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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WHAT IS IT? : Tastebuds Reel From Armenia's Spicy Jerky




A friend recently tried a piece of sliced cold meat at a restaurant. It was dark, brownish purple, with a vividly pink coating. The friend was delighted at first, praising the unusually fresh, bittersweet taste, but minutes later he had to rush off to the bathroom to spit it out.


Basturma, Armenia's celebrated cured beef, is coated in a mixture of hot spices and herbs that can be too hot for unprepared palates.


Armenians know this feature of their national meat -- a full-flavored, chewy jerky -- and like to play this joke on their guests who try basturma for the first time. They call it initiation. It consists of offering the guests a thick slab of basturma with the hottest and thickest peppery layer of coating, which makes eating the meat embarrassingly hard.


A symbol of prosperity, basturma is an indispensable part of a feast table in Armenia. It is considered a delicacy, "kind of like sturgeon here," said Khaik Simonyan, an Armenian fashion designer living in Moscow, whose grandmother used to make basturma at home.


At a store or a marketplace, basturma is easily recognizable as a stiff stick that looks like a mummy's limb. It is usually served sliced paper-thin and wrapped in an Armenian flat bread, together with fresh coriander, dill, mint or opal basil. It is eaten as an appetizer. Sometimes people fry eggs with basturma.


To make basturma, narrow strips of meat from the cow's hip are rubbed with salt and clamped in a heavy wooden press. The meat is left in the press for a day or two, until all the juice drips out, and the beef is as dry as possible. Then the meat is hung to cure outside, away from the scorching Armenian sun.


A few days later, the meat is coated in a paste made from red pepper, black pepper and chaman, a Caucasian spicy herb that gives basturma its particular flavor. The meat has to be dipped into the paste several times and dried after each dipping until the layer of coating is about 5 millimeters thick.


Many cuisines, of course, have meats preserved with salt. Basturma's Russian cousin, solonina, a salt-cured beef, was the main type of beef eaten until the 1920s. One of the reasons solonina was invented in the 14th century was that the Russian Orthodox Church only allowed people to slaughter cattle at a certain time, usually in the fall. During World War II, solonina's was replaced by the imported SPAM, and after the war it virtually sunk into oblivion.


But solonina can still be found at some Russian restaurants. Some traditional dishes are still unthinkable without solonina, with its burgundy color and particular taste -- such as various meat solyanki soups, or a snack that is made from boiled solonina, which is cooled, sliced and served with grated horseradish.


If you are puzzled over certain food items found in Russia, please e-mail Julia Solovyova at solovyova@imedia.ru.