Charcuterie Without Borders

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 soujoukis 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.

Sure, somewhere in Bulgaria, someone was probably doing the very same thing, hanging sudzhukfrom the north-facing eaves of a workshop. But in southern Turkey and northern Syria, kitchens were falling in on the cooks. On the one hand, I could be oddly cavalier about all of this, since so many recipes for soujouk and basterma exist that I couldn’t possibly ace their preparation. But on the other hand, for some, the color, smell, and taste of these sausages means the safety of home. And in the midst of war, how are such comforts salvaged? Is the re-creation of another culture’s indigenous flavors a worthwhile way to deepen my understanding of the humanity in us all?

With new respect, I read the most authoritative record I could find. The Official Journal of the European Union specifies a standard of identity for Bulgarian Gornooryahavski Sudzhuk, describing it as a lean beef sausage, minced with up to 30 percent fat, and spiced with black pepper, cumin, and savory. After stuffing the spiced meat into beef intestines, the sausages ferment for two days, and dry for 10 to 20 days. They’re compacted twice during the drying phase, to produce slightly flattened sausages. This version ofsudzhuk originates from the area surrounding Gorna Oryahovitsa, Bulgaria, a low and hilly area situated roughly 650 feet above sea level. The region has a mean annual temperature of 53 degrees Fahrenheit and an average relative humidity of 71 percent. These parameters favor the curing of meats, the only modification required being the application of heat for fermentation. The oldest traditions call for piling the sausages under rugs to achieve the necessary temperature of 72 to 77 degrees, with a humidity of 85 to 100 percent. After 48 hours under rugs, the sausages hang from the northern sides of workshops, and are compacted twice during their drying phase with wooden boards impregnated with native white mold strains of Aspergillus and Penicillium. These molds colonize the surface of the sausage as it ages, both for flavoring and to protect the final product from growing other less-favorable molds.

Basterma is covered in a flavorful paste, which also prevents pathenogenic bacterial growth.

Whole-Muscle Basterma

On the other hand, recipes forbasterma have been more widely standardized. A whole muscle, such as a loin, or a center-cut round of beef, horse, or mutton is covered in salt, sugar, and curing salts, and then “cold-pressed” under a weight as the meat cures for roughly one day per pound. Then, the meat is rinsed and “hot-pressed,” or fermented under a weight for about a half day per pound. Records show the Huns placed basterma in their saddle pockets and hot-pressed the the cuts of meat with their legs as they traveled on horseback. After it’s hot-pressed, the meat is rubbed all over in a generous layer of thick paste, called cemen, made of smashed garlic, flour, fenugreek, red pepper or paprika, and water before the basterma is hung to dry. As the product dehydrates, the cemen paste hardens into a layer of flavor, and creates a protective casing for the rather lean cut of meat underneath. Studies have shown that the cemen inhibits the growth of pathogenic bacteria.

Without a year of studying abroad, there’s no way I could’ve perfected my understanding of these meats, but the more recipes I read, I found myself more thoroughly enchanted with soujouk and basterma than possibly any other traditions I’ve studied to date. As I carefully mixed spices, and went through the slow motions of hanging, pressing, and hanging some more, I also mused about the good fortune and security that the world’s most beautiful foods requirethe time and intention that only an undistracted mind and unworried heart can give. I often fearfully approach the delicate enterprise of re-creating the mesmerizing foods developed by various cultures. But creating the foods of another culture can also be approached as an act of awareness and remembrance of the humanity we all share. As I fashioned sausages of someone else’s home place, there were people losing their homespeople who may have longed for a bite of what I was making, not solely for the taste, but also for comfort and solace. The unending variations of soujoukand basterma surely signify that these culturally important foods won’t ever truly die. And, although some food lovers may be able to distance themselves from the turmoil and fear of this world, they won’t be able to deny the humanity and richness of other cultures through the allure of their foods’ processes and flavors. In this way, we might find connections that transcend politics, war, geography, and time.

Soujouk and Basterma Recipes:

Over the past 17 years, Meredith Leigh has worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, nonprofit executive director, and writer, all in pursuit of good food. Meredith works part time for Living Web Farms, where she travels extensively teaching charcuterie and food production and processing. For more information, visit Meredith’s blog!

Published on Feb 11, 2020


Inspiration for edible alchemy.