It hits instantly: the aroma of earth and wood and smoke, swiftly followed by the knock-out punch of chilli that’s enough to bristle the hairs lining my nasal passage. “It’s berbere,” says Anie Zanazanian, after thrusting the jar filled with a spice as red as desert dust under my nose. “We use it in almost anything: sprinkled on top of cheese on toast, added to spaghetti. We’ve become so accustomed to it that if we have food without berbere, then something’s missing,” she adds.
Her fervour is powerful. Yet what is more insightful about her statement than its intensity is the cultural backdrop from which it stems: an Ethiopian spice taking centre-stage with an Armenian family.
A former republic of the Soviet Union, Armenia could have remained as distant from Ethiopia culturally as it is geographically, yet they share a rich and fascinating history. The two nations enjoyed a relationship built upon mutual religion (Eastern Orthodox Christianity) and continued trade links (during an isolationist phase in Ethiopia’s history in the 17th century, Armenian tradesmen and clergy were the only ones allowed to travel freely within the country).
After Turkish nationalist forces invaded Armenia around 1915, the then Ethiopian Crown Prince came to the rescue. Along with allowing an influx of refugees, the prince himself adopted 40 Armenian orphans who had survived the war-driven atrocities.
The father of Harry Malkasian – this family’s patriarch – was one of those orphans. “That must make me a princess,” Taline Malkasian laughs, as her sister Anie reveals it was she, the eldest of Harry and his wife Val’s three children, who was conceived in the family villa that stood on the palace grounds.
The strength of this mixed heritage is palpable. A traditional Ethiopian shiro wat (split pea curry) made by Anie’s sister-in-law Lennie and alicha, an Ethiopian curry made by sister-in-law Liza featuring bessobela
(Ethiopian basil) grown in Anie’s garden, share bench space with Armenian favourites including harissa. Not to be confused with the North African chilli paste of the same name, Armenian harissa is a slow-cooked mixture of chicken and pearl barley that’s designed to provide warmth and heft against the cold Armenian winter with its porridge-like consistency and comforting flavour.
Then there’s the cross-over, like the roasted eggplant and tomato salad which is boosted with two green chillies, bringing the heat of Africa to a typically Armenian dish.
Amid the fun and food of four generations gathered around this culinary story, it is difficult to imagine the circumstances that brought them to Australia. Unrest in early 1970s Ethiopia left the family fearing their economic and social prospects. As many Armenians fled to America and Europe, the Malkasians found retreat in Australia. “Only three months earlier we had moved into a new house,” mother Val recalls. “We left our keys, packed one suitcase each without telling anyone and walked out.”
By their own admission, they may not have had the opportunity to take much of their material wealth, but their cultural heritage has left little behind.
As the candles on the dining table are lit, platters of food passed, wine poured and plates filled, even more powerful than the delicious aroma is the overriding sense of belonging: that this is a collection of people who carry their heritage in their hearts and perpetuate it in their food. Each mouthful speaks more plainly than words of who they are, and from where they have come.
Berbere is a complex spice mix that in large part defines the flavour of Ethiopian cuisine.
There is no one recipe: the blend that is dominated by red chilli encompasses allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and coriander amid an extended list that also features korarima, an Ethiopian spice made from a native plant’s dried seeds.
“In Ethiopia, they sun-dry everything, grinding the herb and spice mix using a big mortar and pestle made out of wood that’s shaped like a vase,” says Anie, holding her hand at waist height to illustrate the vessel’s size. “It’s ground until powdery.”
Berbere’s complexity means the Malkasian family make no attempt to replicate it. Instead, they prefer buying the imported version from Ethiopian stores. Unfortunately, a recent change in Australian government regulations means its importation has been halted.
Versions that are made outside of Ethiopia are freely sold, however, for Anie and family, there is little comparison.
A family gathering is the perfect opportunity to fête more than food: nine-month-old Angelina has recently acquired her first tooth. And, in Armenian tradition, this is cause enough for celebration.
“It’s called agra hadig [which literally translates as ‘tooth grain’],” Anie explains of the ritual they are about to undertake. “It’s the festival of the first tooth.”
In keeping with tradition, an angelic Angelina dressed in white is placed upon a white linen throw surrounded by myriad objects representing career choices: a stethoscope, a computer and a hammer vie for attention with a writing pad, cooking ladle, camera and baby doll.
First covering her with a net and showering her head with cooked barley and pomegranate seeds for luck, the net is removed and Angelina is then given an opportunity to ‘find her future’.
There is coaxing and cajoling as her chubby fingers grasp and reach. Mother Lennie looks on with smiling eyes. A stethoscope lifted and discarded. A hammer fingered. Finally, it is the ladle that holds her attention. The adults’ joyful shouts startle her. On this night where food takes centre stage, it seems an apt choice.
Photography by Sean Fennessy