BEIRUT: Hasan effortlessly slides four circles of dough topped with ground beef off his steel paddle and into a long gas oven. Minutes later his paddle cuts through the air, spinning the pies and pulling them out transformed. With a flick of his wrists he places four steaming crispy lahm bi ajeen on the table next to him.
Hasan, thin with salt-and-pepper hair, points down to long planks laden with lahm bi ajeen, a savory pie topped with ground meat mixed with peppers and spices and sold around the country in up to a dozen variations. “They eat them like this in Nabatieh, like this is southern” says Hasan, the owner of a bakery in Beirut’s neighborhood of Bashoura.
On the next plank lies Beirut-style lahm bi ajeen, where the dough is topped with a lighter-colored ground meat that isn’t mixed with as many peppers and spices. The Tripoli style, on the other hand, is a smaller but thicker pie and the meat mixture is tangy thanks to pomegranate molasses.
At the back table one of Hasan’s workers is preparing Baalbek-style lahm bi ajeen known as sfiha. While a small ball of dough is typically stretched half a foot or more for the pie, it is instead spread just a few inches to make sfiha.
Sfiha uses a fattier mix of meat, which is supplied by the butcher adjacent to Hasan’s bakery. A small ball of the meat is then placed in the center of the thick dough. The dough’s sides are pulled up and pinched in around the meat to make a tart that is painted with oil before baking.
Men like Hasan wielding a long paddle as if it were an extension of their arms are at the heart of one of the most popular dishes in the country.
Lahm bi ajeen is usually served for breakfast but Lebanese eat them at all times of the day.
The small bakeries, which are equipped with ovens specifically used for baking crusts for lahm bi ajeen and manakeesh, dot the neighborhoods in every city and town across Lebanon.
Regional varieties of pies and tarts are so popular that they can be found nearly everywhere. Bakers use a combination of ground beef or lamb, mixed with a number of ingredients – onion, garlic, parsley, tomato, cumin, paprika, pomegranate molasses and hot peppers – depending on the region’s specialty. Orders come by the kilo and a small shop like Hasan’s can make between 1,000 and 2,000 pies a day.
A few kilometers north of Hasan’s shop, a small side-street door opens into a large room at the Ichkhanian Bakery where wide tables are covered with steaming meat pies. The bakery is home to an exceptionally long brick oven that every few minutes can churn out a dozen meat pies.
The Armenian meat pie is one the most popular versions of the dish. The meat is also mixed with spices, common for Armenian cuisine, and topped with a spritz of lemon. Buckets of spices to mix the meat with line a wall, and a mountain of flour sits on one table where a baker dunks ball after ball of dough and spreads it thin with a rolling pin.
Koharig Ichkhanian fills a ledger with an endless number of orders for 50-60 pies at a time. Her lahm bi ajeen is still made with a recipe from her mother, who opened up the shop in Zoqaq al-Blat in 1946 back when the area was a major Armenian neighborhood. The area may have changed but Ichkhanian’s recipe still proves popular.
“Everything is put together freshly,” she says as she watches over the bakers who fold the steaming pies with a muffled crunch before stacking them for delivery.
Preferences for how best to serve up the dish are as varied as the range of lahm bi ajeen.
People tend to seek out the bakery that best suits their taste and then wait in long lines once they find it.
Mohammad Ibrahim, a customer, says it’s important that the lahm bi ajeen isn’t too dry. “But not too much water,” he adds, grabbing a handful of the fresh pies and passing them to friends and strangers on the street with a smile.