A taste of Kayseri reborn in Greece
The Kourounlian, Avakian, and Batanian families, all originally from Cappadocia, have been using traditional methods to produce pastırma (cured spiced beef) in Greece for four generations. Their products are found in supermarkets, delicatessens, and small traditional grocers in the country, as well as across Europe and elsewhere around the world. A good meze, after all, knows no bounds.
Kouroulian || Photo: miran.gr
Avakian || Photo: avakian-aram.gr
‘Take a nice flank of beef or lamb, salt it for a couple of days to extract the fluid before coating it with a paste – crushed garlic, hot red pepper powder, cumin, and crushed fenugreek (Greek hay, or foenum-graecum in Latin, chemen in Turkish) seeds – then hang it in a dark breezy place for a couple of weeks to dry and absorb the paste, and you will have pasturma, a delicacy of Asia Minor produced for centuries.’
This is how film director and producer Nigol Bezjian, originally from Aleppo, begins his description of pastırma, also called basturma and pastourma, its history and place in the lives of Armenians.
Bezjian explains that rather than mutton or goat, beef, water buffalo and camel are traditionally used to make pastırma:
‘Intact fenugreek seed has no smell until it’s crushed like garlic; when the two are combined, it is a double-barrelled shot of a distinct odour that smells even from a distance. The chemical substance enters the human system and announces its presence in breath, sweat, and digestive waste, sometimes for days.’
When my grandfather Hacı Agop Ağa poured a glass of ouzo next to some mezes and pastırma, my yaya Takuhi would tell him to at least remove the fenugreek so he wouldn't stink. My grandfather would always respond the same: ‘Is there such a thing as pastırma without fenugreek?’ This ‘issue of smell’ persisted for centuries, until recently when odourless – although still delicious – pastırma began to be produced by drastically reducing the amounts of garlic and fenugreek.
Pastırma's origins can be traced to Kayseri (Caesarea) in the Cappadocia region of Asia Minor. This delicacy has been produced there for centuries and is still in great demand. It is called abukhd, pastourma and basturma by Armenians, who are its main producers around the world.
It was Armenian survivors of the 1915 Genocide who brought pastırma to Greece, the Middle East and other areas where they fled. The best pastırma producers were, of course, the Armenians of Kayseri, who brought with them the secrets of the recipe from their homeland. As Bezjian points out, this method was undoubtedly used in antiquity in order to preserve meat for long storage. The preservation process is even more effective when various herbs are used.
‘It could be that the division emerged when a matter led to dispute. In 1915, Develi had 16,000 Armenians according to the state’s official records, whereas in 1950 there were 80-100 households. The rest of the population were mostly not locals of Develi but those who moved from other villages. That being so, Armenians, with their food, furnaces, cuisine, pastrami [pastırma], mantı, and boiled cheese börek pastry had a more long-established heritage and manners.’
Fenugreek seed || Illustration & Photo: biolib.de & pharmeasy.in
Pastırma with fenugreek || Courtesy of Quin Minassian
Both healthy and delicious
Bezjian's neighbour, Dr. Donabedian, a survivor of the Genocide and one of the first graduates from the Department of Pharmacology of Beirut’s Saint Joseph University in 1931, wrote his thesis on fenugreek and pastırma. According to Donabedian, the benefits of fenugreek are many, including increasing immunity in winter, greatly reducing blood sugar and cholesterol, and boosting iron levels in those with anaemia, and of milk production by 900 times in lactating women. Now that's a food worth its weight.
Fenugreek is also used in the traditional folk medicine of Ethiopia for the same benefits Donabedian lists, as it has been among Armenians since antiquity. For example, some of Bezjian's mother’s friends would grind fenugreek seeds, store it in small jars, and eat a spoonful daily with the belief that it increases resistance to wintertime viruses and microbes. When those around them complained about the smell, they would say, ‘Our people are united in remembering genocides, King Tigran the Great, Christian holidays, and in our food and all its smells.’ Fenugreek seeds are also among the various ingredients used to make muron – the holy anointing oil used in the Armenian Church.
Greek or Turkish?
There are many different theories about the origin of the word variously spelled pastourma, pasturma, basturma and pastırma. Some claim it comes from Turkish, since the Cappadocian Armenian and Greek populations had for centuries spoken Turkish. Others theorise that it is derived from the Greek word pasto, which means salted or salt-cured. The Armenian word abukhd most likely comes from the Greek apokti, meaning salt-cured meat, which itself has its origins in the Byzantine-era salt-cured goat meat called apoktin. Old Armenian dictionaries cite the word abukhd in Middle Persian Pahlavi texts on Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, which would attest that the word greatly precedes the arrival of Turkish in the region. The Turkish form of the word, pastırma, became the more widely used variant following the eradication of the Eastern Roman Empire with the fall of Constantinople and Ottoman rule over Asia Minor.
According to studies on the subject, the production of pastırma has largely been an Armenian profession since antiquity. The local Greeks and later Turks in Kayseri also made and ate pastırma at home, but its manufacture and trade was mainly done by Armenians. Today, pastırma can be found around the world, and whether in Sydney, Beirut, Los Angeles, Tehran, Athens, Aleppo, Moscow, Cairo, Sofia, Montevideo or Buenos Aires, and the best and most well-known pastırma makers are Armenian.
The Kourounlians, Batanians, and Avakians are three Armenian families in Greece, more specifically in the Dourgouti (Fix) and Kokkinia neighbourhoods of Athens and Piraeus, renowned for the pastırma they make and sell along with dry, spicy, and fermented sausage sujuk and the roasted meat called kavurma. We visited their shops to listen to the stories of these three families, each of whom suffered from the violence that ravaged Asia Minor between 1915 and 1922 and set off on different paths.
‘When my father moved to Kayseri he had sisters there and he was already married. He didn’t have a profession. … At one stage, he made and sold sausage [sujuk] and pastrami [pastırma]. Eventually, he started to trade garlic with factories and businesses producing sausage and pastrami, and he stayed in that job for the rest of his life. In Kayseri, many Armenians both produce and sell sausage. We’d produce everything ourselves in Kayseri. In that sense the habit of spending less, which had its origin in our life in the village, has continued.’
A secret recipe from Gürün
The story of Miran, perhaps the best-known sujuk and pastırma shop in Athens, begins with Miran Kourounlian's (Gürünlüyan in Turkish) personal curiosity, enthusiasm, and skill.
Miran was born in the Gürün region between Kayseri and Sivas. After surviving the 1915 Genocide, he first went to Istanbul, from there to the island of Chios, then on to the port town of Piraeus and finally settled in the neighbourhood of Palea Kokkinia in Athens. Once there, he began doing what he knew best – producing pastırma and sujuk – and soon started to sell his wares in his tiny, three-square-meter shop on Evripidou Street in the commercial centre of Athens. He slowly built a name for himself there, expanded his customer base and, in 1950, developed the small, family business to include a factory that would set an example for those who would follow him. Miran's son, Bendros, took over the business a few years later, expanded and modernised the sujuk and pastırma factory with an entrepreneurial vision and extended his distribution network across Greece. The craft continued to be handed down from generation to generation, eventually being passed to Bendros' sons Miran and Krikor as the next heirs of the tradition in the 1990s. With perseverance, determination, and hard work, the two brothers expanded the first shop on Evripidou Street, opened a branch in Piraeus and established an export network across Europe, all while managing to preserve the traditional manufacturing and processing methods used by their father and grandfather.
Miran Kourounlian’s secret recipe has been used unchanged by his descendants for a century, ever since he established his first, modest factory.
Two Arams and two Kaspars over three generation
The Batanians, who had been engaged in pastırma production and trade for generations, were one of the wealthiest and most well-known families in Kayseri prior to 1915. Those in the family who survived the massacres left behind their great wealth and fled to Greece in 1922. There they lived for months with other refugees under a bridge in the Palaio Faliro neighbourhood of Piraeus. The family’s younger sons, Aram and Kaspar, would walk to central Piraeus every day where they would work menial jobs. They would always stop in front of the butcher shop on their way, look at the meat in the window, and think about which cut would be the best to make pastırma even though they didn't have enough money to buy meat. The butcher took notice, and, somehow sensing that these two young men understood meat, struck up a conversation with them. The two brothers explained their story and how they had made pastırma back in their hometown, whereupon the butcher selected a large rump cut and gave it to them, telling them they seemed like good kids and wishing them good luck. This gesture of kindness is the beginning of what was to become a long story. Aram and Kaspar restarted their forefathers' pastırma business, producing it in a small shed before building a factory on the terrace of their house in the Kokkinia neighbourhood. They began to sell the pastırma, sujuk, and kavurma they produced using traditional methods in the shop they opened in the old market in Piraeus in 1946.
Years passed, they both got married and had children.
Kaspar Batanian's son, Gargis-Garabed, opened a shop together with Ioannis Apostolou, also from Caesarea, on Tsamadou Street in Piraeus when the old market was demolished in 1967. Around this time, he married Makruhi Harutyunian, with whom he had two sons. Named after their grandfather Kaspar and great uncle Aram, these two brothers were the third generation of Batanians in Greece. They took over their father's business and moved the factory to the Athenian suburb of Koropi. In 1980, they opened a large store under the name AR-KAS – a combination of both their names – on Gripari Street at the market in the centre of Kallithea just south of Athens. The fourth generation then expanded the company's retail sales with two new branches in Athens and Marousi in 2010. With a reputation far exceeding the borders of Greece, AR-KAS products have been exported to many European countries ever since 1978.
‘Our grandfather had a characteristic, an interesting one. He used to gather all the cousins, seven or eight boys, in one house … [and] he used to bring perfect pastrami [pastırma]. So perfect that when you cut it, its inner part would be bright red. He’d cut it so thin. … He used to gather us around a big dinner table. He’d stand with pastrami three or four meters behind the table and chop off slices in one stroke. Those slices would land on the table for whoever took them. He’d slice them in this manner until the pastrami was done and we’d compete with each other to get the slices. He used to do this every season.’
The shop of the Avakians, 'Yorgos', which has been serving since 1980 in the Politos Passage in Piraeus (1990s) || Photo: Erevnidis, p. 45.
‘Tradition’ is the secret
The elder Aram Batanian's daughter, Marika, married Sarkis Avakian who, like herself, came from a family in the pastırma business. Together they continued the family tradition, moving their shop Yorgos to the Stoa Politou when the old market was demolished in 1967. They then passed on the business to their son Aram in 1980. Aram Avakian took the small family business and developed it to include a modern factory in the north-western Athenian suburb of Acharnes, where he continued to uncompromisingly use the traditional method of air-dried maturation. In addition to pastırma and sujuk, the factory also produces veal and pork kavurma, veal and traditional pork sausages, pastırma pies, sujuk pies, lahmacun (flatbread topped with minced meat and vegetables) and kababs. The famous shop in the Stoa Politou has now been serving the residents of Piraeus and pastırma lovers from elsewhere for almost fifty years.
Having continued the production and sale of this much-loved food brought by his ancestors who were forced from their Anatolian homeland a century ago, Aram Avakian asserts, ‘Our success is based on the excellent raw materials and the method of production we use, in addition to the kindness and respect we show towards our consumers, who choose and trust us all these years.’
Translation by Peter Klempner
- Nigol Bezjian, ‘Travels with Basturma’, Armenian Weekly, 17 August 2009, https://armenianweekly.com/2009/08/17/bezjian-travels-with-basturma/ (last accessed 19 March 2022).
- Yaya (Arm.): Grandmother.
- The quotations are from the fifth volume of the ‘Sounds of Silence’ series of Hrant Dink Foundation’s The Oral History Project; see İclal Ayşe Küçükkırca, ed., Sounds of Silence V: Kayseri’s Armenians Speak, trans. Arda Çiltepe (Istanbul: Hrant Dink Vakfı Yayınları, 2018), 52.
- H. M. Donabedian, ‘Recherches sur la valeur energétique du basterma dans l’alimentation arménienne’ [Study of the energy value of basterma in the Armenian diet], unpublished thesis (Beirut: Saint Joseph University Department of Pharmacology, 1962).
- Bezjian, ibid.
- Pavlos Erevnidis, Ο Παστουρμάς[Pastırma] (Athens: Stahi Publishing, 2000).
- İclal Ayşe Küçükkırca, ed., Sounds of Silence V: Kayseri’s Armenians Speak, trans. Arda Çiltepe (Istanbul: Hrant Dink Vakfı Yayınları, 2018), 38.
- İclal Ayşe Küçükkırca, ed., Sounds of Silence V: Kayseri’s Armenians Speak, trans. Arda Çiltepe (Istanbul: Hrant Dink Vakfı Yayınları, 2018), 23.