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Lebanon's Armenians Remember Their Heritage with Dried Beef and Dumplings

There are around 100,000 Armenians currently living in Lebanon, almost all of whom are descendants of those who fled the 1915 genocide in what is now Turkey. In Beirut, they keep their heritage alive through their food.
Photos by the author.

There are around 100,000 Armenians currently living in Lebanon. Almost all are the descendants of those who fled the 1915 genocide, when up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman authorities, and even more were forced from their homes. Lebanon welcomed many of them, and now has one of the biggest Armenian diaspora communities outside of Russia.

A hundred years of assimilation later, the community is going strong. The majority of young Armenians attend Armenian schools, speak Armenian, and identify strongly with their Armenian heritage. Food also plays a significant role in keeping the community alive.


Not far from one of the original camps set up by the Lebanese government for those Armenian families who originally fled, Burj Hammoud is now the de facto Armenian district on the outskirts of Beirut.


Walking through the tight, crowded streets, you'll find graffiti decrying Turkey—which still refuses to recognise the deaths of 1915 as a genocide. Some of the messages are blunt: "Fuck Turkey" reads one. Others reflect the loss of land to the Ottoman Empire; "Western Turkey" is crossed out. Below it: "Eastern Armenian."

For the past few weeks, the neighbourhood has been ablaze with even more Armenian flags than normal, alongside huge banners marking the centenary of the genocide. On April 24, tens of thousands of people marched to the neighbourhood to solemnly commemorate the day in 1915 when the Ottoman authorities rounded up and killed 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, sparking the massacre.

Today, however, it's full of people getting their lunch. At Mano, people crowd for the LL5,000 ($3) basterma sandwiches. The meat, which is distantly related to American pastrami, is often referred to as an "Armenian bresaola": cured beef, air-dried, and infused with a combination of paprika, fenugreek, garlic, and cumin. Tomatoes and pickles, which cut through the saltiness of the basterma, are often added to the sandwich.


There aren't many survivors left in Burj Hammoud. For Marie Korian, who was born five years after the genocide, this is all the more reason why it's important to keep community traditions alive. "The blood that we lost will not go to waste," she says.


The 95-year-old Burj Hammoud resident was born in Adana, in what is now Turkey, in 1920. She carries with her the stories of her relatives, who were forced to flee in 1915. One aunt entrusted her son to a group of nuns; later, exhausted, she briefly abandoned her own nine-month-old baby on the long march to Syria.

Back then, she says, people were more concerned with staying alive than with remembering the past, and they didn't really talk about what they experienced. "But we can't forget," she says.

"We are hand-to-hand in one voice, all fighting for our case," she says. She adds that there are many Armenian intellectuals fighting for recognition and keeping the community alive. I wonder if she's thinking of Kim Kardashian, who recently made the trip to Armenia to commemorate her heritage. But the mention of her name is met with a blank stare.


A worker slices basterma at Mano.

Korian tells me that when they arrived in Lebanon, communities brought their own regional specialities to the country. And the food of Western Armenia was vastly different from that of the mountainous region of what now forms modern Armenia, having more in common with Mediterranean and Levantine food.

The combination of regional assimilation and local variation can make Armenian food hard to pin down. This is reflected at the menu at Onno, one of the oldest restaurants in Burj Hammoud. Situated under the Yerevan bridge—so named for the Armenian capital—there are just a few tables at this family-run establishment, where a huge meal will set you back the equivalent of about $10.


Lebanese food pairs easily with more traditional Armenian fare, and the crossover of the two food cultures in one meal brings the best of them both together. What sets Armenian food apart is the seasoning—a rich Aleppan spice flavour that permeates the cracked wheat salad (itch) and the red pepper paste (muhammara)—as well as yoghurt-based dishes and meat served in rich cherry and pomegranate sauces.

If anywhere serves quintessential Armenian food, it's Mayrig, an upscale restaurant in the nearby Gemmayzeh district. The menu, says co-founder Aline Kamakian, has just "two or three" Lebanese dishes.

Opened in 2003, Mayrig brought Armenian cuisine out into the country's broader food scene for the first time. With no Armenian cooking schools around, Kamakian relied upon a network of Armenian women to help her recreate the recipes they had been taught by their mothers and grandmothers for the restaurant. They now have around 40 women working in the main kitchen.


Basterma and eggs at Onno.

For Kamakian, Mayrig (which means "mother" in Armenian) is about reclaiming and strengthening Armenian culture. Five years ago, she travelled to eastern Turkey to trace the recipes she uses in the restaurant.

"[The Ottomans] not only killed, but they took away the Armenian legacy and the culture, and that included the food," she says. Su boureg (layered pastry) and manti (baked dumplings covered with yoghurt) are just two dishes that she says were originally Armenian, but given Turkish names by the Ottomans.

"The genocide really began before 1915, when it was forbidden to talk in Armenian," she says. "When I tried to find the source [of these foods], I discovered that even the sultan's chefs were Armenian."

In 2012, Kamakian opened a branch of Mayrig in Dubai, and has hopes to build further afield to keep these old Armenian traditions alive. "We have millions of friends, but in the end are eating alone," she says. "Once you lose that sense of belonging, it's gone for ever."