From Alexandre Dumas who was impressed by the Armenian “khorovats” (barbecue) to Winston Churchill who preferred to drink only Armenian Cognac, the Armenian cuisine has seduced many by its secrets, mysterious tastes and subtle flavors the whole combined with the art of cooking. But to Aline Kamakian, Armenian cuisine is more than a culinary experience. It is a message, a bond with the traditions, the culture, the memories and the Homeland.
1. Who is Aline Kamakian?
Aline Kamakian is a Lebanese from Armenian origin. Her grandparents were among the 4000 Armenians who were miraculously saved from Musa Ler, when the Turks besieged their village in the beginning of the century. Like her ancestors, she started from scratch to build up her own business, working in insurance to pay for her university studies and starting up her own brokerage company a few years later.
Her father had died when she was seventeen and she had always wanted to realize his dream and open a restaurant to share the Armenian culinary heritage with the world.
2. How did you come up with Mayrig? And later Batchig?
Mayrig was conceived off during a big Sunday family lunch, when I was sitting with my cousins deploring that this delicious food of our mothers could not be found in any restaurant. The knowledge of Armenian food among the public was restricted to sandwiches of pastrami and sausages and this was such a pity.
Together with my cousin Serge Maacaron, we decided that it was time to change this and to show to the world the incredible richness of the Armenian cuisine. This is how we set out on our adventure and nine months later (July 2003) Mayrig was born.
Batchig was created in 2013 in a different context. Since Mayrig opened the Armenian trend in the world, we realized how much the market is big and that needs other restaurant. We wanted also to address a different public and more in the North of Beirut. Its kitchen is less traditional, younger and full of Mediterranean flavors and stories. Its recipes are composed of the favorite dishes of our mamas, who prepare the food in Mayrig’s central kitchen. They testify of their journey through different regions, different countries into diaspora.
3. What were the challenges that faced you?
First of all being a woman in a Middle Eastern context is a constant challenge. Boys are constantly asked what they want to do when they grow up, but girls are not taught to dream. Being a woman with big dreams, people don’t easily take you serious. Women are not often seen as capable leaders.
The second challenge is the geo-political situation of Lebanon with its internal divides and conflicts and foreign forces trying to benefit from these. It makes strategic planning a real challenge.
4. You opened in KSA and Dubai last year. What are your future projects?
Mayrig in Europe
5. Armenian cuisine is more than food for you. It is a message. Why?
This is related to our history. It is now exactly 100 years ago that we have lost our homeland and still the crimes committed at that time are not recognized. We are dispersed around the world and our language and culture are the only elements that still give us a sense of belonging. Our culinary culture, the big family gatherings, the delicious recipes, the ingredients of which we carried the seeds with us, create moments of recollection, moments to reconnect to our history that give us a sense of belonging. Our mothers bring us together around their richly filled tables and feed us with stories and delicious food.
It is this that I want to share with others, not just sharing food, not just sharing our great tradition of hospitality but sharing the taste and story of our lost Homeland and keeping the memory and its beautiful traditions alive.
6. What is your favorite Armenian dish?
It is of course such a classic, but my favorite is definitely “mante”. When I was working day and night in the kitchen of Mayrig, during the first six years, there came a moment that I couldn’t enjoy any of its food anymore, except “mante”, I can eat it every day.
7. Can we have an Armenian recipe?
In early summer we always gather with friends and family to prepare itch. For itch you really need good sun-ripe tomatoes and fresh young vine leaves. You can also serve it with cabbage leaves but for the first itch we use the vine leaves to grab a bite with our fingers.
To prepare it you fry a finely chopped onion in some olive oil. Add a slice of a green bell pepper and fry for some minutes. Prepare 3 ripe tomatoes by peeling and cutting them in small cubes and add them to the pepper and onion. After a little time you should add the pepper paste, which is the secret ingredient of many Armenian recipes and which my mother prepares by drying pepper paste in the sun. Add one cup of water as well as a large pinch of seven spices and salt to taste and let this simmer for 10 min.
Finally you should stir ½ cup of bulgur through the tomato mixture, and remove it right away from heat.
Let it rest for 10 minutes and then combine with a tablespoon of lemon juice. When the mixture is cold, stir in some freshly cut parsley, mint and spring onions as well as some extra olive oil according to taste.