Lahmacun is a traditional snack found across large swathes of the Middle East. It belongs to the family of topped Mediterranean flatbreads that also includes Provençal pissaladière, Catalonian coca, Lebanese man'ousheh, and Italian pizza and focaccia.
ONE OF THE inevitable consequences of having married a German and lived for several years in the country is that I’m frequently asked for tips on what a visitor there should eat. Most people probably expect me to rattle off a list heavy on the currywurst, sauerkraut and stollen, but I figure they can sniff out the classics without my help. Instead, I give them some rather unorthodox advice: Eat Turkish food.
Turkish is without doubt the most widely available foreign cuisine on German soil, a legacy of the millions of gastarbeiter (guest workers) who were drafted in to help with the postwar rebuilding effort and then stayed. Like Mexican food in the U.S., though, Turkish food in Germany has subtly adapted to local tastes, and, over the years, has morphed into its own unique cuisine. That is to say, it’s not exactly what you’d find in the homeland, but it has an appeal all its own.
For one thing, it offers a welcome jolt of fresh, spicy and pungent in a country still very much worshipping at the meat-and-potato altar. Even better, it’s available everywhere and is almost universally cheap. Although fancier, sit-down Turkish restaurants do exist, the majority of places that serve up Turkish delights belong to the category of imbisse, or snack stalls. These hole-in-the-wall places are part of the fabric of every German city and offer an assortment of sandwiches, salads and plated meals that range from good to really great.
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The most famous of these offerings is döner kebab, the hulking vertical spit of spiced lamb or beef that rotates in front of a grill and is sliced off to order. Falafel is popular, too, piled onto pita with creamy sauces, salad and pickles. What I always steer newcomers to, though, is something called lahmacun (la-ma-joon), aka Turkish pizza.
If this sounds like some kind of Turkish-German-Italian hybrid, think again. Lahmacun is a traditional snack found across large swathes of the Middle East. In fact, it belongs to the family of topped Mediterranean flatbreads that also includes Provençal pissaladière, Catalonian coca, Lebanese man’ousheh, and Italian pizza and focaccia. Unlike some of these cousins, though, lahmacun denotes a very specific dish.
There are, of course, variations, but the basic recipe for lahmacun is this: a thin, chewy crust topped with a paste-like mixture of ground meat (usually lamb, but sometimes beef), chopped onion, tomato, parsley and spices. Aleppo pepper flakes give the topping a gentle bite, while a drizzle of pomegranate molasses imbues it with an earthy sweetness.
But the real genius is what happens to the lahmacun after it comes out of the oven. In Turkey it’s eaten plain, perhaps with a squeeze of lemon and sprinkle of parsley. In Germany, on the other hand, lahmacun is used as the wrapper for a substantial sandwich filled with fresh and pickled vegetables, nuggets of salty feta and a smear of pungent garlic-laced yogurt. Rolled up and eaten out of hand, the contrasts between hot and cold, spicy, sour and fresh are explosive.
As straightforward as it sounds, I experienced considerable frustration trying to create a homemade lahmacun that could stand up to its imbiss counterparts. The problem was the crust; I just couldn’t get the ultrathin yet stretchy texture required to hold in all those tasty toppings. Then one day while eating one of those “gourmet wraps” that are ubiquitous these days I had an epiphany. What if, instead of trying to replicate a crust from scratch, I simply substituted a flour tortilla?
It was genius, if I do say so myself. The tortilla absorbs enough moisture from the meat while baking to stay soft and pliable, and doesn’t crack or fall apart while wrapping, even when loaded with everything but the kitchen sink. It’s super quick to make and certainly far healthier than the fast-food version. Best of all, this dish is every bit as delicious as the original.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food writer and photographer.
1 pound ground lamb or beef
4 medium tomatoes, diced
1 large yellow onion, minced
½ bunch flat-leaf parsley, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 ½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon crushed Aleppo pepper or other medium-hot chili flakes, or to taste
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground allspice
8 medium (8-inch) flour tortillas
Any or all of the following to finish: sliced fresh tomatoes, cucumber and red onion, fresh or pickled peppers, feta cheese, sprigs of flat-leaf parsley or cilantro, lemon wedges and Greek yogurt
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Knead together the meat with the tomatoes, onion, parsley, olive oil, tomato paste, molasses, salt, pepper flakes, pepper and allspice until well-combined. Divide into eight equal portions and spread one portion evenly on each of the tortillas, covering the entire surface and going all the way to the edges.
Grease two baking sheets and position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Place two tortillas on each baking sheet and bake, exchanging the sheets’ position halfway through, for 15 to 18 minutes, until the topping is browned and sizzling. Stack the baked lahmacuns on a plate and cover with foil to keep warm (this will also help the tortillas soften again if they’ve crisped up in the oven). Repeat with the remaining four tortillas.
2. Lay a few slices of vegetables and feta, as well as an herb sprig or two, down the center of each lahmacun. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and/or a dollop of yogurt and roll up like a burrito. Serve warm or hot.