How to feast this Christmas, Lebanese-Armenian style
There’s no right way to cook for Armenian Christmas. The Armenian diaspora are now spread everywhere from their eponymous state in the east, down into Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. There are also Armenians scattered across Western countries who are now two or three generations removed from the ancestors who first emigrated from the Ottoman Empire.
This range of new host countries is reflected in Armenian culinary traditions, and Christmas dinner varies accordingly.
Glazed ham, for example, is popular holiday fare in Armenia proper but a rare find on the tables of Armenians living in the Levant and North Africa, where majority Muslim populations make pork difficult to find.
Lebanese foodies tend to agree that many Armenian staples have become essential components of the local Lebanese mezze: basterma, sujuk and itch, for example.
But that culinary diffusion goes both ways and Lebanese food has also had an effect on the local Armenian Christmas feasts.
At Badgeur, an Armenian cultural center in the heart of Burj Hammoud, Arpie Mangasarian and her team of seasoned homemakers cooked up a private Christmas Eve dinner for several dozen friends and neighbors Monday night.
While many Armenians in the surrounding streets roasted a turkey for the main fare, Badgeur’s menu was a basic lineup of Armenian mezze with some Lebanese additions such as kibbeh nayeh, Mangasarian told The Daily Star Sunday.
“We will sing and we will make music with the supporters of our delicacies,” she said.
Their Christmas mezze spread included stuffed carrot – which is hollowed, filled with rice and spices and boiled in a broth; sujuk – sausage flavored with garlic, allspice, cumin, chili, coriander and salt; and basterma – cured flank steak turned scarlet with the help of a bright red pepper paste.
Some items are standard across most Armenian Christmas tables: cookies, baklava, nuts and dried fruit are all used to feed the many friends and family members who visit each other over the holiday.
A traditional salad made from cracked bulgur wheat, called itch, was also on Badgeur’s table.
Though the salad’s name is not especially appetizing in English, itch (pronounced each) is one of the dishes that make Armenian cuisine worthy of a central place on the Lebanese table, according to cookbook author Barbara Abdeni Massaad.
“Even if this is not a traditional Lebanese mezze staple, it soon will be one, if I have anything to say about it – and I do! Armenian food culture is here to stay,” Massaad wrote in her most recent cookbook “Mezze,” published in November.
A couple of years ago, Massaad filmed an Armenian Christmas episode for her LBC show “Helwe Beirut.” In it, an Armenian homemaker in Antelias made a traditional barley and yogurt soup with labneh and dried mint that was briefly sauteed in butter. In Armenian the soup is known as spas.
Massaad’s host also called omelets a staple of Armenian Christmas lunch. Massaad offered a recipe for them in “Mezze” that includes fennel, though it can be substituted for other vegetables such as zucchini or made without any at all. The fried patties are more like eggy fritters than your typical breakfast omelet.
One of the crowning comfort foods of Armenian cuisine that will undoubtedly find its way onto tables across town this Christmas is a white, cheesy lasagna called sou boreg.
As in most unwritten food traditions, sou boreg is not a precise science. An adapted recipe by food blogger Joumana Accad calls for mozzarella and string cheese or ricotta. On the Christmas episode of “Helwe Beirut,” it was a three cheese sou boreg with akkawi, halloumi and majdouleh. Like knafeh, sou boreg is cooked on the stove, not in the oven.
Mayrig, an Armenian restaurant in Beirut, hosted its own Christmas meal with a brunch over the weekend including kibbeh bi-laban and roasted lamb with rice – two dishes found throughout the Levant in Arab and Armenian kitchens and further proof of the continuous marriage between two culinary dynasties.