August 24, 2011
I’m officially back in New York now, for the foreseeable while. If we’re going to be technical about it, I suppose the correct way to put it is: “I’ve moved back to New York.” Brooklyn, to be exact. My Manhattan apartment is still sublet and I’m now living in a part of Brooklyn that’s somewhere between Downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, and Boerum Hill—for which if I were a real-estate agent I might coin the catchy nickname DoBrFoGrBoH.
I’m loving New York in the summer, but also missing Beirut like crazy. Call it denial, but I don’t quite think of myself as having left Beirut: Part of me will always be there, I’ll be back there often, and I’ve also left more shoes, clothes, books, and sundry items in my Beirut closet than I care to admit (or that my airline would care to let me bring back to New York all at once without an exorbitant extra-luggage fee).
Just below I’ve pulled together some shots that I took over the past year in Beirut (a few pics of the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the romantic, the inspiring, and assorted other adjectives) and elsewhere around Lebanon, to keep me there mentally/visually and to give readers who haven’t been there a feel for the place. Hover your mouse over the photo for a nutshell description of what it is, and stay tuned until I take you there literally (well, almost literally) in my book about my year in Lebanon, slated for publication by Broadway Books/Random House in summer 2012. Watch this space for more info about my book as it nears publication. Meanwhile, here goes…
July 18, 2011
A little while ago (back in November; scroll down), I went off on a rant about falafel. To summarize: I don’t like falafel all that much. This, turns out, is not such a popular opinion. Most people love falafel, at least just judging from the responses I got via email and Twitter. All were fun to read, and some were helpful; more on that in a moment. I do understand the potential of a good falafel sandwich—the fried-ness, the creaminess, the meaty non-meatiness. But as I said before, most falafel sandwiches I’ve had leave me wishing I were eating meat instead. And since Middle Eastern food, including a great many of its vegetarian specialties, is so dizzyingly varied and out-of-control delicious, I hated to think that falafel was one of the main dishes representing “the Middle East.”
Over the past months I’ve made it a personal mission to like falafel more, or at least dislike it less. I listened to the recommendations some Beirut-savvy readers sent my way, and I went through them one by one.
Ok, I’ve learned a few things: Falafel can be pretty tasty. Can hit the spot. Can bring happiness. But not if it’s half-assed, which I hate to say it often is. True that the condiments in the sandwich—tartar sauce, hot sauce if you want it— can hide a multitude of sins. But then the sandwich ends up just tasting like the soggy muddle I usually find it to be. Here’s what I discovered during my months-long falafel marathon:
To be really good, and not just passable, the falafel balls have to be just-fried, like, seconds ago—ideally right in front of your eyes. As they’re coming off the heat, they’ll still have that hot-crunchy-moist thing going on. Because the balls are made with mashed favas and chickpeas and have a high potential mushiness factor, they quickly turn lukewarm-soggy-mealy when they’ve been sitting around, so extra-freshness and heat are key. My favorite places for fire-fresh falafel? Falafel Arax in Burj Hammoud (thanks, Ziad), and Sahyoun in Achrafieh (thanks to the several people who mentioned this; I’d heard it recommended before but never bothered to check it out until people wrote in about it after my rant). Oddly, no one mentioned that of the two Sahyouns—owned by competing family members and sitting side by side on Damascus Road—the one that’s further downhill, closer to downtown, is markedly better than the other; more on that below.
Here’s another thing I learned is an absolutely crucial, make-or-break factor in a falafel sandwich: The ingredients have to taste like what they actually are. Meaning, tomatoes have to have real tomato flavor, not that bland, out-of-season tinny taste. Radishes have to have that spicy, peppery kick. I personally prefer raw instead of pickled radishes in my falafel sandwich. At some places, including the popular Beirut falafel joint Freiha, in Achrafieh off Sassine Square, the radishes are pickled (that’s fine), but they also glow with that neon-pinkness that just can’t be natural. If it is natural, I’d like an explanation of why the color in those pickled radishes and others I’ve seen around town gets so preposterously shiny-bright-pink, beyond what any beet-coloring or any other naturally occurring red/pink ingredient can plausibly ever do. Since there aren’t very many ingredients in a good falafel sandwich, nor should there be, each one has to pull its weight.
Also: Mint makes a huge difference. After twice tasting the impeccable mint-spiked falafel sandwiches at Sahyoun (the one closer to downtown, per my note above), I’m convinced about this. Most places only use parsley, which, if the parsley is fresh and lush and vibrant (as at Arax and Freiha), can be just fine; but to me, the falafel sandwich won’t be truly delicious unless it has mint sprigs in it. That startlingly cool, bittersweet mintiness really cuts through the earthy bean flavor and makes the whole sandwich pop.
I’m happy to report that I’ve now achieved the falafel-craving goal I was hoping for— albeit only in this way: If I’m hungry and I happen to be near a falafel joint that I know serves extra-fresh-hot falafel, and puts mint instead of or along with the parsley, then I’m there. I will crave; I will eat; I will enjoy.
Otherwise? Just give me the shawarma, thanks.
June 15, 2011
That Thing I’ve Always Said About Being a City Girl?
Allow me to revise that: Green Acres Is the Place To Be. I think I may be coming around to the country life, big-time. Never thought I’d be saying that. After spending some blissfully quiet, partly internet-less weeks in the mountains and along Lebanon’s northern coast, I’m back in Beirut again. From the minute I returned to the city I’ve been speedily deprogrammed: Arrivederci, la dolce vita. Hello sound and fury, Beirut-style.
Hello car horns blaring compulsively all day long, bass-heavy music thumping out
car windows, shopkeepers screaming greetings at each other from across the noisy street, mopeds careening around corners treacherously, helmet-less drivers amazingly dodging sudden death again and again, cars driving in whatever direction they feel like, and now that it’s summer, that patented Beiruti blend of bronzed, glam-sunglassed women traipsing along the waterfront Corniche boulevard next to full-hijab-wearing tourists from the Gulf, and blonde-dreadlocked rasta boys from who knows where, and coiffed, cologned, get-out-of-my-way dudes veering their oversized SUVs up onto the sidewalk to dodge traffic.
In Beirut, in just about any cafe or bar you go to, people are always debating the political situation. In the countryside, not so much. Do I want to be back amid birdsongs and gently swaying trees and sweetly fragrant jasmine and mulberry and cherry branches? Yes. But I did miss Beirut. A lot. This crazy-ass city is undeniably addictive.
Speaking of politics: Lebanon has a government again. I guess there should be an exclamation point here. The country has just come through five government-less months, since the cabinet collapsed back in mid-January, and after endless murky wheelings and dealings, new prime minister Najib Miqati has MacGyvered some kind of cabinet together this week, involving various twigs and strings and bits of glue, which, in the end, appears to favor the March 8 Party, aka the Opposition, aka Hezbollah, and also various forces aligned with Lebanon’s northern neighbor and former occupier, Syria—aka the country most likely to descend into a nasty civil war any second now. As usual, not an enormously promising situation. How long will this arrangement last in Lebanon? Where is the country headed? The region? The world? As usual, anyone’s guess. But in case anyone was wondering, here’s what I was up to over the past month or so—working on my book mostly, and visiting friends and relatives, but also doing this:
Staring at the Mediterranean in Amchit, an hour’s drive up the coast from Beirut.
Staring at the mountains in Brummana, less than an hour east of Beirut.
Picking cherries from tree branches in Hammana, a mountain town an hour southeast of Beirut.
Then, after gorging on tree-picked cherries, walking over to check out Mokadimin Palace, aka Lamartine Palace, nicknamed after the 19th century French poet slash politician Alphonse de Lamartine, who spent a couple of weeks living in this house in Hammana in 1833.
And, way down in southern Lebanon, sitting for hours reading, writing, and chilling on the terrace of my great-uncle’s house in Marjeyoun, two hours south of Beirut, near the border.
And cracking open fresh chickpea pods to eat the small raw green peas inside, which have a grassy, slightly bitter flavor—sort of like snap peas. A first for me, eating raw chickpeas straight off the stem. I’d driven by vendors selling them on the side of the road, but it wasn’t until my friend Sabah gave me a bunch before I went to Marjeyoun that I got to taste them.
And, while eating fresh raw chickpeas (aka raw hummus, because “hummus” in Arabic means “chickpeas”), staring out at the valleys and mountains of Marjeyoun, a serene, perhaps ironically serene (these days anyway) region along the ever-tense Lebanon-Israel border.
And then visiting my old friends, the Tohmes, in Mokhtara, a gorgeous little village in the Shouf mountains, an hour and a half southeast of Beirut.
And picking Mokhtara’s luscious mulberries …
…which, especially when they’re ripe, are super super messy. But, well, worth it in the end. In other words: the quintessential Lebanese fruit.
Anyway, so that’s what I’ve been doing for the past month. Thanks, as always, for reading, and listening, and looking. More soon, from dear, sweet, nutty old Beirut.
Going Up the Country
May 15, 2011
Back in Beirut for a day, taking a quick break from my glorious (albeit intensely busy) month in the countryside. I’m spending most of May in a couple of small villages outside Beirut, working on my book away from the noise and constant interruptions and distractions and electrical breakdowns of Beirut life. Actually, here in Lebanon, you can’t get away from electrical breakdowns no matter where you are, but at least in the countryside I get to stare at mulberry trees while I wait, counting to 100 (patience, Salma), until the power comes back on.
On that note, i.e. the joy and the pain of life in Lebanon in 2011, my essay about my year in Beirut so far just came out in the ForbesLife May 2011 issue. Many thanks to all who have sent me such sweet and thoughtful responses to the essay. The rest of the story is to be continued, when my book comes out. So, for now, I’m going back up to the country to keep working on the manuscript, to stare at some more trees, and to pour a few glasses of my favorite mulberry juice drink, aka sharab el toot… Back soon!
Springtime in Beirut…
April 22, 2011
Think springtime in Paris, only with better sound effects. Suddenly spring is in the air, and Beirut is feeling festive— at least the local fans of various international football teams are. The café around the corner from my apartment has taken to screening whatever match happens to be on, often to a packed house, and accompanied by the setting off of those cheap but loud fireworks that are illegal in most cities with a functioning government. But not illegal here! They’re just fireworks, I tell myself as I lie in bed at 2am listening to a series of jolting explosions downstairs. Hey, explosions are fun for the whole family! Then I see on the news, just this morning for instance, that clashes over property-rights and construction violations in Tyre (beautiful ancient city in south Lebanon) resulted in armed confrontations that left two people dead this week, and similar conflicts are looming in Beirut’s suburbs. But Lebanon at the moment is… well, at least not Syria.
So how is it here? Very quick update: After nearly three months, the new Lebanese prime minister-designate, Najib Miqati, still hasn’t been able to form a cabinet, thanks to the (oops, pardon my yawn) endless infighting and gridlock among the political parties and the usual suspects. I won’t go into it here, except to say that it’s, more or less, business as usual. But I’ll direct interested readers to Qifa Nabki, a witty and smart blog about Lebanon’s (and the whole region’s) baffling politics, from a Lebanese Ph.D. student at Harvard.
But what’s really on my mind right now? Spring, and all the delicious things born in spring, starting first and foremost with my new baby niece, Marlena, who was born in Berkeley in late March. I went to California for a few days at the end of March to visit my brother Samir and my sister-in-law Laila and meet sweet Marlena—wait, I think I have a photo in my wallet—oh yes, here it is! And now I’m back in Beirut, stocking up on loads of thrilling spring and summer fruits that are suddenly popping up everywhere.
First off, I couldn’t resist buying a kilo of janarek, which look like tiny green plums (they’re related to plums actually; see pic above) and have an ultra-tanginess that I could never resist when I lived in Lebanon as a child, and once again can’t stop eating now that they’re suddenly in season. We used to eat them sprinkled with salt; you take a bite then sprinkle salt into the space your teeth make. Now I mostly just pop the janarek in my mouth and wait for that puckery taste to flood in, like eating a whole handful of Sour Patch Kids but so much juicier, wilder, more luscious. I made a salad with janarek this morning, mixing chickpeas with minced cucumbers and sliced yellow cherry tomatoes, and bits of minced janarek, along with bulgur and chopped almonds. Olive oil, sea salt, a little fresh lemon, and done.
Don’t know what possessed me to put the janarek fruits into a salad but I woke up thinking about this and decided yalla (as we say here in Lebanon; means “let’s go”). Plus I had tons of those little green things in my fridge, more than enough for a salad and for straight-up snacking too. I won’t give an actual recipe, since I didn’t write one down as I improvised the salad and you don’t really need one (but if you’re reading this in Lebanon and can find janarek near you, the salad is the easiest thing to make). I’ve rarely seen janarek in the States, except once at Kalustyan’s years ago, imported from California I think. Do please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you come across any stateside.
Fake Can Be Just as Good
March 24, 2011
Contender for best street snack in the world: sesame bread stuffed with melted cheese, or, in Lebanese parlance, “kaak bi jibne.” Had a fantastic, melty-toasty-nutty kaak the other day in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city, about an hour and a half north of Beirut (not to be confused with the other, currently tragic, Tripoli in Libya). My friend Claire had flown from New York to visit me in Beirut, and we jumped on a public bus to head to Tripoli to a) poke around the ancient port city b) eat fresh seafood and sundry other items, including traditional Arabic pastries at the seminal Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons sweets shop, and c) explore the surreal, unfinished parallel-architectural-universe called the Permanent International Fair, built by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the early ’70s and abandoned when the civil war started in 1975.
The public bus situation in Lebanon is, to put it mildly, spastic. The “express bus” between Beirut and Tripoli, if it’s not your lucky day, will make no fewer than two dozen ad hoc stops along the way, and drivers won’t shy from pulling over at a streetside coffee vendor to fuel up and take passengers’ caffeine orders, delaying the trip by a good half hour. But: This is Lebanon. You can’t always get what you want. Or what you need. But damned if you won’t have an adventure trying.
Up in Tripoli we lucked into a gorgeous day, sunny and in the mid-60s. Our plans, once we got off the bus, panned out nicely: The “halawet bi jibneh” pastry at Hallab rocked, those thick, soft crepe-like rolls arriving at our table stuffed with gooey mild, slightly tangy cheese and served to us hot and drizzled with sugar-syrup. The fried Sultan Ibrahim (rouget-like fish) at the iconic old Silver Shore restaurant along the waterfront was wonderfully fresh and crunchy, and especially heavenly when drizzled in lemon and tahini and scooped up with pieces of olive-oil-fried pita bread. The Oscar Niemeyer pavilion was jaw-droppingly wild and weird, a readymade set for a horror movie, its futuristic buildings—including a St.Louis-like arch, a huge metal dome, and a Jetsons-spaceship-looking structure—scattered imposingly around an enormous landscaped park, the buildings almost completely abandoned except for the odd bits of graffiti (“Punx not dead”). A guard at the entrance told us the unfinished pavilion is used from time to time for car shows and other exhibits (there’s a book fair coming up next month! For fans of Twilight, perhaps?).
When I’m back in Tripoli next time, one of the first things I’m going for is that kaak stuffed with cheese. We’d tried ordering it at the Hallab pastry shop but they’d already run out for the day. We hit the jackpot later on in Tripoli’s old souk, where street vendors walk around with poles stacked high with rings of kaak bread—the size of an oblong, sesame seed-coated Frisbee with a hole in the middle. When I was growing up in Beirut I was always warned: Don’t buy kaak off the street! But I’m tempted to daily, and daily I resist. In Tripoli there was no resisting, but luckily we found a full-on furn (bakery) on the edge of the souk and decided to buy our kaak there instead of from a street vendor, in hopes that the real-estate upgrade would make for a clean, gastrointestinally sound experience. It did. The kaak came freshly baked and stuffed with hot, melted Picon, a locally popular processed cheese the significance of which (to my childhood) you’ll read more about when my book comes out. In the meantime, suffice to say: It’s delicious, sort of terrible but sort of awesome, the Velveeta of Lebanon. But hard to argue that it works beautifully when melted into a kaak—think Velveeta in a Philly cheesesteak, or Kraft slices on a cheeseburger. Sometimes you’ve gotta have processed cheese. Because sometimes, after all, fake can be just as good.
Food and Politics: A Match Made in…?
February 21, 2011
Tough to say what’s the bigger preoccupation in Lebanon: the pleasures of food or the pain of politics. That’s not to say politics is all pain (well, in Lebanon arguably it is). Sometimes politics brings, at the very least, humor—albeit the gallows kind—and something to talk about while dipping the Arabic bread into the babaghanoush with one hand, and fingering the worry beads with the other.
Back to food, after a brief political interlude:
Depressing to see what’s happening in Libya at the moment (government dealing with the demonstrations by mowing down protestors with machine guns), but on the whole it’s been an invigorating, to say the least, few weeks of watching the Middle East political scene transform minute by minute. I hope that guy who set himself on fire in Tunisia and precipitated the revolution there (true, its after-effects are still unclear) is looking down from wherever he is, and seeing how the match he lit is radically changing the world.
Been keeping eyes simultaneously on Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Kuwait, Syria, and everywhere demonstrations of various sizes and intensity levels are playing out around the region. Here I must, again, point out the irony that Lebanon is now the calm country in the Middle East. Calm is a strong word. The tensions here are mounting without a doubt, although more over the formation of the new cabinet than over any repressive dictatorship (a dictatorship is the one nasty political formation we don’t happen to have in Lebanon, although we’ve got the other bases—corruption, inefficiency, incompetence—more than covered).
To stay on top of events, I’ve been reading the following blogs, which give sharp insights into what’s happening in the Middle East: Qifa Nabki is from a Ph.D. student at Harvard, and Angry Arab is from a political science professor at California State and visiting professor at UC Berkeley. Both are by Lebanese writers, and soaked in regional nuances and realities, and a good read to boot. The other sites they link to are worth a read too, like this one and this one. My historian cousin Ilham recommends this terrific blog too, which today shows a poster pledging support by Egyptians for the protests in Wisconsin, and commentary on the U.S.’s unfortunate decision to again veto a unanimous UN Security Council resolution denouncing the continuation of settlement-building in Israel.
Now, back to… eating, the other Lebanese national pastime.
Sometimes it takes having out-of-town visitors to decide what makes the shortlist. In the past couple of weeks, we hit:
Feluka: For Rich’s birthday and an outdoor lunch of exquisite fried Sultan Ibrahim fish, while looking out over the Mediterranean on a sunny, tank-top February day in Beirut.
Le Phenicien: For Sultan Ibrahim again, fried to crispy deliciousness and sprinkled with lemon—at a cozy terraced restaurant in the southern port town of Tyre, which even Alexander the Great had a tough time conquering (he won—eventually).
Varouj: For eternally fantastic Armenian food at this tiny restaurant in Beirut’s labyrinthine Burj Hammoud neighborhood, with friends Zeina, Marwan, Maria, and Yassir.
Cru: For a few glasses of red at this new wine bar in the Hamra neighborhood, which pays serious attention to dozens of wines from all over Lebanon, not just the usual suspects.
Barometre: I’ve written about this before. One of the best little Lebanese food spots in the Hamra/American University of Beirut area. And a great little bar too.
Abdel Wahab: Written about this one in other publications beyond Salmaland, and it continues to make a solid showing on the Lebanese-food front. But the service recently? Disaster. Off my list for the time being.
Bab el Mina: For a seafood feast, spot-on service, and a beautiful view of the sea and the 11th century Crusader ruins from the ancient Mediterranean harbor at Byblos. Add cold Almaza beer: bliss.
Demo: New favorite bar, or this month anyway, in Achrafieh. Just a bar, no frills, but a cool narrow room, and old movie posters on the wall, but I’m not sure if they’re real. “Satan Was a Lesbian.” No idea if that was a real movie, but I hope it was.
Those are just the highlights from the past two weeks. Political tornadoes are swirling all over the Middle East, but here in Beirut, once again we wait, we see, we talk, we eat….
P.S. That guy enjoying a cold one in the photo above? It’s my brother, Samir, helping me out with the eating and the talking. Thanks Sam!
What I Saw at the Revolution
February 1, 2011
Since my last post I’ve been spending some time in… Egypt. More on that in a second. I returned to Beirut on Sunday night, to the complicated-but-calm political atmosphere that’s been in effect since I arrived in Lebanon last summer. The tension had boiled up during the governmental collapse in mid-January and in the days that followed, and there were those demonstrations in Beirut and Tripoli last week protesting the president’s likely selection for the newly vacant prime minister post. But now things here are back to their familiar wait-and-see, life-goes-on mode. Plus, there’s nothing like Egypt 2011 to make Lebanon look like Denmark.
I was in Egypt on assignment, but not for a political story. Since at this precise moment there’s no other story in Egypt but the political one—a thrilling and inspiring story, to say the least— I’m back in Beirut to bide my time. Hopefully I’ll get to go back to Egypt sometime before too long. While in Egypt I did manage to have some busy but delicious times in Cairo and Alexandria before the protests started breaking out last Tuesday.
And this is me (below) in Giza, just a few minutes across the Nile from Cairo, on that same morning, Tuesday, January 25— cheerfully and earnestly standing in front of the Pharaoh Cheops’s funeral boat, hours before the revolutionary drumbeat started softly thumping..
On Tuesday evening in Alexandria a friend and I had nearly gotten caught up, accidentally, in one of the earliest riots to break out along the waterfront Corniche boulevard, before the shisha really hit the fan later in the week. The riot police rushed in with terrifying speed, and clouds of tear gas burned our eyes and nostrils, but thankfully this was well before the police had started firing live rounds into the crowds.
Here (right) are some of the incredible Egyptian dishes I ate in Cairo when I went back to the city on Thursday, the last day of near-normalcy there. I’ll save the food porn for my article, which will hopefully run not long after the political situation resolves itself and stops being pretty much the only Egypt story anyone wants to hear about, for good reason.
By Friday I was far from the fray. I’d flown over to the Red Sea coast in the Sinai desert (left). It was peaceful, gorgeous, heavenly there, but of course I couldn’t tear myself away from the TV news and the footage of the riots in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and elsewhere—which by Friday were already bearing the signs of a historic revolution.
I fell hard for Egypt in my days there—its mind-blowing beauty and history, of course, and its witty and genuine people — and I would’ve fallen for the country even had it not just undertaken an incredibly brave and spirited, and long overdue, revolution. I didn’t have email access for a few days once Mubarak’s government decided to shut down the entire internet in Egypt, and there were some airport headaches over the weekend when I was trying to leave Egypt, but the inconveniences were well worth the chance to be there during a truly epic moment in the nation’s history.
PS: Apologies for the Peggy Noonan reference above. The title of her book has been on my mind, for obvious reasons, over the past week. But I do hate to advertise her book. Haven’t met the lady, but let’s just say I’m not a big fan of her work. Still, a good title, undeniably.
The Ice Storm, the Meltdown, and What I Ate
January 13, 2011
Back in Beirut after narrowly avoiding gigantic snowstorms in Europe and on the East Coast on my quick holiday getaway. Just for that, what do I get? I arrive in Lebanon just in time for this season’s theatrical political meltdown. Should be part of the weather forecast here: Sunny, clear, chance of governmental collapse.
Not quite what I’d counted on as my welcome back to Beirut, but the news hardly comes as a big surprise after months, years, of simmering tensions over the anticipated results of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. In response to Wednesday’s headlines, I did what most emotionally intelligent Lebanese I admire do: Take in the news, obsess over it for a while, and then do your damndest to ignore it until further notice. Lebanese culture values generosity, and when it comes to political instability we sure aren’t stingy. So it’s best to pace yourself at the dinner table.
Not to be trite: I could go into much more detail on the never-a-dull-moment political scene in Lebanon and this whole feisty corner of the world. But you can get that elsewhere, and I imagine it’s not why you logged on to Salmaland. Right now I’m hungry, and so are you, I’m guessing. Call me later and we’ll discuss why the Middle East is or isn’t doomed.
So here’s what I ate, when I switched off the news and went for a bigger-than-usual dose of comfort food: kibbe labniyeh and mujaddarah. Kibbe labniyeh is a grandma-makes-it-best dish of kibbe balls (Lebanese meatballs) in a minty yogurt sauce. The balls are made from ground lamb and burghul and baked until they’re crunchy-brown, then ladled with warm, tangy Lebanese yogurt spiked with garlic and mint. Very simple, as Lebanese food goes, and a dish that’s been known to rocket me over just about any emotional bump. Mujaddarah too: The lentil dish is made from rice and lentils slow-cooked until they’re soft, nearly the consistency of mashed potatoes, but still a little toothy, and at the end they’re sprinkled with crisp fried onions and served with warm Arabic bread.
I occasionally make kibbe labniyeh and mujaddarah for myself, but fried from jetlag and needing a quick dose of comfort food post-headlines, I went to a restaurant near my apartment, the reliable if too-clean (is there such a thing as too clean?) Socrate. Not an atmospheric place—and the service is sniffy, I always find—but you’ll get solid execution of certain comfort-food classics, which is all I was really wanting, and needing, and craving. Except for a stable, functional, real-live government, for once, in this tiny country on the Mediterranean Sea. Maybe I’ll get that in next year’s stocking. I promise I’ll be good. In the meantime, here’s to a happy, safe, delicious, and stable—but, er, also exciting!—2011 for all.
December 22, 2010
An update on my last couple of weeks of (over)eating and drinking in Beirut follows just below, but first, a link to a story in this week’s TravelandLeisure.com, in which I was interviewed about some of my favorite comfort foods in America. It reminded me of how much I miss chicken-fried steak—perhaps the only hyper-carnivorous food absent from Beirut’s meat-crazed food landscape. But I’ll be in Houston briefly over Christmas and plan to pack in a chicken-fried steak or two before I return to Beirut.
Now, back to the regularly scheduled programming: Eating around Beirut. I’ve been wanting to check out Hussein Hadid’s Kitchen in Beirut ever since it opened, but because it’s not an actual restaurant—just a private-party space, and an exceptionally stunning one I’d heard—I hadn’t yet had occasion to go. Until this weekend. My cousin Mona and her husband Jia-Ching threw a wedding party at Hussein Hadid’s Kitchen on Sunday night for friends and cousins (there’d been a beautiful wedding lunch for the extended family earlier in the week), and it was truly one of the most gorgeous, deliciously catered wedding events I’ve ever been to. No exaggeration.
Food-obsessed though it is, Beirut doesn’t really have a celebrity-chef culture to speak of, but Hussein Hadid is one of the few recognizable chef names in the city, and not just because he’s the nephew of starchitect Zaha Hadid (who is in the process of building a much-talked-about center on the campus of her alma mater, the American University of Beirut). Hussein Hadid moved back to Beirut after training at the French Culinary Institute in New York and cooking at Manhattan’s San Domenico. Now, besides catering private parties at Hussein Hadid’s Kitchen, in his parents’ drop-dead stunning old Lebanese-style house in Beirut’s Mossaitbeh district, he also runs The Brgr Co., a new burger restaurant in the Achrafieh neighborhood, where he’s serving straight-up (albeit cheffed-up) Angus beef burgers topped with cheddar. I haven’t been there yet but will as soon as the burger cravings start hitting hard.
At the wedding party on Sunday, I piled my plate twice with Hadid’s freshly grilled, steaming-hot skewers of shish taouk (lemon-and-garlic marinated chicken) and kafta (tender, juicy patties of seasoned lamb), and mini versions of manouche flatbreads (grilled right there in front of guests, on a dome-shaped saj oven, and covered in either zaatar or the fabulous tangy fermented yogurt known as kishk)—plus crostinis topped with tart goat labneh and bits of dried fig. There was much more than that, but those were the dishes I could’ve easily had thirds or fourths of; I virtuously limited myself to seconds. After a few desserts presented in picturesque rows of shot glasses—and filled with things like luscious Lebanese-style rice and milk pudding (muhallabieh) and moghli (a rice-based pudding, flavored with anise and caraway and topped with pistachios, almonds, pine nuts, and shredded coconut )— it was time to hit the dance floor, and to send the dashing couple off on a whirlwind week of travels around the Middle East before they head home to California.
Other highlights from a couple of weeks of pre-holiday indulgence:
I tried musakhan— a Palestinian dish of Arabic lavash-style bread layered with onions and pinenuts and roast chicken and flavored with generous amounts of sumac and olive oil—for the first time. And I can’t wait to have it again, and again. I should convince Umayma and Nasser, family friends who produced this glorious dish the other day, to open a restaurant specializing in musakhan. Also: foul mudammas, the classic Middle Eastern dish of fava beans cooked in garlic and lemon—which Umayma and Nasser served in a Gaza-style version, i.e. topped with fiery red hot sauce. Now I’m not sure I can ever have foul mudammas without hot sauce again.
Dove into a big bowl of plump mussels with hot, salty frites at Comptoir Parisien in Achrafieh, to celebrate my friend Mirna’s birthday. Afterwards: We had not one but two of the restaurant’s signature gooey chocolate cakes. (We shared them both. But still.)
Loaded up on soujouk, Armenian-style garlicky beef sausages in pomegranate molasses, with my cousin Ilham at Baromètre. This classic American University of Beirut hangout could keep a packed house if it just served drinks and passable snacks, but instead it has a stellar, better-than-it-needs-to-be kitchen that keeps me coming back not just for the cozy bar vibe but for the food. Sometimes only for the food, mainly that exceptional soujouk. True happiness.
Relaxed over drinks (and food, but mostly drinks) with my friends Curtis and Diana at Time Out, a low-lit bar and restaurant on the second floor of an old Achrafieh district house with a killer garden that’s open only in summer. The food here isn’t the draw, not for me anyway. I had a so-so penne arrabiatta; probably serves me right for ordering pasta in a non-Italian restaurant, especially in Beirut where very few Italian restaurants, I hate to say, really nail it. (I hear the sashimi at Time Out is the thing to get, but I’m more eager to check out a couple of Beirut’s go-to sushi spots first.) Nonetheless, Time Out is a new favorite of mine. Can’t beat those comfy couches and the languid, laissez-faire mood. Could’ve stayed for hours and hours.
Speaking of couches and languid moods: Wishing a very happy and restful holiday to all!
PS I’m making some headway in my falafel investigations. I got a slew of emails and texts after I posted my falafel rant (below), either telling me where to go in Beirut for a falafel that will change my life (or at least my mind) or agreeing with my failure to fall in love with falafel—so far. But more on all that another time…
Drinking, and More Drinking. And Eating. And Then More Eating.
I have to agree with Frank Bruni’s anti-coffee-obsessiveness rant in the NYT last week. As a sometime coffee obsessive myself, I’ve become bored with my own pursuit-of-the-best-cup stubbornness, and have reverted to just wanting to drink coffee: good coffee, yes, but minus the slavish experimentation with various contraptions in search of the holy grail. Those new $18,000 Slayer coffee machines and their ilk at certain establishments in New York seem so ‘90s, like Louboutin stilettos slinking along the cobblestones in search of the latest Meatpacking District club. Did we really live through that era?
Bruni’s piece coincided with my own epiphany about my morning cup: On a basic weekday here in Beirut, a quick boil-and-stir Nescafé actually makes me just as happy, or almost as happy, in my morning fog as does a cup brewed using a more pain-in-the-ass technique. Also my French press broke, and I’m too clumsy for a Chemex—and Arabic coffee, while strong and tasty, takes too much watching and waiting—too much for my morning mental slog anyway. It’s much better in the afternoon. Ditto the next-big-thing “pour-over method” that baristas keep going on and on about (sorry, no time for that). Home espresso machines give me a headache. The new generation of Mr. Coffee machines Bruni mentions sound very promising though; so far I haven’t found any electric coffee machine (except for the pricey Technivorm) that doesn’t turn out watery brown sludge, but I’m hopeful that the industry is going to come through for us all in the end with some fantastically easy machine that turns out terrific coffee at the push of a button. Come on now, how many decades is this going to take?
For now, I can report my happy finding that Nescafé, when stirred with the right amount of sugar and milk, tastes just fine and wakes me right up. (Coffee purists: Yes, I’m talking about instant coffee. Take aim and shoot.) Normally I take my coffee black or with only a splash of milk, but I find Nescafé needs a little more assistance. So what— easy enough. Small confession: The other day, while sampling the batrakh (Lebanese-style mullet roe with garlic and olive oil) at Aziz, a fancy food store not far from my apartment, I discovered that Nescafé—which by the way is much more beloved in caffeine-addicted Lebanon than in the States—makes a whole line of different coffees in various bean varieties and strengths. Most stores carry only one or two kinds. I picked up a few different jars, and so far I’m digging the roasty-tasting AltaRica. The more ubiquitous Red Mug is doable. I hate the processed-tasting Gold. So yes, it’s back to my slightly obsessive ways. But bottom line: It takes me four seconds to make the coffee once the water boils, and in the mornings that’s all I really want out of life.
In other beverage news:
I spent the kind of day I’d normally be too embarrassed to talk about. It was just too good. If someone were to say, “Shouldn’t you be sitting in a cubicle somewhere smashing your head against the wall and slowly sinking into a long and deep depression,” I’d say yes, you are probably right. Instead I spent the day drinking wine, a lot of wine, and an afternoon eating gobs of seafood while the sun set slowly over the Mediterranean.
The occasion was a wine-tasting event at Chateau Musar, the most famous Lebanese winery and arguably still the best in a fast-multiplying industry. Owner Serge Hochar, who kept the winery open throughout the 15-year Lebanese civil war (1975-90), is much more inclined to talk philosophy or history or geography or bring up some esoteric subject than he is to jump right into the subject of wine. But eventually he does want to know what you think about his wines, many of them idiosyncratic, thanks in part to unusual local grapes like obaideh and merwah, and Hochar’s tendency not to overmanipulate the juice during the wine-making process. The other day a half-dozen of us (myself, a couple of chefs from France and the UK, a sommelier from China, a journalist from London, and one or two friends of Hochar’s family) gathered at his winery in Ghazir, in a mountain village with old red-roofed houses and narrow, winding streets. He’d asked us to all to drop by and taste and discuss some of his reds, whites and rosés, including some dating back to just before the civil war, like the beautifully feisty Chateau Musar 1974, and a few reds from the 80s on up. Most are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Carignan grapes grown in the Bekaa Valley.
Because I consider myself, probably forever, in the still-learning-about-wine phase (albeit a very eager student), I won’t try to rattle on like a real wine writer about them. But suffice to say I was especially fond of that Chateau Musar ’74 (only a few bottles left and I’m sure I can’t afford them) and the Chateau Musar 2001 white, a blend of Bekaa-grown obeidah and merwah.
Afterwards we all drove down to the coastal town of Byblos, considered to be the oldest inhabited city in the world—full of ancient Roman ruins, and a castle that dates back to the Crusades, and assorted other ruins dating back centuries and millennia. The ancient Phoenicians made wine here and shipped it to Egypt through the Byblos port. We grabbed a big table at Bab el Mina, a legendary seafood restaurant right on the Byblos port and overlooking a Crusader castle, and ate crunchy fried mullet with lemon, squid served in its black squid-ink, grilled octopus, and the usual spread of fattoush salad, hummus, babaghoush, all washed down with a slew of Musar whites. Next door to Bab El Mina is Pepe’s Fishing Club, a restaurant that Brigitte Bardot and the international celeb jet-set frequented in the ’60s, Lebanon’s pre-war heyday. Lunches in Lebanon start late and end late, and I found myself getting home at 6pm, looking semi-drunkenly back on a long day of eating and drinking all the way from the mountains down to the coast, wondering how we managed to do that all in one day. Then I remembered: We didn’t really DO anything. From morning until sundown we drank wine, talked about wine, ate food, talked about food, and mostly sat around at various tables. No, there aren’t many days like this in life, but when they come along, you say: YES. So, I did.
Speaking of Olympic levels of eating, I thought I’d miss out on Thanksgiving this year since I’m in Beirut. Last Thursday I was craving roast turkey in a way I don’t think I ever have in my life. As it turned out, I ended up not only not missing out on Thanksgiving—but going to three. Not all in one day, but still: three. On Thanksgiving night a close friend of the family and an exquisite cook, Bushra, turned out a stunning feast of juicy turkey with gravy and even cranberry sauce (didn’t think I’d see that in Beirut), and candied sweet potatoes (better than any candied yams I’ve had), and pistachio-studded rice, and a few Lebanese/Syrian dishes like harra’ usubu (lentils with cilantro, garlic, tamarind and crispy bread pieces), and eggplant salad and kibbe balls (pinenut-and-onion-stuffed Lebanese meatballs). For dessert, we had hallaya, a kind of slightly sweet, slightly sour cheese pudding sprinkled with crushed nuts, a traditional confection in some rural villages but rarely seen in Beirut. Words don’t do this one justice. The perfect ending to a fabulous, hit-the-spot dinner.
On Sunday, I went to two more cozy Thanksgivings. The first was at my friends Curtis and Diana’s; they’re expats here from Boston, and they decided to skip the turkey in favor of a fantastic brunch of smoked salmon, fresh bread, quiche, soup, various salads—a beautiful Sunday morning spread, lubricated with fierce, spicy Bloody Marys. Then later on Sunday, my friend Zeina, who is from Beirut but lived in New York for a few years with her husband Marwan, roasted a turkey at home for her family, and I was lucky enough to be invited. The big bird turned out golden-brown and moist all the way through, in a way that had me stunned—as if she’d been practicing with turkey after turkey to get it right. She swore she hadn’t. We had the turkey with a Lebanese-style, meat-and-nut-studded rice stuffing, plus roasted potatoes, and Lebanese side dishes like silky okra braised in olive oil, and lemony stuffed Swiss chard leaves. For dessert a colorful mango-packed fruit salad. And, ok, a tiny piece of knafeh, the aforementioned (see below) massively rich cheese and pastry cake drenched with sugar syrup. I had to make sure my food coma was well underway. Afterwards I walked along the Corniche (Mediterranean seaside boulevard) and headed home to a gloriously early, blissed-out bedtime.
Falafel Rant, Pumpkin Love, and More
November 13, 2010:
Back in the saddle, after miscellaneous trips and deadlines. I’m going to make a confession: I don’t really like falafel. Wait, hear me out. I don’t actively hate falafel— I just find it to be one of the least thrilling of Middle Eastern sandwiches or street foods. There are so many outrageously delicious vegetarian foods in Lebanon and the whole region, and none of them make me miss meat, ever. But falafel…well, it always makes me wish I had my hands wrapped around a big, fat, meaty shawarma sandwich instead. The fried chickpea balls are always either too dry, or too bland, or a little burnt, or too overdrenched in tahini sauce, or too underdrenched in tahini sauce.
The problem lies either in the sandwich construction—the “build,” as a friend of mine who used to work for McDonald’s corporate used to call the complex factors involved in fast-food-hamburger architecture—or else it lies in the actual falafel balls themselves, dependent as they are on tahini and sliced tomatoes and assorted condiments to make them truly flavorful and worth your time (or mine anyway). But I’ve taken it on as a personal challenge to develop a taste for, if not a raging lust for, falafel this year, lest I not remain a disgrace to my people. This of courses hinges on finding a place that makes transcendent, I-don’t-wish-I-were-eating-shawarma-instead falafel. Stay tuned.
Things I did not fall in love with this week:
Two falafel sandwiches I tried, at falafel stands in the Hamra area where I’m living. But onward and upward.
Things I did. (Fall for.) :
1) Pumpkin kibbe: At a big family lunch in the mountain town of Brummana with my relatives, the Cortases, I dove into the pumpkin kibbe— a variation on a dish normally made with ground beef or lamb, burghul, and pine nuts, formed into a round or square pie and baked until it’s crunchy on top, then doused with beautifully, bracingly sour Lebanese yogurt. The pumpkin version involves mashed pumpkin mixed with burghul, formed into the same pie shape (or rolled into balls), and layered or stuffed with swiss chard, onions, and pine nuts, then baked until it’s golden on top. Unlike falafel (in my opinion), pumpkin kibbe is a dish that never lets you miss the meat, not for a second. It’s rocking on its own, and you don’t even need yogurt on top, but I love to douse mine in the tangy white stuff all the same.
2) A baklava-style phyllo dessert layered with fresh stewed apricots from Damascus: In the breezy, sun-dappled courtyard of the Yamouts, old family friends, I had a homemade baklava-esque dessert, made from layers of crisp, buttery phyllo loaded with stewed Damascus apricots and crushed walnuts, then brushed with more butter and baked until it was slightly brown and crispy and oozing with apricot heavenliness. I’ve never had it before, and I think the Yamouts need to patent their recipe and take the show on the road.
3) Les Gourmandises du Bristol ice cream: Bien sur, mais nous sommes francais ici au Liban. Sometimes, in Lebanon, one wonders if one is not actually in France. Not because Beirut looks anything like Paris, or because maddening Lebanese-style bureaucracy in any way resembles maddening French-style bureaucracy (although some would say Lebanon inherited its red-tape-loving ways from its French colonial days, but that’s another story). No, it’s because when you walk into a high-end boutique, or even a low-end boutique, or a restaurant, or a hair salon, or the front office of many an establishment, you may very well be addressed in French. Even if you look Lebanese. And even though Lebanon is, ostensibly, an Arabic-speaking country. You can always ignore the French and answer in Arabic, of course, or you can answer in English, or even in French—whatever your mood or language proficiency dictates. But you will, a great number of times, be addressed first in French. I have nothing against the French language. Au contraire. I adore it, and I find it—despite the whiffs of colonial-oppression-nostalgia it evokes here in the, er, independent republic of Lebanon—gorgeous and musical and entrancing. But this ain’t France, is all I’m sayin.
Enough about that. End of rant. So: Back to Les Gourmandises du Bristol. Beirut’s, elegant, classic Bristol Hotel, with its French-named and admittedly very tempting patisserie, sells absolutely exquisite ice cream. This week I ate way too much of the chocolate-chocolate-chip, and the Cyrano-vanilla with chocolate chips and dried fruit. The latter sounds odd, but it combines the best of a perfectly rich, vanilla-y vanilla ice cream with generous showerings of chocolate chip and…yes, those little dried-fruit bits you find in fruitcake. But somehow, it’s awesome. Helping myself to repeat scoops of both flavors, I was very happy indeed. Les Gourmandises du Bristol, you can speak French to me anytime, dahling.
Who needs Oktoberfest, when…
October 25, 2010: Some friends decided to go to Munich for Oktoberfest this year. Me? I stayed in Beirut and celebrated my own holiday, Beirut-style: Instead of masses of sausage and beer, I attended two insanely indulgent, languid outdoor lunches with friends and family and soaked up the tail-end of the summer heat. As usual, I ate enough for three; any less and it’s a waste of all that lovingly prepared food, is it not? On a less alarming note, I’ve been taking epic four-hour walks around the hilliest Beirut streets I can find (applause, please) and also plotting (look, it’s a start) my fearsomely impressive winter workout schedule.
Double-header decadence, in brief:
1) Lunch at Ashghalouna, an artisanal crafts shop and cafe affiliated with the Dar El Eitam Islamiyah center, a non-profit where widowed women learn how to make traditional Lebanese handicrafts and housewares. Every Friday they cook spectacular Friday lunches, served in the center’s beautiful courtyard. It’s a buffet-style spread, and I counted about 15 enormous platters of food, not including the dessert table. My favorites: The freekeh, roasted green wheat, topped with meltingly soft and smoky baked eggplant; a Syrian lentil dish called harra’ usubu (means “burns the fingers”); kibbe bi saynieh, a gorgeously browned, crispy lamb and pine nut pie that you eat with tangy Lebanese yogurt; and some of the most perfectly executed fatayer (small triangular spinach-and-onion stuffed pies) that I’ve ever had, with thin translucent dough that gives way to the lemony filling. After lunch, I browsed the Ashghalouna shop and bought a few handmade wicker bottle-holders, which you use to serve bottled water (a necessity in clean-tap-water-challenged Lebanon) at the dinner table. A simple, elegant way of hiding the garish water-bottle labels. Never seen them before, but they looked so rustic and appealing at the lunch table.
2) Decadent brunch at my parents’ friends’ house in Keserwan, a pretty mountain town about an hour’s drive from Beirut. The menu psychically tapped into my Lebanese Brunch Wish List: There were two kinds of fried egg dishes cooked in terracotta: one version sprinkled with lemony sumac spice (if you haven’t had fried eggs done this way, you haven’t had fried eggs) and one version topped with awarma, an intensely rich lamb confit that gets deliciously mixed up in the runny egg yolk. That would’ve been enough for brunch (for two brunches, actually) but along with the eggs we had warm manakeesh (flatbreads) topped with kishk, a fermented yogurt that has an addictively tart flavor. And, for good measure, a helping of makanek, or small spicy lamb sausages. My food coma was well underway at this point, but then dessert came out and who wants to be rude? Especially when dessert is knafeh (see photo above), a doughy pie filled with melted white cheese; you drizzle the pie with sugar syrup then eat pieces rolled up in pieces of freshly baked sesame bread. Messy to eat, and, trust me, mind-blowing.
October 13, 2010: The concept of “modernized” Lebanese cuisine, as noted before, makes me nervous. Not because the idea doesn’t have potential; of course it does, in the right hands. It’s just that in the rush to put a shiny new gloss on everything, something the Lebanese never shrink from, one often winds up with insipid, silly, pretentious, and undelicious results. But when the innovations are actually smart and rooted and—bottom line—fundamentally tasty— it’s a net gain. This is happening, or at least happening often enough, at Babel, a grandly ambitious restaurant that opened last year in a town called Dbayeh on the edge of Beirut. The design skews Epcot: You’re eating in a cavernous stone space that’s meant to look like the inside of the tower of Babel, I suppose, and a tall pointy tower stands at the entrance. (The actual tower of Babel met a pretty grim end, did it not, so I don’t know what’s up with the reference.) Nonetheless, high ceilings and wide spaces mean everyone in the entire dining room can puff on argilehs (hookahs) for hours and it’ll never smell like the smoking section of a Pan Am flight circa 1978.
Foodwise, the novel spins are done confidently, and are interspersed with enough classic but rarely seen dishes to keep things on solid ground. Meet the new kibbe nayeh, same as the old kibbe nayeh? Not quite. Kibbe nayeh, the famous Lebanese lamb-tartare, is presented at Babel as small sushi-style morsels, some crusted with sesame seeds, some flecked with fiery spices. It’s a new way of eating kibbe nayeh, which doesn’t replace the old way—still my favorite (just drizzled with olive oil and rolled up in pita bread with mint leaves and slices of white onion). But in this case, the more the merrier. Another dish, which looked and felt like kibbe nayeh (texture-wise) but was purely vegetarian, made with just bulgur and stewed tomatoes and spices, turned out to be a southern Lebanese dish I’d never had before, and I’m a convert now. I also loved the fish makanek, a spin on the classic makanek lamb sausages, but here with spicy minced fish stuffed into the sausage casings. With the help of my hilariously sardonic cousins Josette, Laure, and Claire, we ripped through a plate of these in about 90 seconds. They reminded me of the seafood sausage the late Chanterelle in NYC used to do. But here it’s smaller, spicier, more rustic—and I won’t say tastier necessarily but equally awesome.
The pendulum swung back to classic Lebanese the next night, when through mutual friends I met up with an editor named Alison who was in town from New York with her friend Stacy, a TV writer based in LA, and their Ohio-raised Lebanese friend Natalie, who recently moved here from NYC to get a master’s at the American University of Beirut. It was up to me to the pick the place, so after rooftop drinks at the swank new downtown hotel Le Gray, we went to one of my old favorites, Abdel Wahab, which does by-the-book, hit-the-spot versions of the Lebanese canon—i.e. mezze dishes and mishwi (grilled meats). The rooftop at Abdel Wahab looks down on the stately, not-too-terribly-war-thrased Achrafieh neighborhood, with one or two Lebanese Civil War ruins nearby, for good measure. Dinner: A solid fattoush salad, straight-up and spicy makanek sausages, and fattet hommos, a chickpea-topped version of my beloved layered dish of garlic-spiked yogurt, toasted pine-nuts, and fried pita. (In an earlier post below I wrote about the eggplant version.) Washed it all down with a mouth-watering Chateau Musar White, made with Lebanese-grown obeideh and merwah grapes. To cap off dinner, we shared an argileh (hookah), because at Abdel Wahab you sort of have to. Well, you know: Everyone else is. Plus you’re outdoors on a gorgeous night, and you can tell yourself (as I do) that these aren’t like cigarettes at all. You’ve quit those years ago. But an argileh? Er, totally harmless.
More bits, bites, and booze:
October 5, 2010: I hit the Souk El Tayeb farmer’s market for a special event highlighting the tradition of mouneh—pickles, jams, and preserves—and methods (now faded) of putting up food for the winter. Funny, right before I left New York in August, my CSA (for those who don’t know, that stands for Community Supported Agriculture, a membership-driven way to get locally grown produce straight from the farm), was also sponsoring a pickles-and-preserves event. The world shrinks ever faster. At the Souk I ran into the founder, Kamal Mouzawak, who invited me up to his house in Batroun, a beach town about an hour outside Beirut, where he restored a fabulous old Ottoman-era villa. That night I and a few friends of his sat on his patio and feasted on wonderfully tender kebabs and crisp roasted potatoes and zingy tabbouleh and homemade strawberry-lemonade ice cream (Batroun is famous for its lemons and lemonade).
At a small bar called Pix in the Hamra district, across from the historic but now abandoned Piccadilly Theater, I met my friend Mirna for Mexican Beers (sort of a simplified version of a michelada; the ones here are basically just Almaza beer with fresh lemon juice and a salted rim, tangy and transporting). But there was something very strange going on. Bars in Beirut usually serve free bowls of sliced carrots swimming in lemon juice, an ingenious bar snack. But the carrots at Pix were really, really bright orange. Neon, practically flashing. We kept asking the bartender what was up with the color. “Nothing. They’re fresh carrots. That’s their natural color.” No way. Either he was tripping, or those micheladas were much better than I thought.
Meet me in the morning (or… say… noonish?)
Sept 24, 2010: Attempts to become a morning person: Failed. Again. Even here in Beirut, where construction can “legally” begin at 7am. And so it does, the jabbering power-drill noises jolting me out of dreamland and into a hyper-awareness that the apartment upstairs will have a stupendous, state-of-the-art new bathroom soon. Just maybe not soon enough. Anyway, I thought the racket might nudge me to start my days at 7am. Alas, no. I somehow fall right back asleep, only to awaken at… well, never mind, but let’s just say it’s not at 7:15. The point of all this is that I’ve so far not managed to show up at Souk El Tayeb, the new-ish farmer’s market here in Beirut, early in the morning. Ever. The Souk (Tayeb means “good, “fresh,” and also “alive’) was started by Beirut food celeb and Tawlet restaurant owner Kamal Mouzawak as a way of resurrecting the city’s old, long-departed market stalls downtown. Happy to see the Souk thriving, and as of last week it moved to a roomier new area along the waterfront.
By the time I tend to arrive at the Souk , at (ahem) noon, most of the best stuff is gone, but I’ve still scored
the tiny still-in-season flavor-bomb figs I love, along with fresh-baked fatayer (thin triangular savory pastries) filled with a mix of fried dandelion greens and pine nuts, or chard and onions, or spinach, or sometimes a sharp cheese.
Luckily: My cousin Kamal’s wife Nour, a chic and massively talented home cook, does manage to make it to the Saturday Souk El Tayeb first thing in the morning. And last weekend she proved, again, why crack-of-dawn visits are the only way to go. She spun out a beautiful lunch made with seasonal pumpkins she’d found, which she turned into a silky soup spiked with candied ginger (that she, yes, candied herself). We also lunched on her fabulous salad of roasted eggplant and garlic yogurt, and classic Lebanese koussa mehsheh: small, thumb-sized zucchinis stuffed with rice and ground beef (or lamb) and roasted in a rich, tomatoey sauce. Somewhere up there, my grandmother was smiling, and promising to make me her special Arabic coffee if only I’d get my arse out of bed.
Discovered the ultimate comfort food at my relatives (and neighbors) Sami and Najwa’s house the other day. Their cook Fahimeh, who should have her own TV food show, made a layered dish of thinly sliced potatoes, bits of kaak (a local sesame bread), and tangy grated cheese (in this case Parmigiano), all baked together until melty and bubbling on top, a potatoey, bready, creamy delight reminiscent of mac and cheese, classic-Lebanese-style. Er, perfect for a low-carb diet. Eating low-carb is, needless to say, a highly losing proposition here, although I do know some people who try, bless their hearts.
Other highlights of the week, in brief:
Brunch with my friends Joumana, Mirna, and Amal at the seminal Casablanca (see pic above), housed in a traditional Lebanese villa overlooking the sea and owned by Beirut style icon Johnny Farah: A simple, beautifully executed, fluffy feta-and-tomato omelet and strong French-press coffee, and the villa’s windows wide open onto the sunlit Mediterranean.
Dinner with friends and cousins Afaf, Huda, and Shireen at Teliene, a year-old Italian restaurant with wildly vivid murals, a chef from Italy, and simple, rustic, non-show-offy but perfect-pitch pastas. Mine: a linguine with roasted tomato, pine nut, basil, and eggplant that truly delivered. Contrary to the sweeping point I made earlier about all those often-pretentious, frequently-mediocre Euro restaurants in Beirut, Teliene is the real thing. The decor is flashy, but the Italian cooking decidedly not. Hopefully I’ll find more and more (and more) exceptions like this all over Beirut this year.
At the languid, stone-walled Mandaloun Cafe, overlooking busy Charles Malek Avenue in the posh Achrafieh district, I met my friend Mimi for a very tall glass of freshly squeezed carrot and ginger (lots of ginger) juice that raced down like a fireball. Should’ve had a label for what it does to your insides: “lather, rinse, repeat.” Just the tonic I needed after another less-than-restrained week.
Lebanese, quasi-Lebanese, and non-Lebanese
Sept 19, 2010: So far I’m still gorging myself on the local cuisine in Beirut (with occasional attempts at non-gluttony). Living in NYC —a spectacular food city in other respects—has meant withdrawal from so many favorite Lebanese dishes from my childhood. Yes, there’s now great Lebanese/Middle Eastern food at Ilili and Naya in Manhattan, and at Karam and Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, but it’s tough to get to those spots on a regular basis. And there just aren’t enough of them. I’ve cooked certain longed-for dishes sometimes in my tiny Manhattan kitchen, but the memories of my grandmother’s and aunts’ far-superior versions haunt me. While I’m in Beirut, I’ll eventually branch out a bit more into Lebanon’s other international-cuisine offerings—now and then, anyway—but for now: It’s all (or mostly) Lebanese food, all (or most) of the time. Some highlights from my week:
1) The eggplant fatteh at Al Balad in downtown Beirut. Fatteh is little-known outside Syria/Lebanon, and it’s a dish I crave constantly: It starts with a layer of crunchy pita croutons made by tearing up the bread and frying the pieces in olive oil. Next comes a layer of garlic-and-mint-spiked yogurt, then a layer of the main ingredient: either meat (shreds of juicy roasted chicken or lamb usually), or steamed chickpeas or spinach, or in this case smoky strips of tender roasted eggplant. Last comes a shower of hot fried nuts: Al Balad uses cashews on the eggplant fatteh; you’ll often find pine nuts. The dish is served in layers, and you mix them all up together just before you eat. If the dish is done right, you get blissfully lost in all the flavor-texture-temperature contrasts. Al Balad’s version? Done right. The restaurant sits right in the middle of Beirut’s rebuilt downtown, with views to the Ottoman-era villas and arched office buildings and clock tower. The Mediterranean is a short stroll away, just beyond the tangle of streets and buildings. Joy: a sunny afternoon, a fatteh indulgence, and a breezy walk along the waterfront.
2) The kibbe at Semsom. The Lebanese may be obsessed with style, but Lebanese food isn’t always the prettiest. All the meats and leafy greens and spices and herbs and nuts lead to dishes that are explosively flavorful—but in need of a good food stylist. So many shades of brown and dark green; not exactly Martha Stewart Living photo-shoot-ready. But I get a little impatient with compulsive attempts to fusionize Lebanese food—and have ranted about the cosmo-cuisine phenomenon before in Food & Wine. Lebanese restaurants don’t need to cosmo-fy their menus so much as they need talented, attentive cooks who are in love with the cuisine and all its nuances. But as “modernized” Lebanese food goes, Semsom does a version I can get behind: the dishes are recognizably Lebanese, hearty, intensely flavorful, but presented beautifully and in neat, non-overwhelming portions. For instance: the traditional lamb, pine nut, and bulghur “pie” known as kibbe, that I had there recently with my cousin Josette and aunt Marcelle. At Semsom, they serve kibbe cut into small neat triangles, with a garlicky yogurt sauce in a small bowl on the side, and sprigs of fresh mint and homemade pickles. A brilliantly simple makeover of a normally unsexy dish. I’m on the hunt for more restaurants like this.
3) Drinks at Sky Bar, a glittery, open-air rooftop lounge/club; it’s the Beirut scene to end all scenes. I was invited to a party at Sky Bar this week by Sarah Trad, a fascinating and innovative Beiruti who, among other things, co-founded the drug-rehab center Skoun here, and has just moved to NYC to pull off a Lebanese-food-related idea I’m incredibly excited about (I’m keeping it under wraps for now). Normally Sky Bar isn’t really my scene: I don’t have enough (or any) surgically enhanced parts, I don’t do my seasonal shopping in Milan (wish I did), and my ride is not a late-model Ferrari; it tends to be a beat-up, circa-1973 taxi. But the party, a benefit for Skoun, was the ideal way to see Sky Bar: a cool, eclectic crowd of artists and designers and writers and food people—and the city, the mountains, and the Mediterranean stretched out for miles and miles on a gorgeous Beirut night.
4) Pistachio cookies with sweet cream, aka karabeej with natef. I don’t have a big sweet tooth, but I can rarely say no to these. They’re called karabeej (see photo above), and they’re small finger-shaped, shortbread-like cookies filled with crushed pistachios and served with a light-as-air, rosewater-tinged sweet cream known as natef. It’s similar to marshmallow fluff— an all-natural version made by extracting the sap from the marshmallow-plant root. I had them at my aunt Marcelle’s last Sunday; they came from the Beirut mainstay Sea Sweet. Hard to find karabeej in the States, but you can order them online from Shatila in Detroit. (I haven’t tried Shatila’s karabeej, but Saveur mag raves about their ice cream.)
5) Indian food craving: satisfied. Delving into non-Lebanese restaurants can be dicey in Beirut these days: lots of overpriced, overblown, mediocre Euro/Asian/etc. spots—but I suppose that’s partly true everywhere, including NYC. (On the subject of international food in Beirut, check out this 1975 article by the late, sometime Gourmet magazine writer Donald Aspinwall Allan. Allan wrote the article right before the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, and it was published just as the country was starting to descend into its decade and a half of destruction. The article starts in the second paragraph of the blog post I’m linking to.)
I hope to find some exceptional international restaurants in Beirut while I’m here this year. For now I’ll get my non-Lebanese-food fix through talented friends like Zeina, who made a luscious, fragrant, Indian-style chicken-tomato-coriander curry the other night. We feasted on it, with cucumber-yogurt raita and a side of creamy yellow-lentil dal, after some rounds of a cocktail created by her Filipino-born nanny: “Manila lemonade.” It’s fresh-squeezed lemonade—a Beirut summer specialty—hit with a shot of vodka. Exactly what you need on a hot Indian-summer night here.
Lahmé, lemon, and lamb
Sept. 12, 2010: Restraining yourself in Lebanon means saying YES to platters of juicy grilled meats and fragrant, garlic-and-coriander-spiked lamb and vegetable stews only twice a day instead of three. I exaggerate, but only slightly. The past few days involved eating in ways that, were I committed to my trying-to-eat-less-meat goal, would represent a truly stunning failure. In brief, a few highlights, with a (meatless) beverage interlude:
1) Said a resounding “yes” to the grilled meat (“lahmé”) platter at Cheikha, a small corner restaurant in the Hamra district that my cousin Soumaya introduced me to. It has just a few tables and a constantly mobbed takeout line (no website though). Cutting to the chase: gorgeously chargrilled chicken shish-taouk (skewered pieces of grilled chicken flavored with garlic, lemon and sumac), plus kafta (skewered lamb patties, sort of like slender lamb-burgers), plus tender beef kebabs— all served with toum, a pureed garlic spread that you (well, I) can’t stop slathering all over everything. Add some hummus, tabbouleh, chargrilled onions, homemade pickles, and warm pita bread on the side and, well, major bliss, and major siesta time after.
2) Cooled off with the frozen mint lemonade at De Prague, a hipster cafe/bar around the corner from my apartment in Hamra. I’d only had coffee and Almaza beers here so far, but my cousin and dear friend Mona Damluji, an architecture Ph.D. student at Berkeley who spends lots of time in Beirut and is now traveling around China with her fiancé—and writing the beautifully photographed and hunger-revving blog Musafira—turned me on to the mint lemonade here. They spike it with drops of orange blossom nectar, so it has a slight floral taste. Cold, tart, slightly sweet: summer joy. The service has improved massively at De Prague since my visit here last summer, so I might be grabbing a regular spot on the purple-leather mini sofa in the corner.
3) My friends Curtis and Diana had a dinner party the other night, and one of the crew there was a brilliant and funny Somali woman named Nimco who lives between Boston and, now, Beirut. She made us a deliciously meaty, delicately spiced lamb soup and left the lamb bones in—so afterwards (squeamish types avert your eyes) we sat around the table somewhat non-delicately sucking the lamb marrow out of the bones. Awesomely rich and flavorful, though maybe not the best cholesterol-lowering ingredient, that devilishly rich marrow. Next up, a spicy lamb stew flavored with coriander and garlic (Somali cuisine has some similarities with Lebanese and Indian), and fired up with a hot tomato and chili pepper salsa ladled on top. This was my first experience with Somali cuisine, and I hope there’ll be many more.
Lamb, lamb, and more lamb. Bring it on. Just maybe not at breakfast.
#1 Breakfast in Beirut—and 2 Lebanese food tidbits in NYT this week
Sept. 5, 2010: I need to find a way not to eat manakeech—the zaatar-topped Lebanese flatbreads that I’ll happily talk about to anyone who’ll listen—for breakfast every single day. This is going to be tough. There’s a small bakery near my Beirut apartment that makes maddeningly delicious ones, and when my mom had mentioned it to me over email, she described it as a hole-in-the-wall. Because that’s what it is, literally. There’s a wall, and there’s a big hole in it, and it fits just an oven, a small countertop, and a couple of bakers, who take the hot, fresh, doughy manakeech out of the oven and pass them over to you, the hungry pedestrian. They cost about $1.50 each (everyone here accepts U.S. dollars, along with Lebanese lira), and they’re huge—enough for a breakfast and a half. I just Tweeted about them this week, and then saw that Mark Bittman’s column in the NYT Dining section this week was, essentially, about manakeech (but not in so many words).
Incidentally, another Lebanese staple made the NYT Dining pages this week too: Cortas Rose Water. I know these little bottles well because—full disclosure—my mother’s cousins, the Cortases, founded the business and have run it for generations. Some of them live in the building next door to mine here in Beirut. I’m glad to see the label, which in my not-unbiased opinion makes a stellar line of Lebanese ingredients (available at Kalustyan’s in Manhattan), starting to get some attention stateside.
Now back to the regularly scheduled programming: Eating my way around Lebanon. Check back here regularly for updates. As always, thanks for reading!