Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tastes of Childhood: Making Lahmacun in Taipei


I've mentioned before that my mom's side of the family is Armenian from Musa Dagh, Turkey and that this is one of the reasons why we chose Turkey as our next travel destination: to seek out my homeland (or rather, one of my homelands - I'm also Polish, Swiss and generic British/Irish). Of all my many threads of ancestry, my Armenian heritage has always been the most vibrant and the biggest part of my life - I do believe that's because that side of the family came to the USA the most recently, and also because that branch of the family has been the most tenacious in terms of keeping heritage and memories alive. That tends to happen when your family lives through a genocide. When one's great grandfather (in my case, Mehran Renjilian) was a freedom fighter (the Turks would say "terrorist" but they're wrong) in the Armenian resistance...later turned minister. When one's family arrives in the USA after being forced to leave not one, but two countries - the second being Greece as the Nazis closed in.

So, after many years of regaling friends with homecooked Indian food, various appetizers and organizing outings to restaurants, I decided that on the eve of the trip that will mark my generation's first return to Musa Dagh, that I will cook some of the best-loved and most familiar dishes of my childhood.

The party will be in two weeks. I can make some of these dishes in my sleep, quite literally: I've had dreams where I have made hummus from scratch and upon waking up realized that even in my dream I followed exactly the right recipe. I have to admit, though, that there are others that I've eaten plenty of but never attempted to make (such as "fish cookies" which are flavored not with fish but with honey, and derive their name from the herringbone pattern cut across the top), and still others that I've attempted once before, failed at miserably, and never tried again...such as lahmacun.

The last time I made lahmacun, or tried to, I was too scared to attempt the dough, being terrified of trying something that included yeast. Instead I put the tasty topping on soft pita. The pita burned. I took the smoking mess of charred bread and raw meat laid out in a glass casserole out of the oven and plopped it on the counter, where the glass instantly shattered.

You can imagine my trepidation at deciding to not only attempt lahmacun again, but to do so with my tiny electric oven and with real dough made with actual yeast (I'm a great baker of cakes, muffins and such but not so experienced with bread products).

So this weekend was the test run.

My beloved husband helps out in the kitchen as I prepare the lahmacun dough.

I mostly followed this recipe, with a few changes to reflect the flavors I remember from childhood. I would never use ground beef - only lamb will do. Beef is a cop-out. I also added extra garlic, black pepper and allspice to the recipe. The "Armenian spice" I grew up with is made of cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper and allspice and that's the combination I created and added.

Ground allspice in my tiny marble mortar&pestle.
 Fortunately, I have a wonderful husband who, while not exactly a kitchen god in his own right, is very good at helping out in the kitchen - chopping, grinding, peeling, mixing, stirring - whatever I may need when my two hands and one brain just aren't enough.

Lahmacun is not just flavored with dry spices and lamb - it also includes the pungent flavors of onion, parsley, mint, tomato, lemon and garlic (and, of course, salt).

Mint and lemon - yum!
 My mom once wrote a short story of her experiences making lahmacun, lamenting that Nana - her grandmother - could always turn out perfect dough circles but hers were eternally lumpy and lopsided.

I have to say that I take after my mother, but it doesn't matter: I care about taste, not looks.

Sorry, Nana. I hope as you look down on me from heaven (despite my not being religious) I hope you will forgive my horrifically uneven dough rounds).
Creating this dish in Taipei was - and will be, when I make it again in two weeks - a collision of memories. My life in Taipei with our assortment of friends here, our decrepit apartment that we'll soon be moving out of for better digs, our insane cat, Chinese class, evenings enjoying Belgian beer at various Da'an cafes or going out for some of the best food I've ever had from around China and the world... and commingled with childhood holidays where we'd serve typical American food - turkey or ham, gratin potatoes, green beans, tossed salad, apple pie - alongside hummus, Armenian string cheese, cheoreg (my mom wrote that recipe!), babaghanoush, pilaf, fish cookies, olives and lahmacun. We'd eat scrambled eggs with string cheese, bacon and cheoreg the next morning sitting around Grandma and Grandpa's kitchen table in their suburban house that is so typically American that I once saw their living room in a TV commercial (except it wasn't theirs - it just happened to be the same pre-fab living room). Running around the backyard with my cousins, all much younger than myself and helping Grandma make deviled eggs - it took years for her to realize that I was, in fact, capable of cooking much more than that.

Those flavors - mahlab (a spice made from the ground pits of a certain cherry), tahini, aromatic lamb, tangy lemon, earthy cumin, pungent mint and parsley, fiery cayenne - are the sensory receptacles of my childhood and going back from there, of my heritage. Despite sweating in a kitchen in Taiwan over a plastic table covered in parchment paper, whereas my great grandmother would have done this first on a rough kitchen counter in rural Turkey and later in Athens, and later still in Troy, New York, I did feel a connection to the feisty woman who passed away when I was 9 and who never did quite become fluent in English. It was also meaningful to me to share this first batch of lahmacun - the food of my childhood - with my ever-amazing husband:

...who, you know, certainly appreciates good food. We ate it as I always have, topped with fresh vegetables (onion, cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, all will do) and a squeeze of lemon.

And it means a lot to me to be able to share this food with my friends in Taipei in just a few short weeks, before we say goodbye until October.

Oh yes, and I made a cucumber yoghurt mint salad, too!

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