Discovering a lost cuisine

Manti at Mayrig restaurant in Beirut. (Arab News)
Updated 26 September 2018
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Discovering a lost cuisine

  • Armenian restaurant Mayrig is tucked away in the outskirts of Gemmayze, Beirut
  • Armenian cuisine has been described as a lost cuisine, but Mayrig proves otherwise

BEIRUT: Tucked away in the outskirts of Gemmayze, Armenian restaurant Mayrig might have been difficult to spot if not for the busy valet service. The setting, an old stone house with a garden-style walk-through, lined with plants of all sorts, indicates an effort to create a cozy, home-like atmosphere in a bustling location.
This ambience is reflected inside and out. The interior is designed like any traditional Levantine home, with oriental carpets, patterned-tile floors and stone-wall interiors. Black-and-white portraits of the owner’s ancestors line the walls, creating a warm and welcoming experience of a kind you might expect at a grandmother’s home. Our host, George, played a major part in making us feel welcome and at home with a few jokes and words of wisdom between every course.
We were sampling a degustation menu, which began with a huge selection of salads and appetizers. One of the most popular was the famous eetch, a tangy and spicy salad made with cooked bulgur and tomato paste, lightly topped with parsley. It is similar in some ways to the Lebanese tabbouleh, yet very different in taste and consistency. 
Perhaps the overall favorite appetizer was the printzov keufteh, a rice-crusted kebbe in which the sweet starchiness of the crispy rice shell blends beautifully with the savory meat-and-pine nut filling.
The appetizers ended with a selection of traditional Armenian cheese pies called sou beureg. Three flavors were offered, listed in our order of preference — thyme, sujuk and basterma. Sujuk and basterma are traditional, spicy, air-cured Armenian sausages that became popular in Lebanon after Armenians settled in the country. Thyme and cheese always pair well, but the sujuk pie was overwhelming thanks to its smoky saltiness and the basterma completely overpowered the cheese with its powerful, gamy flavor.
We were already starting to feel full as the main courses began to arrive. First to be served was the fishnah kebab, a grilled-beef kebab topped with a wild sour cherry sauce. This was the only real let down of the meal, as the kebab was dry and lacked seasoning. However, the cherry sauce was the perfect balance between sweet and sour.
This recipe was brought to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, by an influx of Armenian refugees returning to their homeland after the civil war began in Syria. As such it is a dish that perfectly embodies what Armenian food has become — an ever-changing food culture.
Next on the main course menu was the unforgettable manti. Crisp-on-the-outside minced-meat dumplings were doused in a spicy tomato sauce, allowing them to soften, then topped with yogurt and a dash of sumac to balance out the heat. This is definitely a crowd-pleaser at Mayrig and they even offer a vegetarian version made with spinach.
Finally, we came to the dessert menu, beginning with the rose loukoum ice cream, a light and airy sherbet with a fun chew due to the inclusion of mastic — a plant resin. Another must-try is the semi-dried apricot stuffed with ashta, a Lebanese milk pudding. The desserts will bring you back to Mayrig, if nothing else does.
Mayrig — which means “mother” in Armenian — pays tribute to all the Armenian women through the ages who, despite war and other hardships, were able to ensure that the traditional flavors and recipes of their ancestors endured.
Armenian cuisine has been described as a lost cuisine. However, Mayrig proves otherwise as it gathers together varieties from across the regions and generations — and now it is coming full circle by returning to its homeland, with the opening of a new restaurant in Yerevan.


Evolution of coffee culture in KSA

Original local cafes are working hard to maintain their reputation for serving authentic coffee. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 09 December 2018
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Evolution of coffee culture in KSA

  • The growing number of cafes has helped people share their passion for coffee, proving that it is much more than a beverage

JEDDAH: Coffee has always been a major part of Arab culture, a traditional companion at gatherings, weddings and a wide variety of social events.
In Arab households, there is never an occasion where the “dallah” — the Arabic traditional coffee pot — is unavailable. Coffee is served over and over again in small Arabic cups.
Recently, however, there has been a rise in another branch of coffee culture, “specialty coffee.”
Western coffee culture has spread rapidly in Saudi Arabia, with local cafes popping up on the streets and in shopping malls. Their growing popularity is well deserved.
Original local cafes such as Brew 92, meddcoffee, Cup and Couch and others have worked hard to grow their reputation for serving authentic coffee, rather than using sugar and other elements to change the taste of the beverage.
The growing number of cafes has helped people share their passion for coffee, proving that it is much more than a beverage.
Atheer Al-Dhari, a barista at Ekleel cafe, said: “I love coffee. After four years’ experience in coffee, it is not just a career or a job but my biggest passion. My husband encouraged me to be more than a home barista.
“A couple of years ago, modern coffee was not popular,” the 26-year-old barista said. “But, then, as people observed the complexity of coffee they became curious. It was our responsibility to show them how coffee worked and that it was more than just a beverage. It takes years to even grow the coffee tree, so it is a lot of work and effort. There are farmers, roasteries, training, lots of money and so much more involved in serving a cup of coffee.”
Abbas Anwar Khan, a marketing specialist at Qatarat cafe, said: “We work on introducing a variety of coffee to the public, to familiarize them with the many flavors and textures.”
Rawan Jambi, a partner in the Rico Coast Lounge, said: “We are looking to introduce ourselves in many different areas, such as Riyadh and Dammam. Recently people have been following the trend of drinking coffee, and they try to include it in their routine from day to night.
“Back in the day, there was just Arabic coffee, but gradually Americanos, cappuccino and other types of hot coffee were introduced. Also due to the hot weather, cold coffees were introduced, which is a big change,” she said.
Recent events have been held to highlight the history and development of coffee in Jeddah. In November, two major events promoted different cafes and offered people a chance to taste their offerings.
“It is very significant for us. The coffee business is growing quickly and competition is strong. It is like a wildfire,” said 19-year-old barista Abdullah Babouk from Beyond Coffee.
“What I like about being a barista is that people who drink coffee have a routine where they come to us every day. Rather than it being a customer-provider relationship, we are a community. Every cafe should open with a vision to stand out and not just make money. Coffee should be treated like gold and that is our mission.”
Although coffee consumption has few health risks and considerable benefits, “anything and everything is harmful when we abuse it,” said dietician Dr. Ruwaida Idrees.
“Coffee bears some risks, and high consumption of unfiltered coffee has been associated with mild elevations in cholesterol levels,” she said.
“More than two cups of coffee a day can increase the risk of heart disease in people with a specific and fairly common genetic mutation that slows the breakdown of caffeine in the body.”
Caffeine addiction can be a serious problem for some people, including students and office employees who sacrifice sleep and drink coffee to stay alert.
“The first step is admitting you have a problem with coffee, then start to work on solving the problem,” Idrees said. “Drinking half-caffeinated or decaffeinated versions can help, as can walking around the office or getting other physical activity when you feel sleepy.”
As long as it is not consumed in large quantities, coffee is something to be cherished and each cup enjoyed.