This article was first published by Cook_inc. in 2014; when Lebanon was in the midst of what seemed like a fairly peaceful period. Time has passed, and yet the people of Beirut and Lebanon are all the same; with the same joys, love of food as well as troubles that has daunted them for decades. The message ‘Make Food, Not War’ is as important today as it was then. Our thoughts go to Beirut and its people, as they take to the task of rebuilding in the aftermath of what has been named the #Beirutblast.
Night had already fallen by the time we reached Batroun, about fifty kilometres north of Beirut in Lebanon. As we made our way through the deserted streets in the old town, passing by the broken shutters and bolted wooden doors of the souk, the market dimly lit and silent, I had a familiar feeling. In Turkish we have the expression, “old earth” that we use to call the places and the people that have a history, a story; a memory. The walls of Batroun that enclose us surely have a long memory.
As we neared St. Stephen’s Church, I caught my first glimpse of the black waters of the Mediterranean and the remnants of the Phoenician wall that stood for thousands of years to protect this once prosperous maritime city. Sipping my lemonade, a Batroun staple, that served to prepare my belly for my first dinner in Lebanon, I admired the old houses, the derelict houses and the soft, almost velvety breeze of the southern Mediterranean. Walking past a small church at the edge of the sea, we took a right turn into what seemed like the parking lot of the adjacent house, coming face to face with what looked like a sailors’ getaway home, built slowly, affectionately: the restaurant of Maguy.
Chez Maguy by the Sea
“And we made a story out of the sea, or the sea made a story out of me,” said Maguy, as we sipped our Arak, the aniseed-flavoured liquor, served over ice. Now in her fifties, Maguy is the daughter of a man who earned his money from the sea, diving for sponges. Once her husband passed away, she decided to earn a similar living by collecting sea urchins and octopus and selling them to the people in the village. After a few years, people started asking her, “Why don’t you cook for us?” The rest is history. One table here, a few tables over there in her own living room, add a small terrace by the water, and she slowly built a reputation all over the Mediterranean for some of the best seafood one is likely to ever have.
“The grill is always on,” she tells me. “I wake up at eleven, and put the charcoal on; I have no oven.” The dinner starts, as per usual, with the arrival of the salads. Fattoush, with its chopped cucumbers, mint leaves, green bell peppers and radishes, seasoned with sumac and bathed in a lively green olive oil, cleanses the palate, while raheb salate, an eggplant salad, transports us to the wonders of the charcoal grill. The scallops are seasoned simply with mint, garlic and olive oil and served warm, almost raw, and have an incredibly delicate flavour. The local grilled crabs have no need of the lemon slices that accompany them, as their meat is tender, juicy and salty – a showcase of Mediterranean seafood in all its wondrous simplicity.
The firan, literally meaning “mice” in Arabic, are crispy, perfumed, golden little fish served with tahini sauce, though once again, there is no need. The traditional way of eating firan is to keep their skeleton intact by holding their head and tail while tearing off their plump, white meat. I succeed with the first, but end up eating the crispy tails of the second and third. A surprise dish arrives in honour of one of my dinner companions, Tamar, whose recipe Maguy has chosen to include in her menu. A local red tuna, balamide, is served raw, coarsely cut with miniscule squares of fresh ginger, sea salt and a drizzle of sesame oil. A second order of it is necessary to satisfy the hunger of our taste buds. As I lean back into the timeworn rattan chair, I take in the beautiful Mediterranean breeze and the sound of crashing waves reaching the Phoenician wall as I place a soft mastic-flavoured lokum in my mouth. “The sea is in my blood, don’t take me away from it,” Maguy repeats, and I understand.
My first night in Lebanon, in the ancient city of Batroun, ends quite amusingly in a surfer bar just outside the old town, called Skipper. My companion and guide, Christine, introduces me to four of her friends, all surfers, who are chilling, sipping their whisky and Armaza, the national Lebanese lager. We talk of all things, and there’s a mutual understanding as people who have been part of the same history. “We are not Arab, we are Arak,” jokes Maurice, one of the guys, as he takes a swig of his whisky. We all laugh, but it’s an interesting topic, that of being Arab in the kaleidoscope of cultures that is Lebanon.
The Belly of the Mediterranean Basin
“Lebanon is the belly of the Mediterranean basin,” Kamal Mouzawak wrote in Carole Corm’s “Beirut: A Guide to the City”, a gem of a book for those curious about all facets of life in Lebanon’s largest and most diverse city. Indeed, between a myriad of religious communities totalling 18 distinct sects, including the Sunni, Shia, Christian Maronite, Christian Orthodox and the mysterious Muwahiddun (popularly referred to as the Druze), and a geography that spans between the sea and the hinterland (including Mount Lebanon and the fertile Bekaa Valley), Lebanon’s food is not all hummus and shawarma, although there’s a fair bit of hummus to go around.
The next morning I take an early cab ride from Batroun to Beirut, though only after having a bite of mamoul, a handmade cookie with a filling of crushed dates, and a small cup of Turkish coffee still popular in Lebanon as a pick-me-up morning drink. Driving out of the district of Batroun, we cross a checkpoint currently manned by the Lebanese army that once served as the Syrian army’s checkpoint during its occupation of Lebanon. Syria’s military may no longer be in the territory of Lebanon, but its influence, as well as the current turmoil Syria finds itself in, looms over its neighbour. Yet, the Lebanese have a particular joie de vivre even in alert mode. To quote Ghassan Tueni, they have lived through wars waged for and by other nations on their own land, and they are aware that peace in Lebanon is frail; the time to enjoy life is now.
My guide to Beirut’s culinary treasures for the day is Wael Lazkani, a young Lebanese chef with a curious interest in Asian culinary culture. He is making a name for himself amongst Lebanese foodies as the young talent who reinterprets Asian staples in his one-table restaurant, JAI, using mostly locally sourced ingredients. I am to try his food later on, but first Wael introduces me to a proper Lebanese breakfast.
The Lebanese Breakfast
“Doctorate of Foul, Master’s in Hummus, Licence in Fettah” claims the sign on Le Professeur’s unpretentious glass doors, just off the main road in the district of Mar Elias. First to arrive are the kabiss, Lebanese pickled vegetables, and a plate of raw greens including a whole peeled raw onion, mint leaves, coriander, radishes and tomato, to accompany the hearty Lebanese breakfast staples still to come. Foul arrives next: a dish made with emulsified fava beans, seasoned with cumin and complemented by intact boiled chickpeas. Considered in the Middle East to be a poor man’s dish, Wael nevertheless tells me that making foul is an art and pride as the emulsification needs to be just right, cooking the beans over low heat for hours on end. The result is a pungent, earthy and dense dish to be scooped up by thin slices of pita bread. The fatteh is a dish of layers: at the bottom is crispy pita bread topped, in order, with chickpeas boiled in garlic, thick and delicately acidic cow’s milk yoghurt, roasted crunchy cashews (or alternatively pine nuts) and finally brought altogether by an aromatic melted butter – its flavour is quite exquisite with a prolonged aftertaste. Next is mousabha, boiled chickpeas in its own broth, served with tahini, garlic and lemon, traditionally eaten with fresh mint and onion. The hummus awarma arrives last, rich and dense, soaking in the melted pungent fat of the aged lamb’s meat, the awarma. “In Beirut, you finish a meal with an olive,” comments Wael, and so, after dipping my teaspoon into a small cup of carob molasses and tahini, a Mount Lebanon staple dessert, I pop a raw green olive into my mouth.
The cooks of Le Professeur behind their counter and fatteh.
The Old and the New, Beirut’s Neighbourhoods
Beirut is a complex and rather chaotic city that seems to oscillate between its past, its present and its ideal future. What that ideal future is, however, seems to change according to whom you’re talking to. The downtown area, a scene of war not so long ago, is being redeveloped by the Solidere – the joint stock company launched by Lebanon’s assassinated prime minister, Refik Hariri, turning the city centre into a “modern” neighbourhood. The Egg, a heavily scarred concrete bubble, still stands though as a solemn reminder of its past.
Zokak Al Blat, just off of the city centre, still belongs firmly to the city’s past. The surviving traditional Lebanese houses from the late 19th century, built with local sandstone and with triple arched windows, seem to battle with the changing times here, inspiring nostalgia. Ichkhanian, the Armenian lahmeh ba’ajin eatery, is located on a small street where the Ziade and Heneine palaces, two crumbling traditional mansions of outstanding beauty, try to withstand their bullet scars, the redevelopment efforts and the arrival of their new residents, the refugees.
Open at the same spot since 1946, Ichkhanian’s strong suit is lahmeh ba’ajin. The baked, flat pastry is prepared all day long by four men, presided over by Azad, who took over the business when her husband died in 1984. Azad is small, but daunting. We eat all three types of lahmeh ba’ajin: the traditional Armenian way with minced meat, the vegetarian style with mushrooms, peppers and onions, and the northern Lebanese recipe with minced meat and pomegranate molasses, tangy and unusual. The various bites are washed down with the plain yoghurt drink ayran. Once we’ve finished eating Azad and I start talking, and as soon as she hears I’m Turkish, she starts speaking my mother tongue and shows me the manti and su boregi, both traditional Anatolian recipes that Azad prepares and sells to be cooked at home.
Another of Beirut’s oldest culinary shrines is La Boubouffe, which has been serving Lebanese and international fare in the neighbourhood of Ashraifeh since 1976. Michel Aramouni has been at the helm since the beginning, and continues to dish out their famous beef and chicken shawarma even though La Boubouffe recently had to vacate its traditional premises to make way for a redevelopment project; it’s now set to continue its culinary fame on Avenue Charles Malek. “When I left [the old location] I cried,” Mr. Aramouni tells me. “We closed one night in the old place, and the next morning we started serving food here.” The marinated beef and chicken strips are slowly cooked on rotating spits over a wood fire and then wrapped in soft white pita bread; the beef is served with raw onions, parsley and tomatoes, while the chicken has the addition of a vivid garlic sauce. With both there’s a sweet, delicate perfume that I can’t quite place. “It’s mastika from Greece,” he admits. “I’m the only one to use it.” After the meat is marinated for twenty-four hours (Mr. Aramouni himself prepares the secret marinade in his office), the meat is placed on the spit and very lightly painted with mastika, prior to being grilled. “I have no chef; I am the chef, and we only use the best raw, local material we can find.” Similarly to Maguy, Mr. Armauni proudly adds, “We have no freezers in La Boubouffe.” The sweet sensation of the mastika under my teeth gives way to the sweeter one of caffe blanc, the traditional hot drink prepared with mazaher (orange blossom water) and served as a digestive.
Regional meets Urban at Tawlet
If you were to ask any Beiruti foodie where to find good, traditional and regional Lebanese fare, you would most likely be pointed in the direction of Tawlet. Tawlet is the restaurant arm of Souk el Tayeb, the first farmers’ market in Beirut founded by Kamal Mouzawak in 2004. In the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael, east of the trendy Gemmayzeh, it has been hosting a different cook each day from around Lebanon, showcasing their home-cooking staples in a restaurant setting. Just off of Armenia Road on a small dead end street, Tawlet is in a league of its own, both in aesthetic beauty and in what it sets to achieve, bringing the regional culinary traditions of Lebanon into the spotlight using locally produced or procured ingredients.
At the time of my visit, it is Fadia Chaptiny in the open plan kitchen, preparing dishes from her hometown of Tripoli. Lunch is served buffet style. In front of me are mjadra (a lentil paste with garlic, onion and rice, eaten with yoghurt or with salad), beans with caramelised onions, Swiss chard, cilantro, garlic and onion – sweet and starchy with a prolonged aftertaste of the sweet bitterness of cilantro, shanklish (a stringy cheese with cherry tomatoes) and Davud Pasha – meatballs with cinnamon in a stew of creamy tahini and white onions cooked with orange and lemon juices, among various other Tripoli home-cooked staples. The dishes of Tripoli seem to suggest the combination of sour and tangy flavours with beans, starch, proteins, as well as sweets. To accompany the dishes I order a cold and refreshing mawared: distilled Damascus rose water with a hint of sugar. After having filled my slightly bulging belly, Fadia invites me and Wael to observe her cooking tajen samak, a white fish cooked in tahini and served with roasted almonds, pinenuts, cashews and dried sultana raisins. The sweet odour of the dish as it leaves the oven is, to say the least, breathtaking.
An Asian in Beirut: JAI
Wael Lazkani, on the other hand, uses local ingredients and produce to reinvent Asian dishes. “I prepare what I love to eat myself,” he tells me. “It’s not about reduction in Asian cooking, it’s more about diversity and combinations and you end up with very different flavours.” After spending seven years studying and cooking Asian food, Wael returned home to Beirut and started building JAI in 2010. “The idea was to make it as small as I can so I can work on the food using mostly local produce, working with farmers and with only one table to serve.” Among the thirty-five dishes on the menu, I try the shrimp summers rolls, served with homemade chilli sauce and using shrimps caught off the north coast, the Thai beef salad with the meat marinated in tamarind for seventy-two hours, tangy and juicy, served with a chilli lemon sauce, and finally, the Pad Thai. Wael explains that the Lebanese in general do not enjoy zankha, the smell of the pan after one fries an egg, which he laughingly mentions is the exact same flavour of fish sauce. Rather than frying the egg with the noodles, he instead opts to place a Japanese-style egg omelette on top. The result is a citrusy Pad Thai reinvention, with less fish sauce, less chilli and a lot more tamarind.
Souk el Tayeb
Mona el Dor, or Oum Ali (“the mother of Ali”) as she is called after bearing her first son, Ali, is a strong, dark featured, Shiite woman from the South of Lebanon. Having been displaced in 2006 during the Israeli attacks on the south, she and her whole family moved to the outskirts of Beirut into a predominantly Christian neighbourhood where she still lives. She bakes bread and cookies at home which she then sells at Souk el Tayeb. The sole breadwinner of a family of five, Oum Ali wakes up at 5am and works until nightfall. Her daughter, Zahra, helps. During my brief visit to her home, she shows me how to make the traditional bread from her hometown of Majdl Zoun, which she learned from her grandmother and continues to prepare to this day. Using four different flours – whole wheat, corn, barley and oat – she adds oat flakes, anise (both in powder and seed form) and caraway seeds to perfume the bread. I also find out that she uses a Slow Food presidium for her kishk al fokara, a fermented bulghur preparation preserved in olive oil that ends up tasting like goat labneh. After helping her prepare bread sweetened with pomegranate molasses, I promise to taste them the next morning at the Souk.
Oum Ali makes traditional bread and pastries at her home; to then sell at her stall at Souk el Tayeb.
I arrive on my last morning to the area of Beirut Souks in downtown Beirut, where I find Souk el Tayeb, a strip of producers’ stalls with a backdrop of a beautiful derelict sandstone building dotted with bullet holes, burning golden from the already bright Mediterranean sun. “Make food, not war” is the motto of Beirut’s first farmers’ market, Souk el Tayeb, bringing together producers from different sects and regions of Lebanon, who have all paid a bloody price during Lebanon’s civil war. Tayeb means “good” and, when used for a person, “good-natured”. The market is a link between Beirutis who are looking for good, local products and producers who are passionate about what they produce – it’s a weekly environment that fosters their relationships, building a sustainable bond. I go and say hi to Oum Ali and her daughter Zahra, and am immediately offered a piece of the bread I helped make, along with a freshly prepared man’ousheh. A traditional Lebanese breakfast dish, man’ousheh is flattened dough placed on a hot convex iron baking sheet, topped with saj – a spread with spicy labneh that is a cross between strained yoghurt and fresh cream cheese, and then filled with chopped rocket leaves and white cheese before being wrapped. While I devour it, I am also offered jallab, date juice, from the next stall. As a post-breakfast dessert, I eat marzipan sweets, hand-shaped into rose blooms and flavoured with orange blossom, and green baby figs from the orchard of druze Sheikh Abrahim. The sheikh, in his traditional dress of black shalwar (black shirt and white headdress), amusedly says, “We got these from you,” alluding to the country’s Ottoman heritage.
As I prepare to leave, Oum Ali hands me a paper bag full of her homemade breads “to take home, and share” and her reinvention of a chocolate spread, where she uses carob syrup instead of sugar. I pick up some za’atar – a blend of regional herbs, sesame seeds and salt used to mix with olive oil – to spread on Oum Ali’s breads. With a smile on my face, the small bag of za’atar in my hand, and still eyeing the magnificent displays of mouneh (all types of seasonal vegetables, labneh, and bulgur fermented and preserved in olive oil jars), I take my leave of Beirut and Lebanon.
General view and jars of mouneh at Souk el Tayeb