The Lure of Basturma in Little Armenia
Located in Los Angeles near the highly Armenian populated city of Glendale, Little Armenia is a small, condensed community of Armenian-run businesses within the Hollywood neighborhood. Here, business sustainability can be difficult. A seasoned L.A. driver could zip past its few small streets during speedy commutes without ever realizing it was there.
This is why a successful place like Sahag’s Basturma sandwich shop, located on Sunset Boulevard and run by owner Harout Tashjian for over thirty years, is a significant accomplishment. It’s a vital gathering place for cultural comforts and Armenian identity in a large, ever-changing city.
One of these comforts is Tashjian’s highly praised basturma—a cured beef that is dried relentlessly and smeared in age-old seasoning secrets with a whole lot of salt. His version maintains its rosy-red color and kicks you in the mouth with its spicy flavor. More than a family tradition, basturma is a stabilizing force in one of the largest Armenian diaspora communities in the world.
This traditional Armenian appetizer is usually dark and almost purple due to the long drying process. As a cured meat, basturma must first be covered in a pile of salt to suck out the blood and moisture. A generous amount is poured over the fresh meat, top and bottom, for about two days (sometimes more, depending on the technique and location) as it sits in a cool place to dry. After wrapping it in paper towels, it is set to dry again—this time with enough weight on top to press out any remaining moisture. Then it hangs to dry for another couple days, sometimes a week.
Once it is thoroughly dry, a special spicy paste called chaman (fenugreek) made with cayenne, paprika, pepper, ground cumin, and garlic is prepared and spread evenly over the entire piece of meat. Some rub the paste with a bit of water over the top with their fingers which creates a sort of glossy covering. Once the meat is fully covered with chaman, the final step is, of course, more drying until the basturma is ready to eat.
After such a long drying process, it is easy to understand why Tashjian takes such pride in his special techniques to maintain that unusual fresh pink hue. His secrets are passed down from generations of family basturma makers in Armenia and Lebanon, and they attract an eclectic variety of visitors—even celebrities—to try his meats and sandwiches.
But it is not the famous that make this shop special or a cultural stabilizer for Armenians in California. It is the owner’s love for his family, culture, and customers, as well as the consistency of flavor that contribute to the strength and longevity of his business. Ultimately, it offers constancy in an evolving community effected by migration.
Arianna Sikorski is a foodways coordinator for the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and an experienced cultural events producer, curator, and consultant in the arts and culture field.