Soup for Syria, from Seattle to Beirut

I am a food writer and a photographer. How can I use my trade to help the unfortunate and send a message of peace?… If I were a barber, I would have offered to cut their hair.” – Barbara Abdeni Massaad, editor of Soup for Syria: Recipes to Celebrate Our Shared Humanity.


Soup for Syria is a gorgeous cookbook, equal parts appetizing recipes and luminous images. The pictures, taken by Massaad herself, are of both food and Syrian refugees. The refugees are people Massaad knows well, living in a makeshift camp not far from her home in Lebanon. Her commitment to them began with visits to the camps with a trunk full of food. The visits became weekly, the refugees became part of her extended family.

As a cookbook author, the natural next step for Massaad was to put together her photography and culinary talents into a project that could give more. She reached out to a combination of renowned chefs and dear friends to create a mouthwatering collection of soups. Culinary superstars Mark Bittman, Anthony Bourdain, Greg Malouf, Yotam Ottolenghi, Claudia Roden and Alice Waters are among the contributors. Massaad donated her time and images, and chefs donated their recipes. What a fitting choice, to use soup, the ultimate comfort food to raise funds to provide comfort to those in need.

Last night I had a chance to taste some soup and hear from Massaad at a book launch-slash-fundraiser organized at Station Beirut. Chef Wael Lazkani of Jai and Chef Alexis Couquelet of Couqley were among those who had brought soup to share, while 961 Beer and the Syrian wine Bargylus were on tap (check out the fascinating story of Bargylus in this article from The Telegraph). Funds raised by book sales were bolstered by donations for the food and drink.  Massaad’s photographs of refugee neighbors adorned the walls.

Barbara Abdeni Massaad addresses the crowd gathered in support of Syrian refugees

Barbara Abdeni Massaad addresses the crowd gathered in support of Syrian refugees

Massaad shone as she recounted her impetus for the project, two young friends from the Syrian encampment at her side. She reiterated her message, “Compassion for Syrian refugees is not a political stance but a human obligation.”

It was a fun evening out for my husband and I, but much more than that, it was a meaningful one. I picked up my copy of Soup for Syria. Guess what’s for dinner tonight?

Buy the Book

In the US, UK and everywhere else outside of Lebanon, 100% of profits go to helping refugees. The book is available on and

In Lebanon, thanks to some special donations, 100% of sales go toward helping refugees. The book will be available at Librarie Antoine starting tomorrow, and soon at Virigin stores as well.

These funds are being channeled through the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, which is providing critical aid to more than four million Syrian refugees. Soup for Syria funds are earmarked for medical care and food relief.

Do A Little More

It would be a mistake to think that Massaad’s commitment has culminated with the publication of this cookbook, because it’s clear that she’s in for the long haul. And there are a million ways that she hopes you’ll join her. The book’s website details eight ways anyone can use Soup for Syria to further support refugees, from hosting a “foodraiser” to giving copies of the cookbook as presents.

While book proceeds support UNCHR’s efforts, you can use your fundraiser to support your own favorite agency working with refugees. (Mine is The International Rescue Committee, where I worked for five years and saw their efficiency and efficacy first hand.)

Seattle Supports Syrians

For anyone in my hometown of Seattle, the next opportunity to support Syrian refugees is tomorrow, October 22, at Mamnoon restaurant on Capitol Hill. I finally got to dine there this summer, and was dazzled by their creative take on the cuisines of Lebanon and Syria. (Massaad was a menu consultant there.) Mamnoon is hosting a casual soup tasting at their street-side window and community table, starting at 5:30pm, no reservation required.  Ethan Stowell RestaurantsTom Douglas RestaurantsThe Whale WinsHitchcockModernist CuisineTerra Plata, Blind Pig Bistro and NAKA are all contributing delicious soups. (So many of my Seattle favorites all in one place! Wish I could be there too to taste it all…) Mamnoon is asking for a “donation of $35 to enjoy these soups and feel the warmth all over.“

At the same time, Mamnoon will host a multicourse benefit dinner with beverage pairings in its dining room, for $250 per person. Each dining guest will receive a copy of Soup for Syria to take home. Chef Garrett Melkonian, in charge of Creative Culinary Development at Mamnoon, contributed his recipe for Spicy Clam Soup with Basturma.

For both of these events, 100% of the money raised will be used in support of refugees, channeled through three organizations: Mercy CorpsMedecins Sans Frontières and Karam Foundation.


Chef Wael Lazkani dishes up a delicious Thai coconut-chicken soup in support of Syrian refugees.

Beirut’s Sursock Museum and the Art of Resilience

After nine long years, Beirut’s Sursock Museum reopened this weekend.

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

The museum houses modern and contemporary art in a setting as elegant as the artwork within: an Italianate villa located in a well-heeled district of Beirut.  First opened in 1961, the Sursock was long the reference point for contemporary art in Lebanon, hosting an annual salon, or exhibition of emerging artists, as well as a permanent collection of renowned painters from the region. The museum managed to stay open through most of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, but closed in 2008 to undergo seven long years of renovation.

Emblematic of the resilience of the Lebanese themselves, the museum reopened this weekend, amidst a garbage crisis, a political crisis, and a refugee crisis of historical proportions.

Fittingly, the museum’s director, Zeina Arida, has curated opening exhibitions that share a theme of identity.

In “Picturing Identity” photographs summon the past of the Lebanese people.

"Muslim Sheikh", from The Fouad Debbas Collection

“Muslim Sheikh”, from The Fouad Debbas Collection

In “Regards sur Beyrouth” paintings evoke the history of the local landscape.

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

And a multimedia exhibition entitled “The City in The City” explores modern-day Beirut. The piece that most struck me in this exhibition was a map created by Mona Fawaz and Ahmad Gharbieh pinpointing visible security deployment in Beirut in 2009: it was cluttered with symbols for checkpoints, army tanks, military vehicles, barbed wire, road spikes and more. (If you can’t make it to the museum, the map and its background essay can be accessed on the website, with free registration to the site.)

Head of programs, Nora Razian, has designed a robust public program of tours, talks, walks, workshops, films and family programs to accompany this last exhibition. I was lucky enough to get a spot on a night walk entitled “The Streets Beneath the Streets,” led by the writer Lina Mounzer. The stories she narrated on Friday night, as she led our group from one hidden corner of the Ashrafieh neighborhood to the next, centered on the famine the country faced during World War I, which killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 persons in Mount Lebanon alone, 500,000 in Greater Syria. According to the BBC, “As a proportion of the total population, more people died in Greater Syria than anywhere else in the world during the First World War.”

Commonly attributed to a blockade by Allied forces seeking to cut off supplies to the Ottoman empire, the reality of the famine was a far more complicated scenario, also involving environmental factors (such as a locust invasion that carpeted the countryside, some say knee-deep), wartime mismanagement and war profiteering. (This article touches on some of the heart-rending details that Lina shared with us, accompanied by equally harrowing images.)

Foreign influences, environmental degradation, profiteering….

Lebanon’s present has disturbing echoes of its past, and serves as a reminder that only by studying history can we grasp how things might change or remain the same.

All of which circles me back to the reopening of the Sursock Museum, its exhibitions and public programming. Yes, the garbage crisis remains unresolved, with hills of refuse blighting Lebanon’s landscape and clogging its riverbeds. It’s true, Lebanon’s longstanding political crisis (including a 15-month-and-counting presidential vacuum) has deepened the garbage crisis. And while the number of officially registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon has dropped in recent months, there remain more than one million, for a staggering statistic of 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Much of the system in Lebanon seems to be held together with aging Scotch tape, threatening to peel off at any moment.

Yet the Sursock Museum, Zeina Arida, Nora Razian, Lina Mounzer, and all the others involved with the Sursock’s reopening and public programs, are the embodiment of resilience. They remind us to step back to see more clearly who we are and where we came from, so that we can better see where we want to go next.

Culture is not a luxury.

Culture is part of us. It’s what constitutes a person, it links generations and gives meaning to history. Knowing one’s culture is knowing one’s self. Identifying and preserving one’s heritage allows reaching out to the others.

-Zeina Arida, to the Prince Claus Fund

For details about the Sursock Museum and upcoming events, visit their Facebook page at

Quaffing Lebanese Wine

The weather remains above 85°F (29°C) every day, but for the Lebanese, beach season is over.

Now is the time for hikes and mountain lunches and other fall activities – such as grape-harvesting. Yet one more surprise when I moved to Lebanon. The country is home to a prospering wine industry.


Wine production in Lebanon dates back to Phoenician times (3200BC to 883BC), and was an important part of their trading. According to Wikipedia, the Phoenicians “either introduced or encouraged the dissemination of wine knowledge to several regions that today continue to produce wine suitable for international consumption. These include modern-day Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.”

So the Phoenicians brought wine-production techniques to the Romans, who turned around a brought their love for wine back to the region when they arrived around 64BC. It was under Roman rule that Lebanon’s greatest cultural attraction – the temple at Baalbek, dedicated to Bacchus, god of the grape harvest and wine – was built.


The Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

In the 1860s, Jesuit priests in Lebanon recommenced wine production, and the industry blossomed during the French occupation (1923-1946). It is said that the French soldiers just couldn’t imagine life without “un coup de rouge” (a glass of red). As with just about everything else in the country, the industry lagged during the civil war, and only five wineries were operating at its end.

Slowly growing through the 1990s, wine production has taken off since the turn of the millennium, expanding from the traditional growing areas of the Bekaa Valley, to Batroun, Mount Lebanon, and even near Jezzine in southern Lebanon. An estimated 7 to 8 million bottles are produced annually, with much of going to the export market (primarily Europe). A drop in the wine glass compared to, say, France’s annual production of 7 to 8 billion bottles, but a respectable figure nonetheless.

The wineries and their leafy rows of grapes make for gorgeous settings to spend a couple of hours or a day, and our family has visited several: Massaya, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Ksara, Ixsir. We loved our weekend lunches at Ixsir and Massaya Bekaa, while my kids’ favorite parts of the visits were the underground tunnels at Ksara and the train ride through the vineyards of Kefraya. Ksara and Kefraya are Lebanon’s biggest players, accounting for roughly half of the country’s annual production, but there are currently around 40 producers in this postage-stamp country.


Kefraya’s vineyards

A week ago our family had the opportunity to spend a day with the gracious owner of Cave Kouroum and his family. Located in the village of Kefraya in the Bekaa Valley, this lesser-known winery has been an important player in the industry for decades, first as a grape middleman and eventually producing its own wine. We toured the winery, which has an impressive capacity of 7 million bottles of wine. The wine-maker is taking it slow, however, and the estate currently produces 700,000 bottles annually.  Our group especially enjoyed the estate’s Petit Noir and 7 Cépages.


Two lovely Lebanese wines: Cave Kouroum on the left, Iris Domaine on the right

This past weekend we worked our way backwards in the production line, from the processing of grapes to their harvesting. This time we headed to the hills near Bhamdoun, where we joined the owners of Iris Domain on their final day of the grape harvest.  Owner Salmad Salibi explained that the recent heat wave (thank you sandstorm) meant that the different varietals of grapes had ripened all at once, so there was an urgency to their harvesting. To that end, paid laborers had started the hard work at 6 a.m., so guests like our family who rolled in at 8:30 or 9 and later had the chance to clip just a few crates worth of grapes before cutting the kids loose to explore the vineyards and fruit groves, while the adults snacked on man’ouche and sipped the winery’s excellent red blend.

You don’t have to be well-connected to enjoy a vineyard visit. The website has a comprehensive listing of wineries in Lebanon with links to their contact information. Several are regularly open to the public, while others accept visitors by appointment.

To try all the wines in one place, head to the upcoming Vinifest, October 7-10 at Beirut’s Hippodrome. This wonderful event brings together winemakers from around the country, offering tastings with bottles (as well as olive oil and snacks) available for purchase.  (Tickets L. 25,000 and can be purchased at the entrance or ahead of time at Antoine.) With around 40 producers showcasing their wines, take my word for it that it’s impossible to try them all. But my husband and I have had fun trying.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

Lebanon is no Napa. (Nor is it even close to say, the wine-growing region of Columbia Valley in my home state of Washington.  I have yet to meet a winemaker here in Lebanon that has heard of Washington wines, despite the fact that Washington State is home to more than 850 wineries and produces 180 million bottles of wine per year.  I’m allowed a little hometown pride, aren’t I?)

But enotourism in Lebanon is on the rise. Chateau Khoury has opened a restaurant, while Domaine des Tourelles and Cave Kourom are developing theirs. Chateau Belle-Vue hosts both a restaurant and a hotel. Wineries near Batroun in Northern Lebanon have worked to develop a wine trail.

The Romans may have left Lebanon ages ago, but clearly the devotees of Bacchus remain alive and well.


Resources for the wine lover in Lebanon:

  • Special reports on Lebanon’s wine industry and developing wine tourism were recently published in Executive magazine.
  • The 2012 Zawaq guide to Lebanese wine has tasting notes for over 100 wines. The bilingual (French/English) book is currently 40% off on Antoine’s website.
  • Michael Karam’s Lebanese Wines (2013) offers tasting notes by the owner of Jezzine’s Karam Winery.

Facebook tends to be the best place to find out about events and visits at most wineries in Lebanon, with more current information than the winery websites.

Beirut: From Garbage to Green

All the news coming out of Lebanon lately is garbage.

Oops, I mean it’s about garbage.

And since everyone else is covering garbage, I figured it would be nice to talk about something else that is happening in the country, because there always is so much more happening in Lebanon than what you see in the headlines. So I’m going to move from garbage to green.

On Saturday, I went with my husband, my daughter, and a couple of her friends, to Horsh Beirut. The 300,000+ square meter (74 acre) park comprises a whopping 70 percent of all green space in Beirut.


Notoriously, it has been closed to the public for the past 20 years.


There are exceptions. Permits are allowed to Lebanese who are 35 or older and provide a doctor’s note stating that they need exercise. And foreigners – at least Western-looking ones – have been allowed in without permits. But for the past two decades, your average Lebanese citizen has been stopped at the gate and denied entry.

No longer.


Thanks to the tireless work of the NGO Nahnoo, after four years of fighting the good fight, the park has been reopened to the public. The opening is gradual: Saturdays only for the month of September, Saturdays  and Sundays in October, and eventually, open every day. Nahnoo’s executive director, Mohammad Ayoub, explained that the measured reopening will allow the municipality to address any hiccups that might arise.  Ayoub also said that around 100 volunteers for Nahnoo helped out with the park opening – disseminating park rules and making sure that all ran smoothly. Kudos to Nahnoo, its staff and volunteers, for their persistence in advocating for the opening of this important public space, and to the European Union and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for funding the project.

(My husband works for UNDP, which is how I knew about the opening. Seems that it was kept as a soft opening, and many people didn’t know until they read about it in Sunday’s paper.)


Yesterday I met a pair of Lebanese friends for coffee and told them about my visit to Horsh Beirut. Neither has ever been, and they asked what there was to do, considering if it might be a good place to take their kids.

Kids can bring their bikes, but adults won’t be allowed on bikes nor will there be a bike rental. The paths are dirt, so not great for scooters or skating. Balls are allowed, but no ball games. There isn’t any play equipment. There is a restroom, but in disrepair. A picnic is the obvious choice, but to that end it seems like there ought to be a lot more trash cans. On a brighter note, the greenery is lovely and well-maintained, and UNDP also funded a public water fountain that was recently installed (the first I’ve seen in Beirut!).

The conversation got me thinking about next steps for the Horsh…

Install a fitness course

Sprinkle workout stations along the trail that winds through the trees: a bar for pull-ups here, a stepping post there.  A bench for dipping or sit-ups, a vault bar that parkour fanatics would love, a balance beam low to the ground that even young children can try…

course 2

A fitness station in a city park in Chicago.

This company and this one sell ready-made equipment, but stations can also be as simple as recycled beams and tires.

course 5 course1

Install a playground

Again, there are excellent resources online about how to design a playground made with anything from recycled tires to state of the art equipment. There are websites that provide guidance on how to build a playground, how to get grants, how to find corporate sponsors and more.  For equipment, a company called Playmart caught my eye: they purchase post-consumer and post-industrial plastic to upcycle into playground products. (Wish they would open a factory here, Lebanon has plenty of plastic garbage it could sell!) This website even has a 117-page instruction manual for making playground equipment out of old tires (as well as inspiring images of parks around the world with beautiful construction and landscaping).


And if space allows,

Establish an area open to ball games. Whether that is a soccer pitch big enough for a five-on-five game, or just an area where friends can kick the ball around without worrying about the wrath of park security, it would be fantastic to have a space where kids can get some exercise and have some fun.

And with all the water & sanitation experts currently in the country to address the refugee crisis, I am sure we could find someone to give some advice on toilets!

Nahnoo has tapped EU & UNDP for the funding for its campaign; what NGO could take the next step in creating opportunities for play and exercise? Funders must be out there, maybe someone to support healthy spaces that benefit host communities and refugees alike? Gates, Aga Khan or Ford Foundation? Or a corporate sponsor such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike?

Nahnoo, are you taking this on? Beirut Green Project? Let me know who is, and I’d be happy to join in as a volunteer….

Meet Amanda Saab, The Lebanese on US’ Masterchef: Changing Stereotypes & Shining With Lebanese Food


The Lebanese are proud of their compatriot Amanda Saab on MasterChef. She is also a Seattleite, and as a fellow Seattleite, I am also proud!

Originally posted on A Separate State of Mind | A Blog by Elie Fares:

Amanda Saab Masterchef USA

Meet the awesome Amanda Saab.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine was gushing about how excited he was that there was a Lebanese candidate on this season’s Masterchef, which airs on FOX every Wednesday in the US.

On that episode, Amanda Saab had done a fusion cuisine dish, based on our very own Lebanese pride and joy: it was kefta with sumac aioli and jalapeño-dusted potatoes. Her favorite comfort food? Kebbeh nayye.

From that moment on, it’s only been looking up for her. She’s now considered by many to be one of the show’s front-runners. Amanda and I have spoken a couple of times on Twitter, and I’ve noticed how many people are rooting for her whenever a new episode airs. She keeps getting attention the more she progresses. But this is not only what’s impressive about Mrs. Saab.

Originally Lebanese and born in Michigan, when Amanda Saab does not cook…

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Welcome Ramadan


Ramadan Kareem! A time for coming together….

Originally posted on Beyond Beirut:

Ramadan is once again upon us. It seems like only yesterday that we were fasting and yet it is here and we just completed the first day for this year. It is a month of reflection and prayer and being thankful for all the blessings we have- and I couldn’t be more grateful that my loved ones are all in good health and happy.

This month is also heavily intertwined with its traditions and customs and family gatherings, and of course, the food!

To mark the first day, my mother-in-law invited us over for iftar and it was a feast. She is an amazing cook and goes all out when she is hosting people over. Today was no exception as she made her signature dish of waraa enab (dolma to those more familiar with the term) as the whole family, or at least those of us who are here in…

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