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Armenian cuisine at Saudi Arabia’s Lusin restaurant eclipses the competition

In an elaborate process, a pumpkin is stuffed with rice, meat, herbs and nuts and baked in a tanour for four hours. (Photo supplied)
Lusin's kibbeh are delicious and unique.
Chargrilled eggplant slices rolled and stuffed with a cream and walnut paste.
Rose flavored ice-cream topped with cotton candy.
DAMMAM: In recent years, Turkey and Armenia have been locked in a culinary squabble over who “owns” what. UNESCO’s 2011 decision to declare keskek — a ceremonial wheat and meat porridge — an intangible cultural heritage of Turkey has angered the Armenians. They claim keskek is, in fact, their centuries-old porridge known as harissa.
When lavash, the unleavened flatbread, made it on to UNESCO’s list as an “expression of Armenian culture,” protesters in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan asserted that lavash does not originate or belong solely to Armenia. Similarly, did the lamadjo originate in Armenia, or do the Turkish make the most authentic lahmacun?
As the debate continues between Armenians and the Turks or the Azerbaijanis, one thing is for sure: Saudis cannot get enough of Armenian cuisine and its assimilation into Levantine cooking. Reputedly the first Armenian restaurant in Saudi Arabia, Lusin — with three branches in the country; Riyadh, Jeddah and now Alkhobar — bears testament to that popularity.
When owners Mira Foods Company found Saudi tourists frequenting Armenian restaurants in Jordan and Lebanon, they decided to bring Armenian fine dining to Saudi Arabia in 2009. Lusin, the Armenian word for “moon,” is a product of transporting the culture and cuisine of Armenia to Saudi Arabia.
Lusin’s restaurants can best be described as present-day Armenian, with modern elements like sleek light fixtures and a modish ambience coexisting alongside a rich heritage. The walls are tiled with the pink tuff stone found in the Yerevan region of Armenia. It is a peculiar shade of pink that is reminiscent of the Pink City, but it gives the interior the feel of an upscale restaurant.
Common in California, New York and Paris, Armenian food is now gaining traction in London and the Arab world. Typical to Armenian cuisine is the use of fresh and seasonal produce like pomegranates, apricots, prunes, apples, pears, grapes, eggplants, pumpkins, walnuts, pine nuts, herbs, and also cracked wheat, meat, and dairy products.
Developed by Armenian culinary expert and author Anahid Doniguian, the menu at Lusin is as close to Armenian heritage as you can get. To start our fine dining experience, freshly baked lavash bread was served with a creamy walnut dip. Soon after, we were given a rich pumpkin soup and crisp, fiery potatoes.
The authentic itch is a piquant red salad made with bulgur wheat, parsley and tomato sauce, which makes it a tantalizing treat for the taste buds. Departing from the usual dolma, try the yalanji grape leaves, stuffed leaves served with fermented matzoon yogurt.
Not to be missed are Lusin’s signature eggplant rolls: Chargrilled eggplant slices rolled and stuffed with a cream and walnut paste and pomegranate seeds, lending it a tangy flavor that complements the velvety texture and smoky flavor of the eggplant.
Moving on to the hot entrees, we tried the Lusin kibbeh, made of bulgur and meat and garnished with pine nuts and pomegranate molasses. The sujuc rolls — dried beef sausage baked into soft dough — are like nothing you will have tasted before.
“As Armenian winters are hard, natives are known to prepare food during the summer and store it in pots or in the cellar to survive the winter. It is said that Armenians can throw a winter wedding banquet without having to visit a supermarket,” Doniguian explains.
From the mains, we tried the house favorite, cherry kebab — spiced kebab served with a cherry puree — which makes for an interesting mix of sweet and sour flavors. However, the star of the evening was the gapama. “The traditional Armenian gapama is a wedding dish, usually presented to the newlyweds by a group of young boys and girls in a dance,” Doniguian says.
Here, in an elaborate process, a pumpkin is stuffed with rice, meat, herbs and nuts, and baked in a tanour for four hours. The result is a succulent pumpkin, sliced to reveal a hearty rice and meat dish soaked with juices from the sweet pumpkin.
For dessert, we tried the rose ice-cream topped with cotton candy and the traditional Armenian maamoul stuffed with cheese, cardamom and nuts, and doused with sugar syrup. In between sinful bites of the maamoul, we were sure to sip from shots of orange blossom tea.
Lusin promises to be a fine-dining experience, but it offers much more: Authentic Armenian food, a cultural experience and, most importantly, a glimpse of the renowned Armenian hospitality.