A touch of cinnamon, a squeeze of lemon, chopped chilis, toasted pine nuts, each region flavors their meat pies differently, their preference a culmination of history. Although there are many names for it, it is clear by just looking at the recipe that they share a culinary past interwoven and complex.
Nawal Nasrallah, author of the Iraqi cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden, calls Lahmajoon Arabian pizza because it is eaten throughout the Arab world as well as in countries influenced by Arab culture such as Turkey and Armenia. It looks similar to a pizza except it is topped with seasoned ground meat, traditionally lamb and often pine nuts. When she was a child living in Baghdad not many people knew of it, in fact Nawal Nasrallah first discovered it through an Armenian owned local bakery. There is a large Armenian Diaspora in the Arab world and they have become well known for their expertise in baking, dominating the profession in such cities as Aleppo Syria. They may well have introduced the lahmajoon to areas where they settled. Although Iraq has been making closed meat pastries such as sambusak for hundreds of years with recipes from the Abbasid Empire if not earlier, lahmajoon is made slightly differently. It is not fried, the way sambusak is traditionally made, nor is the filling covered. However, the ingredients for lahmajoon and sambusak are very similar with the use of vinegar and/or lemon juice to flavor the filling (called sanbusak hamid or sour samosa). Perhaps the lachmajoon is a merging of the sambusak with the flat bread popular throughout the Arab world.
In the Palestinian region it is called Sfiha and tends to be much smaller and thicker than the Turkish version. In the Arab Israeli cookbook, Elbabur, by Hussam Abbas they have two versions; one flavored with meat, tomatoes and onions the other with tehina and baharat (Arabic spice mixture). In another Arab Israeli cookbook by Nawal Abu Gosh, she has a recipe with tehina, baharat and vinegar. Lebanese and Syrians add either pomegranate or tamarind juice for a sweet and sour note. Clifford A. Wright, cookbook author and food historian, has a Palestinian recipe which also makes use of pomegranate juice, a clear Syrian/Lebanese influence (via Clifford A. Wright).
My grandmother who is from Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) does not make lachmajoon at all. Neither did I find it in the well known Persian cookbook, New Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij. This seems to indicate that lachmajoon first became popular in the Levant and/or Turkey before being incorporated in Iraqi cooking. According to Clifford A. Wright, lahmacun (pronounced lahmajoon) was borrowed from the Arab word lahm bil ajin meaning meat on dough. Although it was popular in Baghdad, it may not have been introduced to Northern Iraq when my grandmother was learning to cook. In Egypt these pies are called fatayer which are usually triangular spinach pastries elsewhere in the Levant. Aside from Egypt, North Africa is not known for their lahmajoon although they have other types of topped flat breads reminiscent of pizza, most likely a direct Italian influence.
I make lahmajoon often, as it is easy to make, all three of my boys like it (one without pine nuts, the other with lots), it can be frozen and can be eaten on the run, with a pine nut trail. Each time I try a different version, I tend to like it without pomegranate or tamarind molasses.
Arabian Pizza, Lahmajoon
Sometimes I add paprika and chopped green chili peppers for a Turkish version. I made it using Nawal Abu Gosh’s recipe but she called for baking the raw meat mixture (flavored with tehina, vinegar and baharat) and not frying it first like the following recipe. I cook the meat before baking, although this is not traditional, I simply prefer it like that.
500 grams flour (about 4 cups)
1 teaspoon dry yeast
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
500 grams ground meat, lamb or beef
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon baharat (Arabic spice mix, cinnamon can be used instead)
2 tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Combine all the dry ingredients for the dough and slowly add water while it is mixing. Depending on the absorption of the flour, more or less water may be used. The dough should be slightly tacky and smooth. Put in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let rise in a warm place (about 1-2 hours depending on the temperature).
Preferably in a cast iron skillet fry onion until just beginning to brown, add the garlic and stir for a few moments. Add the meat and cook until it changes color, add the lemon juice, tomato paste and chopped tomatoes and cook until most of the juices have evaporated and the meat is just beginning to brown. Add the spices and mix well. Remove from heat and mix in the parsley. It is also possible to combine all the ingredients for the filling and use that to top the dough, although in this case I would omit one tomato.
When the dough has doubled, divide it into 8-10 and roll out each piece into a thin circle (about 1cm thick). Divide the meat mixture evenly between each circle, sprinkle with pinenuts and bake for 20 minutes or until the dough begins to brown. The meat tends to brown faster than the dough so it is best to heat from below.
Also known as:
Lahma Bi Ajeen (Arabic, meaning meat with dough), Lahmacun (Turkish), Lahmajoon (Armenian), Lahmajo (Armenian in Soviet Union)
The Mediterranean Feast, by Clifford A. Wright
Medieval Arab Cookery, essays and translations by Maxime Rodinson, A.J. Arberry and Charles Perry
Aromas of Aleppo, by Poopa Dweck