My third day in the city and I already feel swept up in a forcefield of sorts. I landed softly, thanks to a warm welcome from some lovely half-Lebanese friends in their mountainside village overlooking Beirut, peppered with Virgin Mary shrines and neon crosses to mark its identity. The next day’s drive into the city was a fascinating whistle-stop tour of landmarks -including the largely Shia southern suburbs, the road marking the civil war Green Line, many buildings pockmarked with bullet-holes- and related recent political history. A too-late night in the up and coming hipster area near my new home made the following day – and the first day in my new ‘job’– feel quite surreal and full of panicky self-doubt about the string of decisions that brought me here.
But, today, on the third day, fittingly, the dream was stoked back to life. I was put to work in the kitchen straight away. I chopped tomatoes! I chopped radishes! I chopped cucumber! Never before have I been so happy to chop vegetables. I was even told my tomatoes for Tabbouleh were *amazing*. That was the actual word used. In the reserved northern lands from where I came I doubt I would have received such unbridled praise for the middling achievement that this was. I hope to earn enough trust to be allowed near the onions, parsley and mint soon.
Disappointingly, I did not learn The Right Way to hold a knife when chopping. When I asked the chef, he shrugged and said ‘any way’. I suppose some things you have to learn as you go. But I did learn that you should not try and chop more than three slices of tomato into small cubes together at the same time; any more and you lose control of the tomatoes. I also confirmed that – no surprises here – a sharp knife makes all the difference. But most of all that, like in development work, context means everything. You can have some fancy skills and top class equipment, but only if these meet with the right kind of tomato can you achieve a successful Tabbouleh chop.
Today I also met Susanne, one of the daily rotating chefs of the restaurant, hailing from a village in the north of Lebanon. She was the author and perfecter of one of the many feasts the restaurant offers, including a delicious chicken and rice stew, a beautiful cake layered with all colours of vegetables in oil, and a –jury’s still out on this one-raw lamb/goat’s meat pie (some language barriers prevented identifying the exact meat involved). She was joined by her husband and he was getting properly hands on in all the food preparation: pounding the raw meat, slicing carrots, and laying everything out for the eating. Respect. The fact that he looked a bit like my late granddad made me warm to him all the more.
Much of this delicious feast took two day’s home preparation. It is true slow housewives’ (no offence to dutiful and committed husbands) cooking. None of the flashy kitchen entourage of sous and commis chefs. Just one Master Chef: the Lebanese mama.
Despite some language barriers – somewhat of a first for me and quite frustrating- I still managed to have my rakweh coffee grounds read by this Lebanese Master Chef after her day’s work was nearly over. Awkwardly, only one thing she said had me nodding (I think I was supposed to get a little bit more involved in the theatre of it, but my inability to lie got in the way). Still, after a final thumb print in the coffee I was a happy customer: she promised me success in the two things –greedy me- I had concentrated my thoughts on…Time will tell…