Culinary, cultural crossroads in Beirut

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.

Q&A with Kamal Mouzawak

Kamal Mouzawak is a Lebanese food visionary. He has created the farmers market Souk El Tayeb in Beruit, which brings people from all over Lebanon to sell their produce. He set up Tawlet in an old garage where small producers and cooks from around Lebanon can come to cook the regional recipes. He also extends himself way beyond these two spaces into a number of other projects including education, writing and various international public speaking. He is due to participate again at the MAD food circus in Copenhagen.

Drop Everything asked Aoibheann Mac Namara of Ard Bia at Nimmos to hit him with a Q&A on food, life and getting things done.

What motivates you every morning?

“Be the change you want to see” said Gandhi, which means, in other words like, shut the fuck up, you know? Stop nagging and go just do it. Just do it. And this is what motivates me every everyday. If we have mind and energy, what is it all for…? What can my contribution be to life? This is what I think. In Islam they say every act is an act of adoration. Do the best thing possible, what ever you do. This is your act of adoration this is your contribution to life, speaking, cooking… do your job what ever it is… talk, write.., do the best possible.

How do your projects come about?

Projects are simply an expression of what you want to do. So you believe in something and projects are just an expression. I started with the farmers market and it was about supporting small farmers and producers who are doing an amazing job. How to bring small producers from land to city rural to urban with a developing purchasing power? It was an organic evolution. Then we realized we needed food education for children, food and feast regional food festivals in the villages, then we thought to enjoy the cuisine itself, then Tawlet came about. Tawlet is not just about the produce but it is about the cuisine itself, cooked by the woman themselves or the producers themselves.

What are the driving forces in your life?

Well I told you, be the change you want to see… and amazement by life and its expression. I am not religious at all. I was born into a Christian family but from a very young age I saw people destroyed by religion. If your God is right then mine must be wrong or vice versa so how can this be? There must be a bigger truth than all of these religions I totally believe in a wonderful amazing big super power but I don’t want to explain, or understand, or preach at all… I just try to celebrate and enjoy it in every single breath. I respect religions but I do not believe in them.

Are there personal and professionally principals in your life that are one and the same ?

Totally the same. Totally, how can we be schziophrenic you know? They have to be one and the same. Life, a certain way to live, different expressions of who we are … life, house, family, friends all facets co-exist… they can not but be the same… you can read someone from one detail and you can see the whole person.

What does food mean to you in its very essence?

It’s a wonderful expression of people, of their land. It is the most important most authentic expression of people, their land and their history. So for me it’s a story rather then a gastronomic adventure.

So has America lost touch with its roots? Not at all. America is a mish mash of cultures and its cuisine is the same. It’s the most authentic expression of people, their land and their history.

What do the next five years bring for you?

I never think five years or ten years, it’s one belief and one vision that brings different expressions along the way.

How do you feel you’ve impacted on the Lebanese society, food scene, the people, the culture?

I am just doing my job. But as I am a face, and a mouth, I must speak… but every time I am trying to do something I am just speaking for Suzanne who makes the best Kibbeh, or Amalie who is making the best breads. My work is to talk about these people and I have to do it as well as their Kibbeh and their breads. This is how I see it.

How did it come about that this is your vocation?

I am a son of farmers and producers, this is the most important thing. I was born between gardens and kitchens.

What’s the future for Lebanon?

Ouff!! Who knows… it’s a country of uncertainty… unfortunately… which makes it very exciting for a visitors and very tiring for those that live here. You know, it’s a lot of adrenaline, which makes dipping in and out for a week or two, or a month or two amazing, but when you live in so much adrenaline on a daily basis… it’s like, can I go to Switzerland?!

At some points I want to have a green light or a red light that on may 15th I have a meeting and it is ON. Things can be unpredictable all the time, this is what we live in.

Will you live here forever?

I am living here today… I believe very much in the here and now. Wherever I am it’s, you know, how to make the best contribution to life? And how to enjoy wherever I am, here and now… How to enjoy it the best for me, for me to be able to give out the best… on whatever level it is.

But I feel, you know, this place gave me a lot and I am grateful to this land first of all, and secondly if there are things to be done here and there… if I am not going to do them… not me as Kamal, but me as a Lebanese, then who will do them? I have a certain devoir, what you call devoir? Duty.

Public office is that a possibility for you?

I’ll do whatever. And if you want to make any real change you need to be in the system.

But the system might not be ready for you?

Well I don’t know, we have to try… OK yalla let’s have lunch!