Charcuterie Without Borders

Despite cultural variations, the classic, familiar spices of soujouk and basterma sausages defy the limitations of place and politics, uniting humanity through flavor.

Sucuk fully ferments in eight days, and should be cooked before eating.

Flashback to last October, and I’m sitting in the quiet clutter of my office, trying to settle on a recipe for soujouk, one of the most time-honored sausages of the Old World. My notes are everywhere. The Bulgarian version is scattered among to-do lists in my notebook. On the back of an envelope, heavily edited and smeared with paprika, lies the Turkish recipe. Somewhere in an email hides the traditional Croatian method. Meanwhile, I wait for the Lebanese version via text message from a chef who can relay it to me by memory.

These are just a few of the meandering paths of sausage-making tradition I’ve eagerly explored, not to mention a dozen other renditions from countries I haven’t even approached yet. Soujouk reigns supreme across the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Balkans as one of the most popular cured meats, alongside the classic whole-muscle charcuterie known as basterma (also spelled “basturma”) or pastirma. These cured meat specialties have gone through countless iterations across cultural landscapes, and, as such, probably deserve an entire book to pay homage to each translation and custom.

Cultural variants abound when it comes to soujouk’s multiple spellings and pronunciations, the various ground meats used, the spices favored, and the relative leanness of the sausage. It goes by suxhuk in Kosovo, sujux in Armenia, and sudjuk in Croatia. In some regions, artisans combine lamb or mutton with beef; sometimes lamb alone is used. Central Asian cultures prefer horse meat. Turkish sucuk can be completely lean meat, with no fat added. The spectrum of spices used to make soujouk is dizzying. The sausage is anchored across cultures with its signature spices of cumin, red pepper, black pepper, paprika, and Aleppo pepper. From there, where a Bulgarian sausage-maker might enlist savory, an Armenian could substitute fenugreek, topping the flavor off with arak and mustard. A Lebanese version might include nutmeg. Sumac adds the extra “oomph” in a Turkish sucuk. My friend and fellow sausage-maker, Phoebe, found recipes that included dried rose petals, an idea that had me swooning long before I put the grinder together and thoroughly rinsed the casings.

Sudzuk Sausages must ferment for a little over two months, until about half of their wight has been lost before they're safe to eat.

Re-creating Flavor

I crafted a Bulgarian sudzhuk, a Turkish sucuk, and an Armenian basterma while I listened to stories of unrest in northern Syria along the Turkish border. Leaving the fragrant meat to rest a moment, I calculated spice ratios, and scrolled through photographs of patrons in Turkish cafés; a family’s kitchen that was decimated by a mortar shell; and a young girl asleep in a hospital bed hugging a stuffed doll. I found myself thinking, “What am I doing, trying to piece together the correct smell and flavor of a place that doesn’t belong to me?” I pondered what it meant to make this sausage, when the people to whom it belongs live as far away as humanly possible from the feelings of peace and nonchalance with which I strung the sausages, link after link, onto a round dowel.



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