Culinary, cultural crossroads in Beirut

Aoibheann McNamara, owner of Ard Bia restaurant in Galway, spent two months working at a restaurant in Beirut, bringing her young son Öni with her

Sat, Jun 1, 2013, 01:00

Beirut exists today as a crumbling, bullet-ridden melting pot of exquisite food and enchanting, endlessly hospitable people. The urban landscape is unique, typified by pastel buildings where concept stores sit side by side with garages fixing vintage Chevrolets – it feels at once like Berlin and India.

Illogical driving, intense heat, and an ever- present security threat results in a place unlike any other. The current Syrian crisis, so near and yet so far from a politically jaded Lebanese people, doesn’t help, but they don’t want to talk politics – they simply want to be left alone to live their lives peacefully and be allowed to grow their country.

Most of all, though, they want to be left to cook, eat and enjoy food and live their lives as beautifully as their evolved culture demands they do.

There is no one who embodies the essence of what Lebanon is more than my friend Kamal Mouzawak, farmer, food artisan and culinary activist. Since my first visit in 2006, he has emailed countless yallas for my return; as Lebanon has been close to my heart and my stomach ever since, I felt it was time now, with my four-year-old son Öni.

Kamal assured me that all was peaceful on the ground and it was. We booked into the four-bedroomed Hayete guesthouse in Ashrafieh, Beirut, a hybrid of Oriental and European architecture with some Brooklyn neon, mother of pearl mirrors, Russian art photographs, mid-century furniture and a huge birdcage where Birdie would chirp us awake in the morning.

Breakfast would arrive, not too early – Turkish coffee with manakish, the za’atar flat breads filled with labneh, feta, cucumber, mint and olives, making a perfect, typically Lebanese start to the day.

Then it was on to school for Öni, whom I enrolled in a French school in Gemmayze for the weeks we were there. He came back smelling of eau de citron, as Amal, the warm-hearted woman teacher kissed and hugged him as he came and left.

He picked up some words in Arabic and French, talked fondly of the hummus, labneh and flat breads which were a staple on the school menu, made new friends and experienced something uniquely different.

After I dropped Öni off to school, I would walk or get an always-eventful service taxi to Kamal’s restaurant Tawlet. Meaning Table in Arabic, the simplicity of Tawlet’s name is indicative of its simple yet empowering ideals.

It is an aesthetically striking space run by inspired and dedicated people. It brings old traditions of Lebanese food and recipes to modern Beirutis by hosting 25 women in rotation from all areas of Lebanon. Each day a different cook comes to produce food from her region. Tawlet thus feels unique – changing daily yet remaining the same.

I spent my time in Tawlet working and observing. Having a restaurant myself in Ireland, it is fascinating to watch another run so well and with such a strong culinary and community commitment. Kamal has created a model of space, food and ideology that is utterly where food is at right now in a global context. I am not alone in thinking that – René Redzepi from Noma has invited Kamal and 25 of his cooks to the MAD Food Festival in Copenhagen in August.

Mornings were spent prepping, drinking anise tea and chatting with Fadi, Ellie and Sami, my workmates. There are many idiosyncrasies to this country but the use of English, French and Arabic all in one conversation has to be the best, a testament to the diversity and the cohesion of these exceptional people. Conversations with Lebanese friends meander along in various languages and I love the rhythm of it.

Tawlet attracts fascinating people and so days are full of conversations with NGOs, environmentalists, UN workers, the odd intrepid tourist, diplomats and so on. Each conversation or lunch is seasoned with exceptional encounters, which is the essence of this vibrant city.

Lunch in Tawlet is a buffet of 15 to 20 dishes and always a feast. In Lebanon you start with the mezze – stuffed vine leaves, hummus, kibbeh, fattoush, tabbouleh – then you move on to the hot food, lamb with roasted almonds and freekeh, for example. You can wash it all down with arak or any of the exceptional Lebanese wines.

Lunch finishes with exotic desserts and with the classic café blanc, simply hot water with a few drops of orange blossom water.

There are a few rules when eating – it’s rude to mix up courses, ruder still to refuse food and the height of rudeness not to have endless amounts.

The Lebanese are always eating one meal and planning the next – food is their life-blood, it defines their culture like literature does the Irish.

At weekends, the desire to escape traffic and the busy social life was intense and we headed to Batroun, a seaside town an hour north of the city. Small alleyways with food sellers drew us in. On the night of the Good Friday candlelight parade we passed a tiny house with the divine smell of baking, a simple bakery where fig rolls specially for Easter called maamoul just out of the oven created another golden food memory for Öni.

If not in the country, we would head to Souk El Tayeb, the farmers’ market Kamal set up. Suppliers come every Saturday morning from all over Lebanon, including war-torn Tripoli in Libya.

They are the most engaging, passionate food people I have ever met. They brought endless gorgeous products like Chouf black honey, yellow pomegranates, rose jams, date juice, all the mouneh (summer produce preserved for the harsh winter), carob molasses, green almonds and candied fruit.

The whole of Beirut shows up in a celebration of food and traditions no longer lost. Children run around and taste and laugh and then everyone gravitates to the central table for the eating and drinking.

Mouzawak arrives and I ask: “Are you proud of what you have created?”

“No, I am just happy,” he says, and he has every reason to be.

Lebanese people asked me constantly how I felt about their country. “It is opening like a flower,” I would say, and as the days passed each brought new encounters and experiences that both Öni and I will long remember.

Tourism is down 37 per cent this year. As a tourist you will be treated like royalty and rewarded endlessly. You will connect with the humanity of these people and you will need your clothes let out at the bounty and goodness of the food.

Yalla to Lebanon, don’t be afraid.

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