Lahmajoun: The Carefully Crafted Centerpiece
How is it that all across America, you find all sorts of fast-food and drive-through restaurants — but none of them serve lahmajoun?
Instead of Pizza Hut, why can’t a hungry traveler cruise up to the drive-in-line at Lahmajoun Doon?
Sure, there are plenty of stores and sit-down restaurants that serve the open-faced meat pies we all describe to odars (non-Armenians) as Armenian pizza — particularly if you live in California or certain parts of the Northeast.
But most Americans are far more familiar with lahmajoun’s culinary cousins, like pizza and calzones. Why should anyone else’s dough-and-meat combo be more popular than ours?
Maybe it’s because Armenians have traditionally treated lahmajoun not as a quick, throw-together treat but as a carefully crafted centerpiece. In Armenia today, lahmajoun (or lahmajo) is a popular street food, but it wasn’t always so.
George Mardikian, the late San Francisco restaurateur who served as an early apostle of Armenian cuisine in America, noted that the techniques involved in kneading and rolling dough for such thin flaky crust take years to master.
In his 1956 autobiography, Song of America, Mardikian credits ancient Babylon with the origin of lah majoun, known as “the food of the elite” because the ingredients were too dear for peasant folk.
The recipe was somehow handed down to desert sheiks, whose caravans traveled with sheep that could be slaughtered whenever the mood for lahmajoun struck.
“At the end of a day’s travel, the men pitched the tents, and the women made the fires,” he writes. The entire traveling party would be thrown into a frenzy of scratch cooking, even grinding wheat by hand with pestles.
Mardikian doesn’t say what time a caravan typically pitched camp, but starting an enterprise like this any time near sundown seems more likely to produce a midnight snack, or maybe breakfast, than dinner.
Yet Mardikian suggests that he actually witnessed this extraordinary undertaking. “I have never known a more beautiful smell than the aroma of lah majoun being cooked on the desert,” he wrote.
That heady aroma of fresh-baked dough, minced lamb, onions and seasonings is more than intoxicating. It’s inspiring. At least, it was to poet and professor Gregory Djanikian of the University of Pennsylvania.
His ode to the ritual of family cooking, “I Ask My Grandmother If We Can Make Lahmajoun,” was published in Poetry magazine in 2002.
Sure, she says, why not,
we buy the ground lamb from the market
we buy parsley, fresh tomatoes, garlic
we cut, press, dice, mix
make the yeasty dough
the night before, kneading it
until our knuckles feel the hardness
of river beds or rocks in the desert
It’s all beautifully evocative, but let’s face it: most of us are not hard-rocks and desert types — and I’m definitely not interested in mounting an expedition every time I get a craving for my favorite all-in-one meal.
At first glance, lahmajoun preparation can appear daunting. The topping should be almost as thin as the crust: finely chopped meat, peppers, onions, tomatoes, parsley, garlic, and seasonings spread on the unbaked dough, then baked just so until the meat is cooked, vegetables are tender, and the crust starts to brown around the edges.
It’s tempting to just heat up a store-bought batch, but … it’s only available frozen here in South Florida, and I can never be sure how long it’s been in the freezer case because there’s never a use-by date on the package.
Luckily, I’ve been perfecting my technique — and my shortcuts — for quite a while.
The first time I made lahmajoun was in the late 1960s, while attending Chico State College in California as a domestic exchange student from New Jersey’s Montclair State College.
As part of my food production class, our assigned project was to prepare a unique ethnic recipe for our classmates and faculty judges. Since I was far from home, I had to borrow an Armenian cookbook from the mother of one of my college friends, Roy Callan. (If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the executive director at Camp Haiastan in Franklin, Massachussetts.)
My American teammates and I worked feverishly to prepare enough lahmajoun for the entire class, plus a panel of faculty who would scrutinize and evaluate the final product. Who could resist the scent and taste of freshly baked lahmajoun? Armenian or not, this recipe is irresistible — and, of course, we got an A!
I rarely use any recipe as given, because I like to add my own touch. There’s not much one can change, however, to make lahmajoun any better than the original.
Here is our winning lahmajoun recipe:
1 package dry, granular yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 cup lukewarm water (about 105 – 110 F) – or more, if needed
3 cups all-purpose flour – or more, if needed
1 tsp salt
3 Tbsp vegetable oil or melted butter
Dissolve yeast and sugar in 1/2 cup lukewarm water. Set aside for a few minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, stir together flour and salt. Make a well in the center of the dough; stir in the yeast mixture and vegetable oil or melted butter. Mix, adding more warm water if necessary. Dough should not be sticky.
Knead dough for 5 to 10 minutes until smooth and elastic, adding more flour, if needed.
Place dough in a large bowl that’s been lightly greased with oil. Turn dough to coat all over with oil.
Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a towel. Place bowl in a place free of drafts; allow to rise for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
At this point prepare topping. Refrigerate until ready to use.
1 lb. ground lamb or beef (a combination of the two, or ground turkey)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium red pepper, finely chopped
1/2 small green pepper, finely chopped
1/2 bunch parsley, stems removed, washed well, finely chopped
1 – 15 oz can diced tomatoes, drained well
2 Tbsp. tomato paste or red pepper paste
1 to 2 Tbsp flour
2 tsp dried mint, crushed
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sweet paprika
dash cayenne pepper
1. Process the onion, peppers, and parsley in a food processor, using the metal “S” blade – or finely chop by hand. Squeeze out any excess liquid – this is VERY important! Be careful not to over-process. Vegetables should still be a bit chunky, not pureed.
2. In a large bowl, combine all of the topping ingredients, mixing well. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
After 1 1/2 to 2 hours, punch dough down; divide into about 14 equal portions. Shape each portion into balls and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Roll each ball into about a six-inch circle.
Place 2 to 3 dough circles on a greased baking sheet – circles should not overlap.
Spread 2 or 3 Tbsp of topping on each – spreading evenly to the edge of the dough.
Bake in a preheated 450 F oven – on the lower rack for about 5 minutes, then on the upper rack for another 7 to 8 minutes, or until meat is cooked and dough is golden around the edges. Since oven temperatures vary, watch closely.
Lahmajoun – The Shortcut Method
This shortcut method was suggested to me by a dear departed friend who once lived in Visalia, California, where Armenians preferred this less labor-intensive version.
Another shortcut method uses pita bread as the base.
2 – (8 or 10-count) packages flour tortillas
Same topping recipe as given above
1. Preheat oven to 400˚F.
2. Thinly spread 2 to 3 Tbsp. of meat topping over the top of each tortilla.
3. Place 2 to 3 tortillas on each baking tray. They should not overlap each other.
4. Bake on the lower rack for about 5 minutes, then on the upper rack, for another 5 minutes, or until the meat topping has browned, and the edges of the tortilla are golden.
5. Continue this procedure until topping is all used.
By any method, long or short, top your lahmajoun with chopped parsley and onion, a squeeze of lemon, and you’re in Heaven!
After baking and cooling, stack lahmajouns, with plastic wrap in between each one.
Place in plastic freezer bags & seal tightly.
Preheat oven to 375˚to 400˚F. Remove plastic wrap, stack in pairs, meat sides facing each other. Heat for about 5-7 minutes. Turn once during reheating.