From Ayntap to Yerevan on “Armenian pizza”
Posted 14 September 2012 - 12:14 PM
A man stands by the big oven on the ground floor and greets the lift that’s coming from the basement. With dance-like fluidity he takes the ready dough circles and with equally light and smooth movements puts them into the red-hot oven. In a few minutes hot aromatic lahmajoun is ready to be served.
“We have only 20 sq. m. of space. I decided to use it to its best, which is a typical Armenian trait – adjusting to the situation and doing the impossible. I’m following Archimedes rule: ‘give me a fulcrum and I’ll move the Erath’,” says 51-year-old Sargis Grboyan, offering some of the tasty lahmajoun right off the oven.
He says that translated from Arabic lahmajoun means “dough and meat”, in Armenian it’s called “msashort”, meaning “covered with meat color”. Some might call it “Armenian pizza”. One of the most popular kinds is Ayntap (a city in Western Armenia) lahmajoun.
“After the Genocide they emigrated to Syria and other Arabic countries taking their cuisine with them. There msashort turned into lahmajoun. During the 1946-47 wave of repatriation Syrian Armenians brought the tradition to Eastern Armenia,” says Sargis, who is from Ayntap by roots.
Grboyan’s parents repatriated to Armenia in 1947. His father Yenok Grboyan turned to the Soviet authorities asking for a piece of land in Yerevan’s Kilikia district, where he could build a house overlooking the Biblical Mount Ararat.
“They satisfied my father’s request, although Kilikia district back then was nothing but a bare hill. It was difficult for my parents to adjust to the Soviet regime; they had come back but regretted the decision and the only thing keeping them from leaving was that it was their motherland. When Armenia gained independence, the family started thinking about founding a private business,” recalls Grboyan.
Repatriates brought new culture to Armenia. Eastern coffee (now often referred to as Armenian) was a real discovery for the locals, as where lahmajoun, ishli kyufta, tabuleh, gari yarakh, surborak, etc., which are now among favorites of the locals.
Grboyan recalls how their neighbors would come to their place for a treat of the aromatic lahmajoun every time his mom would make it, because the inviting smell of it went far beyond their little hospitable house. This gave an idea to Sargis and his brother Vazgen Grboyan – buy a small place in the city and found a lahmajoun business.
With a background in mechanics, Grboyan, without any training on how to run a business or any knowledge of marketing techniques, somehow found the key to success.
“In 2001 we opened Mer Taghy (Our District). For the first 25 days we worked for free, treating people with our lahmajoun. The first month we used 5 kilos of meet, the second – 10 kg, then up to 25 kg. People were curious, they would taste and ask: ‘This is such tasty lahmajoun, where do they make it?’,” tells Grboyan.
Today Mer Taghy has many regular visitors, who go there not only for the lahmajoun, but to meet Sargis. The conversation with him keeps being interrupted by “Sargis jan, hello, how are you?”, as customers come by to greet him, or “Sargis jan, I have come to have some lahmajoun and a little chat with you”, “Sargis jan, tomorrow I’ll be sending 15 people to you, they are visiting from America”, etc.
“I like talking to people, making jokes, finding out where they are from by family roots, treat them. When people are in good mood their palate is more sensitive to the taste of food,” says Grboyan and adds: “Our most important principle is hospitality. And when showing your hospitality, you shouldn’t expect anything in response.”
Mer Taghy has become a small meeting place fro Diaspora Armenians. They come here to eat, to talk, to discuss issues, to help each other. Grboyan says that “with this lahmajoun I have traveled around the world – China, France, Aleppo, Syria, Beirut, Egypt, America… Tufayans, a wealthy Egyptian-Armenian family, who have major bread factories in Florida, wrote a $44,000 check right here and gave me a car – that black BMW, X 5 standing over there by the sidewalk.”
Grboyan is also the chairman of Ayntap union of comptatriots. They have connections with Ayntap natives living in different Armenian communities across the world; there are also philanthropists among them who assist Armenia.
“There are more wealthy people among Ayntap natives than others. And wealth doesn’t come by chance, it is earned. Ayntap people are a little crafty, but smart and resourceful in business, they are good learners,” he says.
Many of the high-ranking officials and law-makers prefer Mer Taghy to luxurious fancy restaurants.
“Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Serzh Sargsyan’s brother Levon Sargsyan come here. Once the prime minister came to have lahmajoun and asked: “Sargis, you have made a good name, but by how many percent do you evade taxes? Half serious, half joking, I said: 10 percent. He said: How about more honestly? I said: 25 percent. He said: Isn’t it too much? I said: “So for you it is a period of transition, but not for me?” He said: Bravo!” tells Sargis.
He is looking through the thick albums with his customers’ photographs and notes about the Mer Taghy and the tasty lahmajoun. He stops when he reaches the photo of Gilbert Kerkerian, former deputy mayor of Marseilles, due to whose efforts a monument to the victims of the Armenian genocide was erected there and one of the streets was called Genocide. Grboyan has placed a similar sign on the street where Met Taghy is located.
“Kerkerian came to Armenia and visited Mer Taghy. He came across the familiar sign and was astonished. I was at a wedding party that day, when I suddenly got a call telling me to come back as there was someone asking for me. Our acquaintance has turned into great friendship,” recalls Grboyan, with warm affection.
There days the little bakery receives orders for 1,500 lahmajoun, which takes around 80-100 kilos of beef. The business has been expanding, but is still run from the 20 sq. m premise.
“There is a phrase I like saying – my space doesn’t grow, but my business does. There are those when the premise is big, but there is little business. When a young man is conscripted, he says he’s going to become a general. Big goals generate enthusiasm and aspiration, if you set good goals you will have the energy and with willingness to work hard. Everything can be achieved,” says Grboyan.
Posted 28 December 2018 - 09:40 AM
Aintab style Lahmajoun (Photo by Ani Kalafian)
BY SARKIS RSHDOUNI
Special to Asbarez
Every culture on this planet has their own ethnic cuisine, however, it is hard to believe that there is one type of food represented by one specific culture, in this day and age.
As I, being part Armenian, part Assyrian, and part Greek, born and raised in the eastern part of Syria; the Lower Mesopotamia, and Aleppo, the heaven of Middle Eastern cuisine, literally, I had the chance to eat wholeheartedly all types of food and national and ethnic cuisines, such us, of course Western Armenian, Assyrian, Levantine, Arabic, Mediterranean and more. Even with all these options at my disposal, I chose to become a vegetarian at the age of 14, perhaps a very rare commitment in Syria.
Since my graduation from Yerevan State University, Faculty of History, it was my obsession to find the origins and etymology of not just language, but actual titles and colloquialism of all the dialects of Armenian used today. Hence, I started with one of the most popular and loved foods of the Armenian culture: LAHMAJO(UN).
I have come across several blogs, articles, and personal testimonies regarding “Lahmajo,” with the word being of Arabic in origin, whilst the actual food is not. I have concluded in my extensive research that the food that we call “Lahmajo(un)” has spiritual pagan origins dating back to the late Iron Age 900-650 BC, at the very least. Allow me to explain further starting with:
Flour, water, salt, ground meat, baked into a thin crust in a pit oven, known as Tandoor or Tonir.
It is very obvious that the thin crust was inspired by Lavash itself and the meat was beef, to be more specific, it was HEIFER (young cow, not calf).
The reader must wonder, why Lavash and why heifer meat?
The Answer goes back circa 2100 years ago, during the Artashesian reign (Artaxiad Dynasty).
Lahmajo made in Armenia. (Photo by Danica Harootian)
Why Lavash? Lavash is the most sacred food among the Armenian people through out history. Making Lavash is a sacred ritual that requires a lot of dedicated physical work and back in the ancient times it was committed only by women. Armenian women solely dominated the Lavash making tradition, and the reason behind it is simply very obvious; women represent the Godess Anahit’s elements, traits, and divine feminine energy, where the Tonir oven represents the womb creating and birth-giving in this world and thus they have the blessing of Goddess Anahit to prepare the main part of their food, which is the bread of life. Lavash also used to be given as gifts and offerings to Goddess Anahit during rituals and holidays as a symbol of fertility and prosperity and even protection.
Armenian Historian Hamazasp Khachatryan explains this in his book titled “A Form Of Worshipping Goddess Anahit in Ancient Shirak,” where he states firsthand accounts of Greek Historian Plutarchus (1st century AD) witnessing the heifer as the main animal sacrifice to Goddess Anahit in the province of Shirak. The other provinces where temples of Goddess Anahit existed had similar types of sacrifices.
We can conclude and assume that this specific type of sacrificial meat that was only used in Lahmajo(un) was a ceremonial food. Taking into consideration, ancient Armenians’ daily nutrition was majorly based on grains, bread, dairy, and herbs, meat was exceptional, consumed mainly by the noble class and during rituals and holidays for commoners.
LAHM bi-Ajeen (Arabic), LAHM-ACHUN (turkish) literally means meat with dough. If “Lahmajo(un)” was an Arabic/Levantine invention then why wouldn’t they have a proper name for it? Example, Italians don’t call their Pasta “boiled dough,” they have a name for it. If we think “Lahmajo(un)” was translated directly from an Armenian name, we would be wrong, because in Armenian it would have been “khmorov mees or meesov khmor”, that just doesn’t sound right, Armenians are more traditionalists with their food and names.
Taking into consideration, “Lahmajo(un)” was introduced to northern Syria, state of Aleppo in the late 19th century, and that was mainly through the Armenians of Aintab and Urha and Cilicia regions who moved to Aleppo for merchant businesses, trade, and work, where Armenians became the masters of crafts and the food industry in general. It’s no surprise that Armenians started naming “lahmajo(un)/lahmajeen” for their Arabic and turkish speaking clients to make their product more appealing and easy to order.
During my research, I came across of two Armenian colloquial terms that could be close to “Lahmajo(un)” which are “M’salosh – Մսալօշ and M’sashot – Մսաշոթ”. With that said, the two titles are still a direct translation from “Lahmajo(un),” “mees” is meat and “losh” is Lavash, and “shot/շոթ” couldn’t find an official meaning for it which still explains the ingredients rather than the concept.
Let’s check with Arab of the Levant and those who turkified the Arabic word “Lahmajo(un)”. In Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine “Lahmajo(un) is not consumed by the main populations, only by the minority Armenian Diaspora. From Aleppo is where the “Lahmajo(un) got its unique style that became more popularized with the greater Diaspora community around the world that now use pepper based spices and etc. Aleppo is famous with its chili pepper flakes and paste, and in Beirut is made little bit differently, but overall it is the same style and concept of the same ancestral “Lahmajo(un)”. In Damascus, probably in late 40’s “lahm bi-ajeen” became a popular street food, as a matter of fact, Damascenes have a similar food, similar in concept and ingredients but smaller in size, called “S’fiha – صفيحة” (meaning flat), where I, personally think that is a gentrified version of the Armenian product.
The Proper Naming Solution:
Taking into account the popularity of “Lahmajo(un)” and its roots in Armenian History and heritage, the community at large should come up with an original name. Until a proper Armenian title of the beloved meat and bread combination is named, I suggest at the very least start calling it “M’salosh or M’sashot”, by doing so one would be removing the turkified Arabic title that is commonly used everyday.
When Armenians proudly introduce and feed “Lahmajo(un)” to their non-Armenian friends in their hospitable nature and tell them of its Armenian origins and maybe even call it an Armenian Pizza and be proud and all that, but that pride shatters down as soon as the non-Armenian person asks, what does “Lahmajo(un)” mean? And you stumble and sorrowfully say, it is Arabic or turkish. How ironic.
I call to all Armenian Historians, Historical Linguistics and Anthropologists to collaborate all together and find the original word for “Lahmajo(un)” and free our heritage from the unauthentic elements.
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