancestry. Their community is especially close-knit in Buenos Aires, where cultural and religious life centres around the Armenian cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator and, just across the street, the busy Unión General Armenia de Beneficencia(UGAB), the Armenian cultural centre.
The cathedral is in a section of the city now known as Palermo Soho. It’s on Calle Armenia (Armenia Street), just blocks from the grassy square called Plaza Armenia (official name: Plaza Inmigrantes de Armenia, or Plaza of the Armenian Immigrants).
Locals call the neighbourhood Barrio Armenio, or ‘Little Armenia’. It’s known for its traditional Armenian bakeries specialising in sweet and savoury treats like baklava and boreg (a triangle-shaped pastry stuffed with feta cheese).
In the freezer section of the bakeries, stacks of frozen manti, packaged in foil trays and ready to pop into the oven, are like the Armenian equivalent of a frozen pizza. They are convenient, affordable and quick to prepare, but for Armenian-Argentines today, manti is a comfort food with a nostalgic bent as it reminds them of their mothers and grandmothers. The garlic yoghurt accompaniment is also available for purchase; both items usually sell out.
A community dinner
On Friday and Saturday nights, the city’s Armenian community comes together for a festive dinner served in the basement of the cultural centre. Manti is always on the menu, alongside a range of classic Armenian dishes and an extensive wine list. Teenagers wait on families at dozens of tables set up in the makeshift dining room: they’re saving up money for their trip to Armenia, a pilgrimage that UGAB organises for high-school students each year.
On the night I visited, long tables on one side of the room are laid with plates of fragrant, syrupy desserts; along the opposite wall, an Armenian woman seated at a folding table offers coffee cup readings, part of an ancient Armenian tradition called tasseography (also found in Turkey, Greece and parts of the Middle East) in which a coffee ‘reader’ or fortune-teller interprets the future by looking at the grounds or sediments left in a person’s coffee cup. A dozen people stand in line, sipping coffee or holding empty cups, eager to have their fortunes told at the end of the meal.
Keeping tradition alive
The future may not be entirely clear for anyone in the room: Argentina has its own economic troubles these days, and many families are struggling to stay afloat amid rampant inflation. But on a busy Saturday night at UGAB, the mood is light, even celebratory.
After all, Armenian people found a second home in Argentina. It’s a place where culinary traditions are intact, both in private and public settings: one of the city’s most popular restaurants, Sarkis, is Armenian. And the Armenian language is still spoken within the community – and printed in Sardarabad, the weekly Armenian-Argentine bilingual newspaper, where Dergarabetian’s daughter, Diana, is editor-in-chief.
“We are grateful,” Dergarabetian said. “We never lacked for anything here. We always felt welcome because Argentina is a generous country. It still is a generous place for people from all over the world.”
(Text by Bridget Gleeson; video and images by Ignacio de Barrio)
This article is part of a special ‘Immigrant Edition’ of Soul Food, a BBC Travel series that connects you with cherished memories through comfort foods from around the world.