As a number of Armenian restaurants open in the emirate, we take a closer look
Despite Dubai’s thriving restaurant scene representing all manner of international and regional culinary delights, from Himalayan momo dumplings to Uzbekistani noodles, even considering the large number of Armenian expats in the Emirates, the food from this particular country has had scant representation. But this year has seen the launch of Mayrig Armenian restaurant on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, in addition to Zaytoun Lebanese-Armenian restaurant, a stone’s throw away in The Dubai Mall. There is even the Armenian-owned caviar house Petrossian, barely a door down from Zaytoun. Does this mark a new era for Armenian cuisine in Dubai and could we be witnessing the birth of the latest regional food trend to hit here?
First launched in Beirut in 2003, ten years later, Dubai welcomes the second Mayrig restaurant, owned by cousins Aline Kamakian and Serge Maacaron. While the restaurant was originally born out of the cousins’ shared passion for cooking and their native food, heritage has had no small part in bringing the Mayrig concept together. Mayrig, literally meaning ‘little mother’ (an Armenian term used for grandmother), honours their mutual grandmother Manouchag, using her recipes to create the menu, while her portrait graces the walls of the restaurant here in Dubai.
‘The Armenian mama,’ Serge jokes, ‘is a thousand times worse than the Italian mama. She lives for her children and for her kitchen. She cooks with her soul and her heart and the most important thing is to feed her kids’. Aline adds: ‘During lunch, she will ask you what you want for dinner.’ Aline and Serge recount how each Sunday, as many as 25 members of the family would gather at their grandmother’s house for food as a ‘ritual’. The restaurants (both in Beirut and Dubai) have in fact been designed to replicate the feel of this house, complete with painted tiles, which although Lebanese in style, fit with their memories of Manouchag’s home in Ayn Mreisseh, Lebanon.
The Armenian scattered population, Aline and Serge say, share the Mediterranean instinct that gathering around a dinner table sharing food is often how Armenians show love and hospitality. ‘I think also, because they left their homeland, it is unconscious in the mind to keep this culture alive; remembering how their grandmother used to make certain dishes and meeting up to enjoy the food. The only thing that remained is their food and language,’ Serge argues.
While other communities subjected to similar transitory tragedy have sadly lost touch of their culture, the link between mother passing on these culinary traditions has been lost. Aline goes on to explain that their grandmother ended up in an orphanage in Cyprus, yet efforts were still made to teach the children housed there the principles of Armenian cooking and traditional crafts, so that she and other Armenians like her kept their cultural knowledge alive.
Fittingly then, Serge explains that the reason for expanding Mayrig was ‘to export our culture and to let people know about the Armenian diaspora’. Since both deemed Dubai ‘the hub of the Middle East’ it seemed a good place to start: ‘There’s a huge Armenian community here,’ Serge says, as Aline adds: ‘There are no Armenian restaurants, we’re the first.’
Keeping the ‘Mayrig’ spirit truly alive and kicking, the restaurant operates uniquely with a kitchen full of ‘Armenian mamas or housewives’ as Serge dubs them, instead of professional chefs, who have been trained in executing Manouchag’s recipes: ‘That’s how you get the different flavour in the food,’ Serge says, adding that this is also a way of creating jobs and being able to better support their community.
Aline and Serge are keen to emphasise that their food is the cuisine of the Armenian diaspora, ‘Mediterranean Armenian’ as they term it, rather than the food you might find in the Armenian capital Yerevan. ‘The culture is different, the dialect is different, the food is much heavier and more meat-based,’ they echo.
While the Armenian food represented at Mayrig shares many similarities with Lebanese and Mediterranean cooking, it is a cuisine that has developed and refined, they explain. ‘The nice thing about our cuisine is it has been a bit “twisted”. We like more spices, more flavours, more aromas. The ingredients are typically the same as Lebanese, and it is served in the mezze style, the same as Lebanese. The good thing about the Armenian cuisine of the diaspora is that it adapted wherever it travelled.’ Mayrig, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai (04 453 9945). View Dishes to try