Driven by his Armenian roots, Mirak Kazanjian serves Shawarma to Spokane

Skewers Mediterranean Cuisine | 509.282.8501

     Mirak Kazanjian launched the Skewers Food Truck in 2016 because he missed the flavors he grew up with as part of Los Angeles’ large Armenian community, but his connection to the Middle East goes deeper than its food. As part of his ongoing desire to help those in need on the other side of the world from Spokane, Kazanjian has been using his truck as a vehicle for change.
    “Being an Armenian is more than just my genes. I love my culture. I feel deeply connected and rooted in my heritage,” says Kazanjian.
    After moving to Spokane in 2009, Kazanjian says that he simply started cooking at home as a way to satisfy his own cravings for Middle Eastern street food. He tested and improved his recipes, sharing dishes like falafel, tabouleh and pakhlava with friends who encouraged him to start a restaurant of his own. But Kazanjian’s favorite street food, shawarma, can be difficult to recreate in home kitchens.
     Shawarma means “turning” in Arabic and describes both the cooking method for meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie and the resulting dish, often served along with bread, rice or salad. There are ways to make shawarma at home, but it’s not the same for someone seeking to replace the smells, flavors, experience and accessibility of a ubiquitous on-the-go meal in the Middle East and even many U.S. cities with large Middle Eastern populations. Eventually, Kazanjian opted to go the food truck route with his Skewers Truck, complete with two upright rotisseries so he can offer chicken along with a blend of beef and lamb, proudly proclaiming that “Spokane Has Shawarma!”
    In the years since starting Skewers, Kazanjian has fed hungry crowds at farmers markets, breweries, events like Food Truck Fridays in Riverfront Park, private pop-up dinners and catering gigs. “I had to find a balance [between] authentic recipes and what Spokane customers desire. Middle Eastern customers recognized the authenticity and acknowledge I am doing a good job recreating these items,” recounts Kazanjian. “Skewers has been met with both excitement and apprehension, but quickly the skeptics are turned into fans. Almost everyone is impressed with our flavors, freshness and uniqueness.”    But Skewers is more than just about the food to Kazanjian. While the world was focused on the coronavirus pandemic, a military conflict broke out between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan in July of 2020, reigniting tensions in the region and leaving villages, schools and hospitals destroyed by drone and artillery strikes. The conflict lasted only a few days, but Kazanjian immediately started donating a portion of sales to Armenian aid agencies. By September, the countries were again engaged in a monthlong hot war over the disputed Republic of Artsakh until a ceasefire in November.
    To raise awareness about the crisis in Artsakh, Kazanjian and others in the local Armenian community organized a “Kebab Night” fundraiser in October. “I started donating to Armenia, but I felt completely helpless. It felt like a part of me was dying watching what was happening, and sending money wasn’t fulfilling,” states Kazanjian, who reports that he has donated over $10,000 back to Armenian causes since he launched the food truck. “Skewers allows me to bring Armenian culture to Spokane; [now] it allows me to provide basic needs to a family in Armenia.”
    The family Kazanjian speaks of is not his own, but one he has adopted in recent months through an international aid agency. The adopted family of four lived in Shushi, a town with a population of just over 4,000 in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, until it was captured by Azerbaijani forces, forcing them to relocate to nearby Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Artsakh. Kazanjian says that the family has found a new home and is working to refurbish it while the husband still serves in the military and looks for work in in Stepanakert. “I plan to visit Armenia before the end of the year to meet the family in person and spoil those children with toys.”
    It is truly all about community for Kazanjian, whose warm personality and bright smile are always on display. Whether the link is to the Armenian community in Los Angeles where he sources many of the spices and ingredients he needs to create his dishes, to the Middle East where he supports numerous humanitarian efforts, or to those locally willing to try his food and learn about the culture that means so much to him.
    “I started this business to share this food with Spokane. My main commitment isn’t to making money, it’s to execute this well. My secondary goal is to share with Spokane my peoples’ story and our struggle,” says Kazanjian. “Though my grandparents were forced to leave, the next generations have felt the importance of staying Armenian even outside of Armenia. What I do today is proving the survival of Armenians. Middle Eastern food is part of my identity. I love being able to share it with Spokane, but it also brings joy to my heart. Especially because Spokane has welcomed me so graciously.”

by jeff fijolek | this story first appeared in the spring 2021 issue