Bezjian: Travels with Basturma

Take a nice flank of beef or lamb, salt it for a couple of days to extract the fluid before coating it with a paste—crushed garlic, hot red pepper powder, cumin, and crushed fenugreek (Greek hay, or foenum-graecum in Latin, chemen in Turkish) seeds—then hang it in a dark breezy place for a couple of weeks to dry and absorb the paste, and you will have basturma, a delicacy of Asia Minor produced for centuries, and appreciated and handled like Jamon Serrano Pata Negra. This stinker is basically cured meat, and Armenians, its master makers, call it “abouhkd.”

Intact fenugreek seed has no smell until it’s crushed like garlic; when the two are combined, it is a double barreled shot of a distinct odor that smells even from a distance. The chemical substance enters the human system and announces its presence in breath, sweat, and digestive waste, sometimes for days. At least, that’s how it’s been for centuries until the recent arrival of fenugreek-less, garlic-less, red food dye coating invented in the annals of Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian Quarter of Lebanon, giving it a place in the gastronomically correct times.

Survivors of the 1915 genocide brought basturma to the Middle East; the ones who were from Kaiseri were the best makers and the rest were the best consumers. Undoubtedly this kitchen napalm was made to preserve meat for long winters and the spices assured the intake of healthy morsels. My grandmother, like many of her generation, made basturma omelets fried in olive oil with pieces of lavash bread on cold days atop the diesel-fueled stove—forcing us out of the house like all the bugs and mosquitoes, moths and flies that may have taken refuge within the warm folds of our rugs and carpets. Some of her friends kept chemen in small jars and consumed a spoonful of it every day, fighting winter fatigues, germs, or viruses. (In fact, I hardly ever saw any of them suffering with the flu, a chest cough, or much else.) When we complained about the smell, they’d say: Our nation is united in remembering genocides, great King Dikran, Christian holidays, and “in our food and all its smells.”

A few years ago, my neighbor, Mr. Donabedian, a survivor and a graduate of Beirut’s Saint Joseph University’s first class of pharmacists in 1931, invited me to his humble, overcrowded dwelling and proudly exhibited his thesis—a study of fenugreek and basturma in more than 200 typed pages that remains unpublished, now languishing in one of his many drawers inherited by his widow. The benefits of the fenugreek are many, he said. Immunity in wintertime, the great ability to reduce sugar and cholesterol levels, the boosts of iron in anemia sufferers, and of milk by 900 times in breast-feeding mothers. “They make fun of basturma, ignorant of how it helps them,” he said with a mischievous boy’s smiling eyes through his shaded glasses.

Armenians successfully introduced it to Middle Eastern cuisine a slice at a time, and with that “unwanted Armenian” became synonymous with “smelly basturma.” Ugly expressions like “It smells like there is basturma here” were coined and abusively used to mock an Armenian among the crowd. A stereotype was thus created, and driven further into mainstream consciousness by the famed 1960-70’s comedian Shoushou when he caricatured an Armenian peddling basturma. After several episodes, Armenians ganged up to force him to dispose of his infamous character for good, though it lingers among his generation.

A friend’s mother once saw me at a maternity hospital, where I was visiting her daughter to congratulate her newborn child, and said, “I knew you were here, I smelled basturma,” which was swiftly reprimanded by her daughter—“You are not funny at all, Mom”—to recover the older generation’s racial offense.

Meanwhile basturma traveled far with the advent of the Lebanese Civil War, when many Armenians left Beirut and settled mostly in southern California. When I had moved there to attend UCLA, a friend took me to a pizza parlor in Pasadena owned by a proud acquaintance, who had added his Armenian-ness to the Americanized pizza by adding a basturma topping (like the Hawaiians’ pineapple and Mexicans’ jalapeno, each flagging a territorial claim on the cheese and tomato surface victimized by cultural competition among ethnic groups and a “New World” way of identity reformation disfiguring original foods. Some had gone further, offering in global English “Any More Topping Additional,” reinforcing the great American freedom of personal choice for a price.)

Four years ago, another friend in Cairo took me to the Al Fulfula restaurant, which boasted many local dishes prepared with gusto. The menu surprised me with the variation of the fool dishes—made with the impossible-to-dislike fava bean—now evolved by hosting many toppings. What, basturma with fava beans? “Add anything to anything,” my friend said. “Great democratic freedom brought in by Sadat’s closeness to Barbara Walters.”

Back in Beirut, basturma had become a common sandwich served with toppings of cheese, pickles, lettuce, mayonnaise, tomatoes, and mustard, hot or cold. A “Middle Eastern hamburger,” as a Lebanese friend called it. Outlets like Bedo and Mehran produced basturma in the factories for the hovering mass of “the poor, the tired, and the hungry,” who would have been welcomed by the Statue of Liberty. Armenians, who had lost the ownership of the delicacy by entering it into the “affordable food” concept, now had to look hard to locate the original makers—the best-kept secrets, who made them for those who cared, craved, and paid.

I recently was flying from Beirut to Dubai on Emirates Airline. Thirty minutes after takeoff, the Kenyan-born stewardess placed the breakfast tray on my folding table. It held little plastic containers of things easy to dislike, easy-to-accept air food, prepared on assembly lines, then packed, frozen, shipped, airborne, and defrosted in microwaves and served to captive travelers. In the palm size UFO-like plate were a few leaves of tormented lettuce; a single, disfigured finger of a stuffed vegetarian grape leaf; a single pit-less, oil-less, and salt-soaked dry olive; a drop of dehydrated hummus; a paper-thin wedge of lemon; and under it a curled up and humbly seated single transparent slice of basturma! Ecstatic, I tapped on my co-traveler Jacques Ekmekji’s arm and asked him to look deep into his Lebanese mezza toy-plate. Instantaneously we both forked the slices in the air smiling at each other and “basturma!” we declared.

Alas, it was soggy from the stuffed grape and pale from the lemon acid. On one edge, the hummus had left heavy marks. I recalled the Téléliban B&W shows of Shoushou with his Turkish fez, bicycle-handle moustache, and unforgettably unpleasant voice that made fun of Armenian pushcart vendors of basturma. Off-screen, he drove his Pink Cadillac convertible in the pre-Civil War posh streets of Beirut before his mysterious death in 1975 at the age of 36. Now eaten by passengers of all nationalities, how many of them knew what it was and that two Armenians—the butt of Shoushou’s jokes—were flying along with them? I asked Jacques, who smiled and said, “And how do we know who designed the uncomfortable seats we are confined to?”

In my hotel room, after having dinner with friends at the Anar Persian restaurant, I pondered what basturma meant beyond the common explanation that it meant “pressed” in Turkish. But basturma is not pressed at all. If the Turkish word for “press” is “bassma” from the Arabic “bassm,” where did the “m” or “ma” go and where did “turma” come from? It cannot be from a nomad’s lexicon, since fenugreek first had to be planted and grown, and the meat needed a long time to dehydrate and be cured, and certainly needed a cool breezy place instead of the desert heat. In Kazakhstan, there is a stew called “basturma” made with vinegar-marinated cubes of meat; Georgians have a barbecue of meat cubes marinated in pomegranate juice called “basturma”; in India, there is a meatless stew called Kashmiri methi chaman, made with fresh fenugreek leafs; and there is a plentitude of Persian dishes with fenugreek leaves (shanbalileh) crowned in “ghorme sabzi,” which we had at Anar.

The Armenian dictionary explains that aboukhd originated from the Zoroastrian and Manichean texts of the Pahlavi language, indicating that its timecard is a few thousand years older than the Turkish basturma’s arrival from the Far East. Fenugreek seeds are one of the ingredients used by the Armenian Church to make Muron (Chrism) since 301 AD. There is also a town called Chaman on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan not far from Kandahar; to top it all, Kandaharian is the last name of an Armenian friend in Beirut! Go figure…

However and whatever the case, I leave it to food politicos and philologists to dissect the origins. Meanwhile, enjoy basturma-topped pizza served in many Armenian-owned pizzerias in the Baltic capitals, in Yerevan, Los Angeles, or Boston. Basturma sandwiches are also common in many cities around the world. And you can find it as a whole or sliced in Armenian-owned grocery stores in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Sidney, Tehran, Moscow, and far beyond. In fact, it can even be ordered as a block in a vacuumed-sealed plastic bag from amazon.com!

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Nigol Bezjian

Nigol Bezjian is a producer, director, and a graduate of UCLA film school and School of Visual Arts. His work has been based in Beirut, Lebanon for the past several years. His most recent film is "Broken Kisses, Postponed Kisses."
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24 Comments

  1. When I read the title, “Traveling with Basturma,” I thought perhaps you were going to share the common experience of what it is like to be bundled up with “care packages” (from grandmothers, mothers and assorted others) of good Armenian food to those who crave it.  My Greek husband is one such recipient:  he loves basturma (I don’t really eat much of it myself although I am the Armenian in the family!)
    So, I remember one particular airplane flight, when I was coming back from a visit my family in Fresno, California, flying to our home in New York.  Of course, I had to bring my husband a package of basturma.  So, wrapped carefully with advice from Mom in a layer of wax paper, a layer of plastic, a layer of aluminum foil, and this repeated a couple of times, I embarked on the plane with my package of basturma.  An hour or so into the flight, my care package in a plastic bag by my feet, every time I turned or adjusted in my seat to get comfortable, a certain odor would waft through the plane as my feet nudged the bag next to me.  It only had to move a millimeter or so.  People wondered what it was that smelled much more aromatic (better) than the airplane food!  I just looked around quizzically, of course.  But it’s a flight I’ll always remember.  Basturma,  he scent of love and care!  Well, a loving family is not always easy :-)
     

  2. Nigol, I suspect the word “basturma” is somewhat more internationalized. I think the route to the linguistic (if not culinary and gustatory) truth comes through comparison with “pastrami”. The word is essentially the same, as is the basic concept. Just the flesh and paste used are different.

  3. Oh basturma. My mouth is watering remembering the taste, the basturma
    my father used to make. Early fall he would start the procedure, buying
    the meat and preparing it and all the spices. The meat was hung in our
    back porch to dry. Submerged in the spices, for weeks, mixture checked
    frequently until it was ready. During this time, there were several
    families that asked my father to make Basturma for them. He did and
    every Sunday morning he would go to their homes and check the Basturma
    until it was ready to be consumed. Then came the distribution of our Basturma. Our Armenian Doctor got two hunks, another couple for the Priest and others. We ended up with a few pieces ourselves, delicious, how could
    I forget. When fall rolls around every year I remember Basturma. Buying from the Armenian stores is not the same. Huma chega

  4. I shared the same pleasant surprise while on travel and browsing the well stocked food buffet at the Hilton Hotel in Alexandria, Egypt. Right there between the succulent smoked salmon and marinated shrimp was sliced basturma carefully trimmed free of its potent coating. Unlike the airplane meal though it was delicious. I later found out basturma is available at most restaurants and sandwich shops in Egypt.

  5. NIGOL & GARY.
    THANKS for all the basturma background & stories.
    I used to shop @ BEZJIAN’S on Santa Monica in LA when I lived there in the 1970s.
    Rock on.
    MIKE ADAJIAN
    Chicago Wednesday 8/19/08

  6. AND!  . . . as the Armenians like to play with the rest of us poor fools trying to learn their language – we have Dikran better known as Tigran, and Karakin better known as Garagin and Baklava or Paklava and Kevork or Gevorg, and … you get it. And then there are transliterations of words from other languages like Banir (cheese)  in Armenian and Panir in Indian and Armeno/Greek offerings like Bedros and Petros . . .  So, you see, if you really take the underlying priciple of substituting labial consonents (is that linguistically correct?) for their neighbors you get right to my point ::
    Namely that if you do that with Basturma – you will quickly get to – P(B)ast-ram(urm)-i(a)  – yes folks the spices may be different but the process is the same and what went in one door as Basturma surely came out the other as Pastrami. Now I’d really like to see some research on that!

  7. Thank you Nigol for this brilliant article. It was very informative and educational. It took me back to my childhood and the days of my late Grandfather in Lebanon (Voghormadze) . Yes Basturma may smell but it is planted deep in our culture and history. As a proud Armenian whose grandparents were survivours of the 1915 Genocide, I say yes we did bring this great meal to the middle east as well as so many other great attributes to the region. In fact some of the world’s best basturma is still found in both Lebanon and Syria. As for those complaining about the smell and making fun of us; all I have to say to them is may the whole world one day say: “It smells like basturma here”
    Thanks again, can’t wait for your next story…I hope it’s about Sujouk (Soujokh) 

  8. Why is it called basturma
    My grandfather and grandmother lived in Kayseri until 1915. My grandfather was a master Basturma maker and also made soujouk, (sausage with beef and spices) as well as drying and salting large quantities of beef fillet which he transported to other cities. He made basturma after he escaped with his family to Cyprus. To throw light on the puzzle of why “pressed” as in basturma let me tell you how my grandmother started the process.
    The massive fillets of beef were washed and placed in rough salt on clothes in a clean place over night. Then they were dried off, covered again in salt and this time Nene who had a special stone at least two and a half feet long and 6 or 7 inches thick, placed this heavy stone on the meat overnight. She literally pressed the meat. the morning after you could see the water or liquid, not blood, which had come out of the meat. When she was satisfied, she then salted it again and hung it up to dry wrapped in muslin or in a net cupboard in a cool draught. Pressing helped it dry quickly and prevent the meat from going off. 
    Soaking it in chaman was a later stage. It was dried.  Then covered in chaman and dried again – at least three times.
    Nene made the best basturma, soujuk and chaman.  

  9. Hajigul Nersessian you are so close to the story of basturma,your family hade first clase experiance making basturma,I myself made basturma many times it a grate filling to eat your owen preparation
    anyone makes it they will agry with me!.
    one must salt the meat to qure it, than wash the salt off than find a way to press the exses blode &   wother  before hanges to dry. yes it presed meat to keep fore  winter time, thay did not have waxed paper aluminum foile or frezer to keep the meat. abouth chaman the garlick,fanugreek they have preservative quality, fanugreek is used in modern western cooking.

  10. Chemen
    From the cookbook ’Armenian Cuisine: Preserving Our Heritage’, St. John Armenian Church, Southfield, Michigan. Recipe submitted by: Nancy Kazarian and Dolly Matoian

    Ingredients:
    ½ cup ground fenugreek seeds (chemen)
    ½ cup paprika
    4 tsp. cumin
    1 tsp. cayenne (red pepper)
    4 tsp. kosher salt
    ¼ tsp. pepper
    2 large cloves garlic, crushed
    7/8 to 1 cup water

    Directions:
    1. Using amount desired, combine in a large bowl, all ingredients except the garlic and water.
    2. Add the crushed garlic according to your taste. Begin adding water, a little at a time, so that the mixture has the consistency of cake batter.
    3. This mixture can be used in various geragoors with spinach, lamb, etc., or in Armenian hamburgers, or even in pastry dough for mezza. It can be kept in a plastic bag or bottle in the freezer, to be used as needed. The recipe may be doubled or tripled.

  11. I like your site but we need more details about chaiman for basterma is it suppose to be cooked or?????? pls let us know

  12. Mr. Nigol Bezjian,

    with respect to you, the turkish word for “to press” is “basmak”, “pressing” means “bastirmak”. You only have to ask a Turk, you don´t need to make great research about this subject. I don´t know whether you are aware of the fact, that the poeple (turks, armenians, greeks)of Kayseri/Sivas has a great accent in their turkish-speaking, which is described as rough turkish or Kayseri mouth/ Sivas mouth. Therefore the poeple use many pronunciation for Bastirma, like Pastirma-nowadays spelling/writing! I also have to critize, that you are searching in “nomadic” traditions to confirm wether something is turkish or not after 1000 years of settlement of Turks in Persia, Anatolia and Balkans, this is really unbelievebale. As you now, that culture, food, music traditions aren`t steady subjects, these are dynamic developments by interaction with other cultures. And all the recipes/dishes were developed within the last centuries because the vegetables were even found within the last centuries and all the spices brougt by the Turks. Or do you really think, that the armenians/ greeks have waited for the arrival of the turks to give their dishes turkish names like Manti, sarma, dolma, börek, sucuk, lokma etc.. Nevertheless of course all these dishes are a part of the armenian kitchen too, as I realized. And for the poeple, who want to make bastirma at home, forget it. Travel to Kayseri, in the city center are many pastirma/sucuk shops, where you can buy delicious stuff, which are the best in the world. Pastirma and sucuk are very expensive, the prices ranges from 60 Lira up to 100 Lira for one kilogramm. I`m from Germany, but my parents are originally from Sivas/Kayseri.

    Best regards

    • How did nomads develop basturma in the steppes of East and Central Asia ?

      True, Turks have been mostly (physically) sedentary in the lands they invaded for 500-1000 years.
      Except you nomads fail to mention that the Armenian sedentary civilization was there at least 4,000 years prior to the invasion of nomadic Turkic tribes into Armenian Highlands 1000 years ago.

      In which parts of the Mongolian steppes did nomadic sheep herding Turkic tribes cultivate grapes (..grape leaves), or wheat, or eggplant, or cabbage, or… to come up with Sarma and Dolma ?

      The reason many of these dishes – which are originally Armenian, or Greek, or Assyrian, or Persian, or Arabic – have Turkish names is because of forcible Turkification and theft.
      Centuries of theft, confiscation, misappropriation of _everything_ from the indigenous peoples is the reason.
      Versions of yogurt or tan (ayran in Turkish) and similar things that are directly sourced from sheep and other milk giving animals could have been plausibly developed by nomadic Turkic tribes in the field.
      Anything other than those, were stolen from others by Turks and are being falsely presented to the world as ‘Turkish’.
      The thieving denialist Turks even stole ancient Armenian traditional dish Harissa, renamed it kashkak, and have shamelessly submitted to UNESCO as a ‘traditional Turkish dish’ (sic).

      And that’s how over centuries things have become, quote, ‘Turkish’.
      Or you think several 1000s years old sedentary civilizations sat around doing nothing and waiting 1000s of years for the arrival of nomadic sheep herding tribes to teach them about Manti, sarma, dolma, boyrek, sujuk, lokhma,….

      Best regards.

    • Guess I’ll assume the role of captain obvious here and remind some folks that not all foods have been made the same way or have been around for 5 thousand years.

      I think part of the reason many foods get attributed to Turkey is because they SHOULD be attributed to the Ottoman Empire/peoples of the former Ottoman Empire. But as we all know, the Ottoman Empire was a multiethnic empire. Baklava was first made in the kitchens of Topkapi Palace but that does not mean the creators of this dessert were Turks. Turks, Kurds, Assyrian, Greeks, Armenians, etc., all lived in Anatolia together for about a thousand years- it would be hard to prove that any dish created in this era had NO influence of another culture.

    • Yeah Avery,
      In the totally “honest” account of history by Turks, apparently the nomads who came in with their mules after stacking their tents had a lot of space in the little tight corners of those saddles to store all those elaborate spices. In fact it must have been such a secret that the ones left behind in Central Asia don’t have those spices and foods any more, so perhaps we Armenians should be thanking Turks for teaching us about food, ha!

      This post above is but one example of what a successful Genocide upon an indigenous population by a foreign, invading force could do: create a delusional drone who thinks that he is part of the “ancient culture of Anatolia”. Wikipedia is full of such delusional anti-Armenian historians trying desperately to create food links between “Anatolian Turks” and the Central Asian world. About the only thing they can link is manti, and even here, Armenian manti is unique and none other than the “Anatolian Turks” are the ones that have the similar style. Now here is definite proof, through logic alone, that Turks took manti from Armenians and did not bring it in: if Turks brought in manti from Central Asia, it would be in the same style as their ancestors in Mongolia, Turkmenistan, etc. But it isn’t. It is a carbon copy of the Armenian version, that being small and shaped like boats.

      Canazzoglu, when will you Turks come to terms that the Turkish language was every bit part of Armenian as it was of the Turkmen, Osmanlis, Greeks, Bulgars etc? You can’t understand the Turkish of your ethnic kin in Central Asia, precisely because of Armenian grammatical influence. In many parts of the Ottoman empire, Armenians knew only the Turkish language, for many centuries. Now do you understand why these foods are named in “Turkish”?

      If you want to prove Armenian food comes from Turkish rather than the other way around, prove to us how every Armenian dish has its counterpart in every Central Asian country. You can’t. Which means Turkish food is copied from Armenian, and Byzantine Greek. By the time those Seljuk nomads arrived, the Hittites had long assimilated into Armenian culture, and the only people you found are today’s Armenians and Anatolian Greeks which you settled amongst and proceeded to slowly steal their culture, food, art, music etc because, well, we made the fatal mistake of being hospitable with primitive peoples.

      Avery, since you brought up the subject of Harissa/Keshkek, I’ve been meaning to show these videos at an opportune time, so feast your eyes on these two videos, of Turks engaged in “mock Armenian culture day” complete with zurna and dance, but of course, it must be “Central Asian Turkic food and dance” according to the “historian” above. It is funny enough, but on another level, quite sad when we take history into account…

      http://youtu.be/wsM7KDshdbw

      http://youtu.be/-lTEOB8lO-g

  13. @Avery

    Pretty smart for “nomadic sheep herding tribes” first to conquer whole persia and arabia and then anatolia, if we are speaking about the Selcuk Turks. But in general, I have the opinion that you have a misconception about the turkish horsemen and nomadic life!

    Of course there had been living Armenians and Greeks in Anatolia, at that time when the Turks arrived in Anatolia, nobody denies this, stay calm.
    But dishes like, pastirma,cemen, sucuk,köfte, sarma, dolma, manti, börek, cörek, kebab, pilav, bulgur,helva, yogurt etc. are basics of turkish cuisine and you will also find all these dishes with the same names in Central Asia! Have you ever been to Central Asia?
    An example, you asked me about Pastirma, imagine you want to make a voyage and you need proteine and there are no refrigerator and only horses for transport. Primeval Turkish horseman, who belonged to Central Asia, kept dried and spiced meat sandwiched between horse and the saddle, to eat it whenever needed proteine.
    You have to give me literature or sources about the turkification of the names of these dishes or you can give me the old armenian/greek names before the turkification. But to add an …es-ending like sarma-des, dolma-deiko, lokma-des or köfte-des etc. like the greeks do, doesn`t make these dishes greek.:-)
    Avery, but since you were and are christian, you can claim all dishes, which includes pork or alcohol, to be armenian or greek.
    I think that here will be the differences between the cuisines!

    • To be fair, spiced cured meat is more of a settled people’s invention. Nomads never used so many spices, not in the sense Armenians or similar settled people would have used in their everyday cooking. I won’t wade into the argument about the origin of the name ‘basturma’, I’m neither Armenian, nor Turkish. One thing I can say is that the dried meat nomadic tribes carried on their journeys (military or otherwise, after all, they are the nomads) had not much spice on it, not even salt, which was expensive. In Mongolia to this day people dry meat in winter, just because they like the taste of it. It is not salted, not pressed, just hung up to dry. Salt ruins the meat taste, they say, and I agree (even though I like basturma too). So, to claim that Turks brought ‘basturma-like’ dried meat under their saddles (or whatever) is a bit far fetched. Dried or cured meat exists in nearly every culture, but basturma is unique and it is most definitely not a nomadic invention.
      A born and bred nomad.

  14. But dishes like, pastirma,cemen, sucuk,köfte, sarma, dolma, manti, börek, cörek, kebab, pilav, bulgur,helva, yogurt etc. are basics of turkish cuisine and you will also find all these dishes with the same names in Central Asia!

    Ha ha ha…

    This guy is even more delusional than I initially suspected.

    Yeah in Central Asia, they also have a drink named Coca Cola… the USA should be sued for stealing that secret drink from the high cultured Turkic nomads too.

  15. I have read the armeni anche “basturma” story and as I love it and am trying very hardly to get some from anywhere, I would appreciate very much if anybody can help me to get some. I am living in Rome (Italy) and I cannot find it anywhere here in Italy.

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