Syria on My Mind, and a Table at Tawlet

Adapting the words of Ray Charles….

Syria, Syria

The whole day through

Just the threat of strikes

Keeps Syria on my mind

And it’s not just because I live in the Middle East. I can see from the US newspapers I read online, and I can tell from the phone calls that we get from my husband’s family in Italy, that Syria is the talk of the town (or at least of the news) in the US and across Europe as well.

Here in Lebanon…

I go to the park… and talk with other parents about Syria.

I go out with my husband for dinner with friends… and we all talk about Syria.

I stop by a friend’s house… and we pointedly avoid the subject of Syria as we have coffee. But… she leaves her tv on as we sip ‘ahwe, and CNN talks about nothing but Syria.

I can’t keep up on all there is to read about Syria. (But if you’re interested in expanding your own knowledge, here is journalist Bill Moyer’s suggested – and regularly updated – reading list of online articles.) I am, however, reading what I can between dentist appointments and school open house and cooking dinner. Yesterday I came across a phrase that really resonated with me, even if it was published two months ago (in Foreign Affairs):

Las Vegas rules do not apply to Syria: what happens there will not stay there.” *

No need to tell anyone in Lebanon that. With 630,000 registered refugees and at least a few hundred thousand more unregistered Syrians living in Lebanon, we know that what happens there will not stay there. With cross-border kidnappings, some for revenge, others for ransom, on the rise, we know. With two car bombs in Tripoli and one in Beirut last month, we know. And, what we don’t know, we speculate about. Next door in Israel, citizens are stocking up on gas masks in case a US strike might mean that Syria strikes back by unleashing chemical weapons in Israel. Here in Lebanon we worry that a US strike in Syria could, for example, provoke a strike by Lebanese-based Hezbollah against Israel, which in turn would undoubtedly lead to an Israeli strike against Lebanon. (Hezbollah’s last major open conflict against Israel was in 2006, a 34-day war that according to Wikipedia, resulted in 1,191–1,300 Lebanese people, and 165 Israelis dead, and another one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis displaced.) Lebanon is trying to stay out of the Syrian equation through its “disassociation” policy for good reason.

And yet…

What is life without levity? Nour Malas wrote in the Wall Street Journal that there is now even a bridal shop in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, as couples choose to live the moment rather than suffer the maddening incertitude, trading inertia for action.

Likewise, I was determined this past weekend to get out of the concrete jungle, and remind myself of the beauty of Lebanon. With hubby, kids, and a whole another family in tow, I headed back to the Bekaa Valley to check out the restaurant Tawlet Ammiq. A day to enjoy a good meal, a glass of arak, and the company of good friends.

Tawlet (which means table in Arabic) is a community-run organic restaurant on the western edge of the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon. The menu varies each weekend according to what the village women choose to cook, much of which they do at home and bring to the restaurant already prepared. Young men from the two nearby villages refill your water, lemonade, or arak glass.

The food was fantastic – fresh and citrusy tabbouleh and fattoush salads; creamy eggplant, chickpea and yogurt spreads (mouttabal, hummus and labneh, respectively); kibbeh nayyeh (a raw beef dish similar to beef tartare); grilled chicken and fish. There was shish barek (meat pastries in a yogurt-dill soup), beef with frikke (toasted green wheat), and mulukhiyah (chicken stewed with some kind of leaves). For dessert, ripe nectarines, figs, cantaloupe and watermelon, lemon cookies and knafe, an Arabic dessert of sweet cheese topped with semolina crumbs and sugar syrup.

The setting was as lovely as the food – the restaurant is built onto the slope of a hill that is dotted by trees and ruins, and home to two tiny churches. Most of the tables are outdoors, some on a grass yard, others in a breezeway, all designed to take advantage of the view over the valley.

(If it sounds tempting, details are as follows: $40pp for adults, $20pp for children, reservations recommended, tel. 0300-4481. It’s about a 75–minute drive from Beirut. If you don’t have the time for a trip, there is another branch of Tawlet in the Gemmayze neighborhood of Beirut, which serves a buffet lunch Monday-Saturday for US$30pp.)

The restaurant is a transnational, interreligious effort, modeled after a development project in Jordan, its construction funded by Swiss development aid. While the cooks and waitstaff are from the Christian villages of Ammiq and Niha, the manager and his wife – who as head chef oversees the menu planning and food- are from a Druze village in the Shouf Cedar reserve. A tiny beacon of cooperation and successful co-existence in a region beleaguered by conflict.

The mountains on the far side of the valley form the border with Syria, less than 20 kilometers from where we were having lunch. The green mountain straight up from the water pitcher in the first picture above, and the tiny village on the top of the mountains in the second picture, are part of Syria. According to the restaurant manager, shelling and bombing were a regular part of the auditory landscape until a couple of weeks ago, when one faction or the other (I think he said the rebels, but don’t quote me on it) gained control of a town in the area just on the other side of the mountains. I wondered if the sound of distant shelling affected the appetites of those dining at Tawlet on those earlier weekends. We heard what might have been a few shots off in the distance at a certain point – which in Lebanon could mean we were hearing anything from a celebration of a political speech or a birthday, to actual fighting from the other side of the mountains – and tensed as we waited to see if the noises continued, fully relaxing again only when they did not.

And so we ate and laughed some more, carrying on, as humanity is wont to do, in the face of adversity.

*    *    *

Naturally, things can change in an instant, and even as I was writing this post I heard the news of the latest developments: that a US military strike might be forestalled if Syria’s chemical weapons are turned over to Russia.

The reprieve might be temporary, but we are good at the waiting game here. For now, it feels as if Lebanon has breathed a collective sigh of relief.

*For those who aren’t already familiar with it, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is the smash slogan that Sin City (Las Vegas) created for itself a few years ago. Interestingly, in looking for an online link to the journal article, I stumbled across another article, this one also from July but published in the New Statesman, with nearly the same phrase – credited to former director of policy planning at the US state department Dennis Ross. I don’t know who said it first, but it’s a fantasticsound bite.


Marvelous Mezze Part II – Vegetarians Beware

Hummus, tabbouleh, calamari, chicken wings – love ’em! Other favorites I didn’t get to in my last post are kibbeh, which are like deep-fried meatballs, and rakayek, filo encased deep-fried cheese sticks (and Americans are criticized for our love affair with the fried food!). What’s not to love about Lebanese mezze?

Or so I thought.

Then I heard about asfour. Little birds that you crunch through whole. The brain is supposed to be the best bit, as it pops through the crunchy head. That’s what is said at least.

I remembered a boss of mine, back from my days as a professional fundraiser. She had organized a fundraising meal with a fancy French chef, and told with relish the story of his bringing ortolan into the US for the dinner – tiny birds to be eaten whole, that are illegal to import, but apparently could be brought in if they are for personal consumption. (I don’t remember which charity she was fundraising for, but clearly it wasn’t the likes of the Sierra Club.) What I remembered her telling me, was that in accordance with tradition, when the birds were served at dinner each guest (including my boss) donned a cloak with an oversized hood, to be cast over their face and their plate of birds, so that no one would witness the shame of eating those tiny but delicious birds. Some French tradition I guess, that seemed very strange, and slightly revolting to me at the time. (Crazy, right? Read about it here if you don’t believe me.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an adventurous eater. I’ve tried alligator and sheep’s brain, and thanks to my Sicilian in-laws, I’ve eaten fritters of neonati — euphemistically called whitebait in English – newborn sardines that look like fingernail-long tiny white eels. Little birds were on every menu in Lebanon, and no shame was involved. My curiosity was piqued. But I’d seen them raw in the grocery store. I wasn’t ready to commit to an entire plate of them.

I so appreciate that butchers remove the heads of chickens before trying to sell them to me.

I waited until I was with a group of friends, and the one Lebanese in the party waxed enthusiastic about asfour. Together with another curious friend, a newly-arrived Brit, we agreed to share a plate of them. They are normally served deep-fried (again!), but this restaurant only offered them barbecued. “Is that okay?” asked the Lebanese. Ummm…. What do I know? “Sure, it’s fine.”

The kids were drawn to our table like cats to their prey when the asfour arrived. Eight little birds, three willing adults and three curious children. Maybe we’d finish them in a flash, and even have to order another plate!

For the record, they were served headless. But I still wasn’t sure how to approach it. I picked up a little bird with my fingers, and started by nibbling on what must be the breast. Then I crunched through the leg. The meat was dark, about the color of cooked liver. Its taste? I was expecting gamey perhaps, but it was… bitter. “Rather nasty,” said the Brit. I had to agree. The three brave kids who tried the birds proclaimed them “alright,” but didn’t polish off what was already a small snack. “They’re better fried,” said the Lebanese.

I’m not sure if I can muster up the interest to give them another shot.

Another mezze plate that I just can’t get excited about is kibbeh nayeh. Don’t confuse it with the “kibbeh” mentioned above – this one is served raw. Raw meat, rather like steak tartare, but made with lamb instead of beef, more artfully arranged on the plate. Perhaps it’s a legacy of the French colonization – or maybe the French got their passion for raw meat from the Lebanese. Because raw meat products are certainly considered a delicacy – as my husband found out when visiting a village outside of Beirut.

He’d arrived for a work-related ceremony, and the locals had prepared a special feast. He was presented with a plate with three types of…. unidentifiable chunks. Some were pink, others white, and others dark red. It was one of those occasions where refusing food would have been offensive. He tried each. The pink? The usual kibbeh nayeh.

The white?

Raw fat.

The blood-red?

Raw liver.

My stomach churns just thinking about it. And apparently his was churning the entire two-hour ride back to Beirut as well. “I just couldn’t finish the whole plate,” he confessed. I don’t blame him. Maybe I’ll stick to the asfour after all.

I don’t want to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth though…. Here’s one more image – of a fruit plate offered by a water-front restaurant after we stuffed ourselves with first-class seafood one day. Complete with a glass of arak, the national anise-based liqueur. (A serious digestion aid – the kind needed after a plate of raw meat.)

And for anyone interested, here’s a recipe for those delicious cheese rolls. I can buy them frozen at the grocery store and just fry them up at home, but for those of you that don’t have that luxury, they’re pretty darn easy to make from scratch.

Marvelous Mezze – Part I

We’re in the midst of the holiday season, and it’s time to talk about food (since it’s all I’m thinking about these days….)

Food was one of the things I most heard about when I told friends that I was moving to Lebanon. “Oh, the food!…” “Let me recommend a restaurant to you!…” “The food is amazing!….” Frankly, it got me pretty excited about Beirut. (Whoever says the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach obviously hasn’t met me yet.)

In fact, the very first evening we arrived, after twenty hours of travel, we got to the hotel around 9pm, and decided to step out for dinner: mezze along the sea.

Clockwise from top right: sautéed dandelion greens, fried calamari (although you can hardly see it behind the bowl of aioli sauce in this picture), garlic octopus, grilled eggplant puree (similar to baba ghanoush, but with a distinct smoky flavor). Oh, and French fries for the kids – which I’ve since discovered are a staple on mezze menus (can we attribute this to Lebanon’s former colonization by the French?…). Fantastic.

Of course tabbouleh and hummus are on every mezze menu, and they are infinitely superior to the versions sold in tiny plastic tubs in U.S. supermarkets. Lebanese tabbouleh is made with the freshest parsley, local olive oil, a few tomatoes, and only a small sprinkling of bulgur.

This picture of Lebanese-style tabbouleh comes from the blog of Fair Trade Lebanon – and they have a recipe for it too. I was eating it happily with pita until my Arabic tutor came to find out. She was scandalized. Apparently here in Lebanon it’s eaten with lettuce or cabbage leaves. I tried it afterwards. It’s good that way too.

Hummus here is always exceptionally creamy, and comes in variations like spicy, or “Beiruti” – studded with pine nuts and chopped beef. There’s even a hummus rivalry between archenemies Lebanon and Israel, over whose is bigger. No, it’s nothing crass — it’s about the biggest plate of hummus. The world record is being fought over between the two countries, with Lebanon currently the title-holder, after doubling Israel’s previous record back in 2010, with a 10,452-kilo plate of hummus . (That’s nearly 23,000 pounds.) I just hope someone ate it and all that food didn’t go to waste. Maybe next time the competition shouldn’t be for the biggest, but for the best-tasting. I volunteer as judge!