The street leading to Sona Tikidjian’s home is typical of Beirut’s suburbs. There are small shops on every corner selling vegetables or mobile phone accessories; there are the occasional Mercedes “service” taxis, scarred and rusty, driving slowly as they scan the roads for potential customers. There’s the usual noise pollution and lack of greenery – and, as it turns out, there is also a talkative shop owner more than happy to point out the building where Mrs Tikidjian lives.
In fact her house is right around the corner, in a nondescript building with a cement-grey façade. The names next to the doorbells all end with the same -ian as Sona’s: we’re in Sidd el-Bouchriyeh, a neighbourhood where many of Beirut’s Armenians live. The Armenian connection is the specific reason why we are here: Sona, a woman in her 60s, cooks some of the best Armenian food in Beirut.
“The Armenian food here in the Middle East differs from that in Armenia, just like the culture and people’s habits.”
We take the stairs to one of the top floors, to the apartment she shares with her husband and mother. Sona opens the door with her apron on, and leads us into the kitchen. It’s only morning but she’s already been cooking for hours. There are plates and pots on every visible surface: on the table underneath the big windows, on the stove, on top of the washing machine.
Although a small-scale chef, Sona is well known among those who frequent these markets. Her signature dishes, like the tangy bulgur salad itch or cabbage rolls stuffed with rice, have their own fan bases. There are those (this writer included) who head to Souk el-Ard first thing in the morning to be sure of getting some itch before it sells out.
“This is how every week begins for me. I’ve been cooking for six years now, mainly to sell my food at Souk el-Ard on Tuesdays and Souk el-Tayyeb on Saturdays [Beirut’s farmers markets, in Hamra and Downtown, respectively]. So every Monday I start early to prepare the food for Tuesday’s market. Sometimes I cook for people who order food from me as well, for parties or special occasions.”
This morning, Sona has already finished preparing the itch and the stuffed cabbage (she usually starts before sunrise). Now, she takes out a tray lined with small lumps of dough covered by a kitchen towel. With ease, she rolls them until they’re round and paper-thin, large enough to cover a good part of the table. After quickly boiling the sheets of dough, she layers them with salty cheese and parsley, then bakes them in the oven. The dish, much loved by Armenians and Turks alike, is called su byorek.
“Our culinary tradition here mixes Armenian food with Greek, Turkish and Arabic influences.”
“The Armenian food here in the Middle East differs from that in Armenia, just like the culture and people’s habits,” says Sona. “Our culinary tradition here mixes Armenian food with Greek, Turkish and Arabic influences. We all eat mashawi [barbecued meat] for instance, and dishes like muhammara [a spicy walnut dip], which may be considered Syrian but is also part of Armenian cuisine here in the Middle East.”
Sona herself has never been to Armenia, which is not uncommon among Lebanon’s Armenians. A small Armenian community has existed in Lebanon for centuries, but it was after the genocide in 1915 that large numbers made the country their home. Despite the fact that many of these families have lived in Lebanon for generations, a substantial number of them today still speak Armenian (both at home and, if they go to one, at the Armenian schools) and – as for most diaspora communities – food forms an essential part of their identity.
“This is the food that means a lot to me. I’ve passed it on to my children as well, who are grown up now and have kids of their own.”
“Even though we eat other food as well – Lebanese, Italian or French – I cook a lot of Armenian dishes. This is the food that means a lot to me. I’ve passed it on to my children as well, who are grown up now and have kids of their own,” says Sona.
Her family did not come to Lebanon straight from Armenia. They spent some time in Africa first. Her mother – who is sitting at the far end of the kitchen table, listening to Sona talk while she assists her daughter by mashing potatoes and sprinkling sesame seeds over small aubergine-filled pastries – was born in Ethiopia, Sona herself in Senegal.
“My grandparents moved to Ethiopia a long time ago and had my mother there. My parents eventually moved to Senegal for business, and that’s where I was born. I remember the Senegalese food very well. The fish was amazing, and the fruit as well; the mango, the papaya… We lived there until I was 17, then I moved to Beirut. Soon after, I got married and had three kids. I had to learn Arabic and adapt to a totally new world. Life in the city then was so different from Senegal, where people walked around with barely any clothes on and lived a very simple life.”
Sona and her family have been in Lebanon ever since. They have lived in the same part of Sidd el-Bouchriyeh, on the eastern outskirts of Beirut, for over 40 years. At this time of day, the neighbourhood is quiet. The streets outside are still, with only a few people shopping for groceries or working in the auto workshops. The kitchen windows overlook the back of the house, where a small plot is occupied by a garden centre selling plants and flowers. As Sona finishes the last layers of the su byorek, she looks out over the neighbourhood.
“I love being in the kitchen. There’s a breeze, it is so nice up here. And look – you can see the sea on the horizon.”
Her mother hands her the mashed potatoes, which will serve as the filling for the last dish: kebbet batata, burgul (cracked bulgur wheat) shells stuffed with a spicy potato filling. Kebbeh, which is usually stuffed with meat, is eaten all over Lebanon and has a special place in many a Lebanese’s culinary heart. When Sona makes them, the Armenian way, she fills them with potatoes instead.
Most importantly there is harr, an oily paste made of red chillies. While Lebanese and other Arabic cuisine is mild and derives its flavour mostly from fresh herbs, Armenian cuisine relies heavily on the red chilli pepper. To demonstrate, Sona opens her refrigerator. Neatly packaged in boxes and bags are finely chopped mint, chickpeas, sour cherries (for making the famous Aleppan kebab, mante (tiny Armenian dumplings with meat) and several batches of harr.