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dwelling and proudly exhibited his thesis—a study of fenugreek and basturma in more than 200 typed pages that remains unpublished, now languishing in one of his many drawers inherited by his widow.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!