For some it is the smoky strips of blood-red basterma hanging in glass windows in Bourj Hammoud and filling the air with leathery, spicy scents, while others have a weakness for muhammara, rich with walnuts and pepper paste. More still grow misty-eyed at the thought of kafta, drenched in wild cherry sauce and strewn with cashew nuts and fried bread.
Most Beirutis with more than a passing interest in what goes on their plate will be able to name a favorite Armenian dish. But although people of Armenian origin have been in Lebanon for centuries, it’s only in the last few years that they have been drawing attention to themselves as restauranteurs.
The bulk of the Armenian diaspora in Lebanon are descendants of families from Cilicia, a region south of the Anatolian plateau, today in eastern Turkey and northern Syria. During the First World War, the Ottoman Turks pursued a campaign of ethnic cleansing that left some 1.5 million Armenians dead and drove tens of thousands into exile in the Levant; the survivors today in Lebanon are a 150,000-strong community known as much for their commercial industry as for their traumatic history. But if there is one way to pique interest in a people, it’s through food.
Aline Kamakian — co-author of the recent cookbook “Armenian Cuisine” and member of the family behind Mayrig restaurant — says that in her youth, going out to eat Armenian dishes would not have occurred to her. “It was everyday food. Traditionally, it’s always been Armenian mothers who cook.” But as second-generation families loosen up and intermarry, women have more time and independence.
Restaurants with an Armenian twist are therefore thriving on the skills of mothers who have time to spare — the kitchens at Mayrig and Seza are staffed by local women, not chefs — and who fill a need for labor-intensive traditional dishes. Madame Seza, who opened her restaurant a year ago, still idolizes the cuisine of her mother, who “did everything at home, and so well, to perfection.” Now, it is her children who have been re-enthused about the cooking of their forebears through the restaurant. “Before they asked for burgers, now they ask for manteh,” she says.
This flourishing of the cuisine in the public domain is also helping connect Armenians with their homeland and educate outsiders about Armenians and their history. As “Armenian Cuisine” demonstrates, with the recipes come memories, and many dishes — hummus with basterma here, pastries from Latakia there — are expressions of long geographical dislocation.
Rich variety and demand support flourishing restaurants across Beirut. There’s a familial welcome and bistro atmosphere at Onno in Bourj Hammoud, boutique design and ladies in lace headscarves at Seza in Mar Mikhael and seu beureg with a side of jazz at Razz’zz in Hamra. Now two of the more long-standing (and pricey) outfits — Mayrig and Al Mayass — are expanding, taking Cilicia’s heritage global. Kamakian is plotting a central kitchen in Europe that will be able to supply branches in Paris and beyond with food as skillfully produced as it is at Mayrig in Beirut, where “everything is handmade, mum’s doing it.” Al Mayass has had a branch in Kuwait since 2008, and is introducing four more outlets in the UAE and New York next year.
And so the cuisine of Cilicia, which tells the story of a country lost and countries gained through smoky meats and spices, is taking on new commercial and cultural significance. “When you’re eating the food and someone is telling you this is Armenian but the name is in Turkish,” says Kamakian, “the first question is, ‘Why? What happened?’ You’re opening a door for a million people to smell, taste, listen to what is Armenia. You’re moving all the senses through a simple dish.”