BURJ HAMMOUD, Lebanon: Inside the bustling, densely populated narrow streets of Beirut’s Armenian quarters, true culinary gems, each one more enticing than the next, have existed since the Caucasus population fled Ottoman tyranny to safer, less oppressive realms.
The industrial district of Burj Hammoud, northeast of the capital, is not merely home to Lebanon’s Armenian community or migrant workers from Asia and Africa; it is a treasure trove of cultures and culinary traditions.
Scratching beneath the surface, scents of sumac, cumin and garlic mix with those of caramel and vanilla in almost every corner of Burj Hammoud.
Lebanon’s Armenians develop their skills to the point of perfection; they’ll prepare their legendary sujok sausages and basterma meat with the same passion and dexterity as when they create the fine jewelry they are known for.
Crimson-red sausages and cured meat coated with pungent spices hanging next to window displays of flashy jewelry are not completely unfamiliar sights, since in Burj Hammoud, meat retailers, jewelers and other craftsmen perfectly cohabit.
The district’s sujok and basterma can be tasted fresh because in the past decade or two several butchers started sandwich sections.
|Mano's fusion shawarma sujok is a mix between the traditional shawarma and the sujok sausages. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)|
The Basterma Mano deli on Municipality Street has been the most creative in the field. In addition to traditional specialties such as sujok and basterma sandwiches, Mano borrowed the concept of shawarma and came up with the succulent fusion shawarma sujok, which is served in Lebanese bread on a bed of finely sliced tomatoes and topped with sour wild cucumber pickles.
To extend the Mano experience, think of buying sliced to order basterma from their retail section as well as some old-fashioned golden sandwich bread, “khibz franji” from the Veronna Bakery in close-by Dora for a garlicky dinner the next day.
Mossis is another venue offering a wide range of sandwiches with an Armenian twist. Located on the inner road linking Burj Hammoud to Dora, Mossis is famous for its spicy, paper-thin meat on dough known as lahm baajin, which is rendered even tastier by a squeeze of lemon on top, as well as for its comforting chicken and celery amuse bouche.
Mossis’ roast beef, beef tongue and basterma sandwiches are also widely popular for their taste, which is reminiscent of old times when sandwiches did not drown in an overgenerous slosh of mayonnaise.
If you’re not offered vanilla-scented sweet dumplings with your sandwich at Mossis, make sure to remind the staff about the crunchy deep-fried tubular desert – a real enchantment to the taste buds.
But what about real Armenian home food? Fulfilling dishes such as eetch, the hot version of Lebanese tabbouleh, or manti, the spicy ground lamb mixture in a dough wrapper soaked in garlic yogurt with a generous sprinkle of sumac on top, and sou boreg, the buttered phyllo pastry with a melted cheese filling.
Typical Armenian cuisine, the kind of food you’d have at the home of an Armenian friend, is not served in the capital’s well-known Armenian restaurants but rather in the minuscule low-key chophouses hidden in the maze-like backstreets of Burj Hammoud.
Karnigue Nigolian and his devoted commis/waiter Raffy have been feeding their customers authentic Armenian specialties at the charming 30-seat Restaurant Onno on Aghabios Street facing Sabtieh Church since 1990.
|Chillies and other dried vegetables are hung in the Marash Market to make delicious Armenian dishes. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)|
Nigolian, who goes by the nickname Onno, is particularly strict when it comes to reservations, due to the dimensions of his two-story restaurant, decorated with snapshots of pre-Civil War Downtown Beirut.
Onno’s fairly priced menu includes items hailing from Armenian and Lebanese mezze and a lot of arak, of course – the anise spirit is dearly cherished in both cultures.
The fiery chef is especially proud of his sweet and savory kebab bi karaz (cherry kebab), which he serves up with toasted nuts and fried bread.
Onno, in fact, nails the recipe: The gooey dark red cherry chutney is satisfyingly sweet and the lamb kebab tender and juicy.
Onno confides that he shops for his meat, vegetables and most of the remaining ingredients inside Burj Hammoud. One street in particular will definitely delight every foodie.
Souk Marash is the home of spices and other materials required to concoct flavorsome Armenian and other cuisine.
Bulk spices and seasonings, and also dried fruits, nuts and candy are displayed on stands throughout the packed market, which is located parallel to Arax Street, Burj Hammoud’s shopping hub.
|The Marash Market will delight every foodie. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)|
At the spacious Bann Garo store right in the middle of Marash, dried black cherries, an essential ingredient for kebab bi karaz, are sold, but also a wide variety of cayenne pepper, chilli paste, and walnuts to make the piquant muhamara dip.
Sweet sujok, the Armenian version of the Lebanese malban sweet, is a bestseller at Bann Garo too.
Sold on wooden skewers, the sweet sujoks can be the perfect ending to a culinary journey in Burj Hammoud. The caramel-scented sweets are made with grape molasses, flavored with rose water and mastic and stuffed with a variety of nuts, including walnuts and pistachios.
And just like Burj Hammoud was once a comforting refuge for newcomers, in Marash, one is likely to find comforting infusions and herbal teas to calm the indigestion incurred after a heavy meal in the lively district that never fails to enchant inhabitants and visitors alike.