Lahmacun Is Turkey’s Answer to Thin and Crispy Pizza

Despite being a staple of Turkish cuisine, few of London kebab shops choose to advertise lahmacun, a flatbread smeared with minced lamb, tomatoes, Aleppo pepper, onions, and parsley.

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Apr 21 2015, 3:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Garrett Ziegler

My love affair with the lahmacun started at the school gates. Every day, I would climb through the hole in the school fence to buy a score's worth at the local kebab shop. Armed with bulging plastic bags of supplies, we would then scramble back into the playground where the wraps would be dutifully distributed for a 50p mark-up.

Forbidden from leaving school for lunch and disillusioned with insipid school dinners, the black market for contraband lunches became a big thing. As well as being a nice little earner for those who were plucky enough to scale the school gates, it totally diversified the available lunch options.

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While other kids opted for the yellow "Hot & Tasty" boxes of chicken wings and soggy, oil-logged chips, I always went for lahmacun. Cheaper, tastier, and more compact, they were the perfect snack to smuggle. And so the lahmacun empire grew.

To the untrained eye, the lahmacun might look like little more than a Turkish pizza, but to those who know, it is the ultimate street food—a thin, round flatbread is smeared with a quietly fiery mix of minced lamb, finely diced tomatoes, Aleppo pepper, onions, and parsley.

After this, it is baked in a glowing hot stone oven and served with a salad of crunchy red cabbage, pickled chillies, and a spritz of lemon juice. For the price of anywhere between £1.50 and £2.50, it's hard to go wrong.

Hussein Aktas, the owner of Mangal Pide & Lahmacun Solonu, learned to make lahmacun before his voice broke. Growing up in Turkey, lahmacun was ubiquitous and here in Dalston—his home of 20 years—it has also become popular. Unable to speak English, Aktas managed to rope his friend from the Turkish Tourist Agency next door into being our impromptu translator.

To the untrained eye, the lahmacun might look like little more than a Turkish pizza, but to those who know, it is the ultimate street food.

"We make and sell 500 lahmacun a day here. It's very popular. People come in especially to buy it," Aktas proudly explains. "It's a very simple and traditional dish. We just roll out the dough and rub the tomato, minced lamb, onion, parsley, sumac, and chilli on top. The secret is in getting the balance between the different ingredients perfect. After this, we bake it in a big stone oven with a wood fire for roughly six minutes. Just like a pizza."

Served with an ample plate of Turkish salad, white radish, pickled chillies, and a heap of crunchy Aleppo pepper flakes, the lahmacun can appease even the worst case of hanger.

"But it must be eaten with ayran," Aktas warns. For the unenlightened, ayran is a chilled yogurt drink mixed with salt. Considered the national drink throughout Turkey (it's even served in McDonald's and Burger King), ayran is the traditional lahmacun accompaniment. Without it, lahmacun feels incomplete. But what makes Aktas' lahmacun a cut above the rest?

"We only use lamb shoulder," he explains. "That's our secret ingredient and that's why our lahmacun is the best in London."

Since opening the family business in 1997, trade at Mangal Solonu has consistently boomed.

"It's always busy in here," says Aktas. "We see the same faces every day."

Today is no exception. Gasps of cold air pierce the warmth as a steady flow of punters stride in and out. While most opt for a takeaway lahmacun, others leisurely chow one down over the course of an hour. Despite being a favourite haunt among lahmacun lovers, I am generally always the only non-Turkish patron in sight. Mangal Solonu might be nestled between Dalston Superstore and Birthdays but inside you could (almost) be in Istanbul.

While lahmacun is by no means the only thing on their menu (you can also get chicken, lamb or bean soups, pide, lamb's liver, and rice pudding) it is clearly the main attraction. As chefs knead dough to life, dozens of freshly-fired crisp creations line the deep stone oven. A young chef brandishes his lahmacuns on a wooden paddle; whistling all the while.

It's a very simple and traditional dish. We just roll out the dough and rub the tomato, minced lamb, onion, parsley, sumac, and chilli on top. The secret is in getting the balance between the different ingredients perfect.

"It's one of those dishes where so much is created with so few things," says one customer with shiny, conker-like eyes. "I come here at least four times a week. Come back and you'll see me again." He flashes a wink.

Mangal Solonu is one of a handful of specialist lahmacun restaurants in London. And while the lahmacun might be the centerpiece here, in the vast majority of London kebab shops, it's not even printed on the menu.

Despite being a staple, lots of establishments choose not to advertise it. Unlike say, doner kebabs or quarter pounders, you won't see the lahmacun touted in big block letters. When I ask the chef at my local kebab shop why this is case, he says: "Everyone knows we serve it so what's the point in advertising it?"

But does everyone know? I'm not so sure whether this is the case among non-Turkish customers. Since leaving the lahmacun hustle from school days behind, I've always been surprised at how few people have heard of this unsung hero. In turn, the lahmacun ceases to get the recognition it deserves.

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If we trace it far back enough, we can see the lahmacun originates from the early Levantine cuisine of the Syrians. Nevertheless, its exact roots continue to be fiercely debated amongst Greeks and Turks, adding yet another dish to the long-running culinary battle. While Aktas tells me that the lahmacun originates from all over Turkey, his Greek Cypriot or Kurdish neighbours no doubt disagree.

Despite debates over cultural ownership, variations of the lahmacun are eaten across the Middle East. Throughout Turkey, Greece, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Jordan, it is a widely sought-after snack.

In London it is also widely available—especially in the North and the East—but less widely eaten because many of us don't know it's there. As someone who eats lahmacun for breakfast, lunch, or dinner on a weekly basis, this has always struck me as somewhat puzzling.

From subsidising pocket money to lining stomachs, curing hangovers, and soothing breakups, this no-frills meal has remained a constant for me.