The Armenian cured beef called basturma may be the most powerfully flavored cold cut in the world, less a foodstuff than a force of nature sometimes, with a bit of the chewy translucence of first-rate Italian bresaola , a ripe, almost gamy back taste, and then--pow!--the onslaught of the seasoning, a caustic, bright-red slurry of hot pepper, fenugreek and a truly heroic amount of garlic that hits the palate with the subtle elegance of a detonated land mine.
It’s sort of an acquired taste, basturma --it makes its cousin pastrami seem like the kind of thing a duchess might nibble on white bread with the crusts cut off. I would not be surprised to find out that a particularly pungent basturma had the power to affect the weather.
The best place to try basturma in Los Angeles, and possibly anywhere, is probably Sahag’s Basturma, a small, fragrant Armenian deli in the heart of east Hollywood, stacked floor to ceiling with bagged spices and bottled grape molasses, jars of roasted peppers and big cans of Lebanese cherry jam, cellophane-wrapped Indian pulses, gripe water, various nut taffies and rosewater-scented sweets, also many boxes of something called candy floss. A glass counter displays most of the usual Armenian meats and cheeses, plus a few that you’ve probably never seen before, and there always seems to be an elderly man or two reading the Armenian newspapers at one of the deli’s two tables.
There is a certain improvised, picnic-like quality to a meal at Sahag’s, washed down with Armenian yogurt sodas you fetch from the cooler yourself, supplemented with the tart green olives and beet-red pickled turnips the deli gives away with sandwiches. Behind the counter, almost always, is Sahag himself.
“Do I make the basturma ?” Sahag asks himself pensively. “Three generations my family makes basturma, first in Lebanon, now in Hollywood. This is basturma --my basturma . I am the king of basturma . Nobody makes basturma like me.”
Basturma may be consumed in pita, alone or slicked with olive oil like carpaccio, but maybe the best way here is layered on freshly toasted French bread, garnished with tomatoes and pickle wedges, in a combination that will come out of your pores for a week.
Sahag makes other kinds of sandwiches too: the grilled Lebanese link sausage ma’ane ' (more properly called naqaniq) , strongly flavored with mint and garlic, crunchy with pine nuts, slightly sweet; the “yogurt cheese” labneh , a thick layer of it where you might expect meat to be; sujuk , the most famous of the Armenian sausages, a rich, coarse-ground dried sausage, ruddy with red peppers and pungent with the exotic sourness of Middle-Eastern herbs, which acquires in frying something of the texture of thick-cut fried salami.
“You can get a chicken sandwich anywhere,” protests Sahag when you order one, but the grilled chicken sandwich here is fine, heavily garlicked, dusted with the sour spice mixture zaatar.
There is a version of the pomegranate molasses/walnut dip muhammara that is quite different from the classic muhammara at the nearby Carousel restaurant. Sahag’s is extremely spicy, slightly fruity, inflected with the dusty bitterness of powdered red chile but quite untouched by the jolt of cumin and exuberant, syrupy sweetness that often characterize the dish.
Sometimes, if you can talk Sahag into it, he’ll make a sandwich with a dried, highly spiced Armenian cheese, explosively pungent, that has the stinging dried-chile wallop you might associate with a straight ancho puree.
“This cheese is too expensive now,” says Sahag, hefting a baseball-size lump. “But I tell you: Take it home, slice it so, and make it into a salad with sliced onion, sliced tomato--biggest kind--and a little good olive oil . . . you know, it’s not so bad.”
I bought a smallish lump--six bucks. I made the salad. And you know . . . it wasn’t so bad with the basturma sandwich I bought to go.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
WHERE TO GO
Sahag’s Basturma, 5183 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (213) 661-5311. Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout; limited seating. Lunch for two, food only, $6-$10.
WHAT TO GET
Basturma; ma’ane’; sujuk .