A taste of Armenia

Lahmajun, flatbread with a light meat topping, is a common specialty though there is some debate over its origin.

LAHMAJUN, sometimes called ‘Armenian pizza’ 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
LAHMAJUN, sometimes called ‘Armenian pizza’ 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Day-long trips to Glendale, a southern California city known as the center of Armenian American life, have given us opportunities to feast on the favorite foods of Armenians.
“Food and its preparation are one of the cornerstones of Armenian culture,” writes Sonia Uvezian in The Cuisine of Armenia. This seems evident from the number of bakeries and food markets in Glendale.
According to the city of Glendale’s website, most of the Armenians who live there today were born in Iran, followed by those from Armenia and, finally, those from Lebanon. Just about every bakery we have visited is proud of its lahmajun, sometimes called “Armenian pizza,” a very thin flatbread with a light meat topping.
Interestingly, when we ask Armenians where to get the best lahmajun, the response varies. Some enthusiastically recommend their favorite bakery, while others simply shrug and say “that’s not an Armenian dish; it’s Lebanese.”
In Beirut, lahmajun is made to order at Armenian neighborhood bakeries, writes Joumana Accad of the Tasteofbeirut.com blog. We had excellent lahmajun in northern Israel as well as in Gaziantep, a city in Turkey near the Syrian border, where it was presented as a Turkish specialty.
Unlike the lahmajun we enjoyed in Turkey, which was usually made with lamb, the lahmajun at the Armenian bakeries we visited in Glendale were topped with beef. For Lent, Armenian bakeries offer meatless lahmajun, with sauteed eggplant or other vegetables replacing the meat.
ARMENIANS HAVE a lot in common with Jews; their culinary culture has been impacted by many cuisines, especially Middle Eastern and Eastern European. We have met Armenians from Turkey, Lebanon, Iran and Israel, as well as from Armenia. Uvezian notes that today’s Armenia is “barely one-tenth the size of historical Armenia (the rest is divided among Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan) and many Armenians are dispersed the world over. Some half a million live in the Middle East... and a somewhat larger number reside in North America.”
Another Armenian specialty we enjoy at Glendale bakeries is burek (also spelled borek, boereg or byorek).
Our favorite is spicy cheese burek, a long, boat-shaped turnover with a feta cheese filling seasoned with semihot red pepper flakes. As with Israeli burekas, you can also find meat bureks and potato bureks. There is even a burek filled with spinach and tahini, sometimes characterized as “Lenten burek,” presumably developed during Armenian Church “fast days” when neither dairy foods nor meat are allowed. The spinach bureks we ate were often flavored with sumac and were triangular in shape; to us they looked like large, flattened hamentashen.
There was a major difference between the bureks we sampled in Glendale and those we know from Israel. The Armenian bureks were made with a yeast dough that resembled a rich bread dough and reminded us of piroshki. Perhaps this is a legacy from the period when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union.
Indeed, some say that even the words “piroshki” and “burek” are related.
Like Turks and Israelis, Armenians make bureks with filo dough and puff pastry. Armenians who prepare these classic bureks use a different name when referring to bureks made with bread dough. Indeed, the names of all these pastries vary widely according to the origin of the person who made them.
To us, they are all variations of burekas and, most importantly, they are all delicious.Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
Serve these thin pizzas as a main course or a party snack, or in wedges as an appetizer.
Some top the pizza with shredded lettuce or thin sticks of cucumber and fold the pizza around the vegetables. For a quicker option, you can use prepared pizza dough or bread dough.
Makes 4 servings
Pizza Dough (see Note below) or 450 to 500 gr. (1 pound) purchased pizza dough 225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) lean ground lamb or beef (1 cup) 1 Tbsp. tomato paste 1 medium onion, minced 3 large garlic cloves, minced 1⁄2 tsp. salt, or to taste 1⁄2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste 1⁄2 tsp. ground allspice, or to taste 1⁄2 tsp. semi-hot ground red pepper or pinch of cayenne (optional) 225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped, or a 225-gr. (8-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained and chopped smaller 1⁄3 cup finely chopped parsley 1⁄3 cup pine nuts (optional) 1 to 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Make dough and let rise.
To make topping: In a bowl, thoroughly mix meat with tomato paste, onion, garlic, salt, black pepper, spice blend and red pepper.
Add tomatoes, parsley and pine nuts and mix well. Broil a teaspoon of the mixture on a piece of foil until cooked through and taste it for seasoning. Add more salt, pepper and spice to mixture if needed Lightly oil 2 baking sheets. Divide dough in 4 pieces. Roll each to an 18- or 20-cm.
(7- or 8-inch) round slightly over 3 mm. (1⁄8 inch) thick. Put on baking sheets. Spread topping evenly but gently over pizza with back of spoon, leaving a 1-cm. (1⁄2-inch) border. Press lightly so topping adheres and sprinkle it with oil.
Preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Let pastries rise for about 15 minutes. Bake for 18 minutes or until dough is golden brown and firm and meat is cooked through. Serve hot.
Note: Pizza Dough: Sprinkle 7 gr. (1⁄4 ounce) dry yeast over 1⁄4 cup lukewarm water in a cup and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir until smooth. In food processor, process 2 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour and 1 tsp. salt briefly to mix them. Add 1⁄2 cup water and 11⁄2 Tbsp olive oil to yeast mixture. With blades of processor turning, gradually pour yeast-liquid mixture into flour mixture. Process until mixture becomes a dough. If dough is too dry to come together, add 1 Tbsp. water and process again. Process about 1 minute to knead dough. Place dough in a lightly oiled medium-sized bowl. Turn dough over to coat entire surface. Cover with plastic wrap or a lightly dampened towel. Let dough rise in a warm, draft-free area about 1 hour or until doubled in volume.
This recipe is adapted from The Cuisine of Armenia. Author Sonia Uvezian serves these pastries as appetizers or as accompaniments for light soups or salads.
Such cheese turnovers made with bread dough might also be called “banerov hahts,” “banirov pide” or” peynirlee.” If an Armenian family came from Lebanon, they might call their savory turnovers “fatayers.”
If you’d like to make the filling a little spicy, mix 1⁄4 tsp. hot red pepper flakes or ground semi-hot red pepper with the cheese, or more to taste. Makes about 15 pastries
1 egg 1⁄4 cup milk 110 gr. (4 ounces or 1⁄2 cup) melted butter 1⁄4 tsp. sugar 1⁄2 tsp. salt 1⁄2 tsp. dried yeast 1 1⁄2 tsp. cold water 1 1⁄2 cups plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour Cheese Filling (see Note below) Melted butter (for brushing the shaped pastries)
In a large bowl, beat the egg. Add the milk, half the butter, the sugar and the salt and blend well. Dissolve the yeast in the water and add. Gradually add the flour. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth.
Divide into 15 portions and shape each into a small ball. Roll out each ball into a circle 15 cm. (6 inches) in diameter.
Brush with some of the remaining melted butter. Fold the lower third of each circle over the middle and brush with the butter. Bring the top third over this and brush it with the butter. Fold the left third over the center and brush with the butter. Finally, fold the right third over that, making a 5- to 6-cm. (2- to 2 1⁄4-inch) square. Cover and place in the refrigerator. Repeat with the remaining dough and butter, refrigerating each burek as it is folded.
After 1 hour, remove the bureks one at a time, as needed, and roll out into a 41⁄2- inch square. Place a spoonful of the filling in the center. Dip a finger in cold water and moisten the edges. Fold the dough over into a triangle. Press the edges together to seal. Prick the top in three places with the point of a small, sharp knife. Brush with the melted butter and place on a baking sheet. Leave in a warm place for 3 to 31⁄2 hours.
Preheat oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Bake pastries for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve hot.
Cheese Filling: Beat 2 eggs slightly in a mixing bowl. Drain 225 gr. (8 ounces) cottage cheese and add to eggs. Add 110 gr. (4 ounces) grated feta cheese and blend well. Add 1⁄4 cup finely chopped parsley. Add salt if needed, taking into account the saltiness of the feta cheese. Makes about 2 cups filling.