Beans means…

I apologise for my silence, dear readers, but life has taken over art for the last week and a half. With a long lost London friend and a new found Beirut friend I visited the beautiful world heritage site of Jbeil – or Byblos- where the contemporary alphabet originated. 

 

New and old friends

 Remnants of at least five civilisations can be found here, including a medieval souk and mosques; and Roman, Phoenician and Egyptian tombs and temples and a citadel built by the conquering crusaders, all on the one site.
 

Spying the Roman temple from the citadel

 
Battle scars
I am following in the crusaders’ footsteps in my attempts to conquer the Lebanese kitchen, with qualified success. The title of Tabbouleh Queen* given to me by the chef as he handed me another bowl of tomatoes to chop was premature. My crusader zeal – spurred on by the hope of graduating to another vegetable – resulted in blood everywhere. Later in the week, my excitement at being handed a bunch of parsley to chop together with a super sharp knife was short lived. Some skin from my thumb in my parsley mix resulted in a speedy demotion. I have now decided to try reverse psychology with the tabbouleh: let it go and it will come to me.

Tabbouleh scarred thumb

In my crusade I also invaded a woman’s home in the northern town of Zgharta this week, fittingly the same woman -and her co-worker spouse- who was cooking on my first day on the job. It was a wonderfully odd experience, staying with a couple I had only met once in my life, experiencing five-star hospitality and raising the ‘how much can you consume in a day?’ stakes even more. Unexpectedly, my Spanish came in useful, as the husband had spent 4 years living in Venezuela. Maybe I should give up on Arabic altogether.
Despite having grown up less than 100 miles away from a recent civil conflict where sectarian divisions are still very much alive, I am still taken aback by how much peoples and towns are divided along religious lines here. I confess that the Northern Irish conflict is probably as alien to me as the Lebanese civil war, not having visited that part of the country until my 20s. Zgharta has as many churches per square mile as an average Irish town. It was the birthplace of the Zgharta Liberation Army, a civil war faction led by Sulieman Franjieh, president of Lebanon in 1975. From there they waged war with armed groups of different sectarian identities from Tripoli and other surrounding towns. When I asked whether there were any mosques in present-day Zgharta, I was told that no, only Christians live there, except for the Syrians who had come there seeking work, or more recently, refuge.
Back to happier kitchen stories: my initial impression of this couple’s teamwork proved true; they were an exceedingly professional and complementary duo. I wonder how many Lebanese kitchens – or any kitchens  for that matter- are like this. I was there to witness (perhaps this will be good training for the next stage of my sabbatical as a human rights observer, as I am certainly refining my watching skills), and do what I could to participate in in their preparations for the weekly farmers market in Beirut. It was two days of hard labour (for them; I was exhausted just from standing up all day). I learnt how to make Moloukhieh, a comforting stew of North African origin made of Jew’s Mallow leaf, this one served with chicken poached with cinnamon, and broken baked bread. I saw huge trays of Kebbeh -finely minced meat mixed with bulgur- prepared in a variety of ways, layered over sautéed onions and pine nuts, over strained yoghurt, and even a chickpea version for the veggies.
Nobody’s fool
Foul – pronounced fool- are fava (or broad) beans, the basis of many a popular Lebanese dish which everyone seems to make with their own twist. The same with Mujaddara, another very typical dish based on pulses, which apparently figured in some form in the Old Testament. My first encounter with Mujaddara was when I, never having tasted it before and following an internet recipe, cooked it for a Lebanese dinner party in London. The party’s Master Chef, who had spent many years in Lebanon and the Middle East, remarked on how unusual my version was. But in my defence, since I’ve been here I’ve learned that there are many ways to to skin a cat, or cook up a plate of pulses and starch, in this case. From a soupy mash of cooked brown lentils and pulsed caramelised onions mixed with bulghur, to a version with rice, to one with lentils with no more than a sprinkle of bulghur sweetened with molasses. The list goes on. The one ‘we’ made in Zgharta was Mujaddara Journieh (or something like that), made with beautiful red journieh beans native to northern Lebanon. 
After spying (another skill that I am honing) in a cookbook I learned that there are also North-South distinctions when it comes to Mujaddara, the southern version made with sunnier lighter-coloured lentils.
I’d end with a carefully tried and tested recipe but it would be a little disingenuous. Try this instead (it has much more rice than any I’ve seen here!): http://www.mamaslebanesekitchen.com/vegetarian/lentils-rice-caramelized-onions-mudardara/#sthash.IjfFnp8d.dpbs
*much better than the title I received in my first ever restaurant (well, chip shop) job of Speedy Gonzalez, because I was so slow at mopping the floor.
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Freekeh Friday

Monuments to the dead

dedicate this part to my Mum since she loves old stuff and death rituals.
 Last night I joined a chilling walking tour of Achrafieh, a mostly well-off quarter of Christian East Beirut. Its winding streets are filled with ‘palais’ or mansions belonging to the old riche, including the large domain of the Sursocks (Sursuq), a Greek Orthodox family who rose to prominence during the Ottoman reign. The tour began and ended with death. In Roman times Achrafieh was the place of the city’s necropolis, and when the Sursuqs were building their gigantic palace they discovered tombs filled with various glass vials used to send the dead on their way, some of which were then used in their mansion’s stained glass windows. The final stop of the tour was Achrafieh’s Greek Orthodox cemetery, where the ghosts of the Sursuqs and other rich and famous families wander amongst elaborate tombs. But no happy endings here. Apparently these rich and famous families presided over a famine, triggered by an unhappy combination of a plague of locusts and the Great War, that ended the lives of approximately 200,000 Lebanese people. And they didn’t simply turn a blind eye, but actively drove up prices of staple grains through hoarding. A familiar story of the rich and powerful profiting from crisis, then.
 

Sursock palace

 
 It’s hard to contemplate this food shortage considering my current indulgent lifestyle. But this week my tour of the darker side included a drive through war-ravaged streets of Tripoli where Sunni and Shia engaged in regular gunfights last year, and beyond to the northern town of Akkar, where I visited a project supporting poorer Lebanese woman and Syrian refugees to generate some income through food preservation and processing. They made dishes to make an Irish person happy and Masterchefs eat their hearts out: potato at least 5 ways. One of the Syrian ladies asked me if I knew anyone in Ireland who could help her to travel there: here there was nothing to eat for them, she said. I didn’t, I said sadly, it was difficult. And one hour later I was whisked back to my middle class bubble, with her face still etched in my mind.

My linguistic nemesis

Of course this conversation happened mostly with sign language, since a basic conversation in Arabic still eludes me. I sit in class trying not to cry –not appropriate in your mid thirties-or send evil vibes to the younger, more mentally agile students who know all the answers. While I do now know the names of many herbs, spices and other kitchen essentials, getting anything else to stick in my brain is enduringly challenging. The words I remember are those that sound similar to English words reminding me of why I left. Shmell is north. A-shittah is winter, and rain. Ahh, I might stay if one day I might be privy to the secrets of this enigmatic discourse! Some Lebanese who have lived for some time in English-speaking countries told me there is a whole linguistic realm for emotional dialogue that doesn’t exist outside Arabic. Before I could admire how romantic this sounded, they warned against it: the Arab countries have problems for a reason.

Something for the weekend
 

the secret spices used in the South Lebanon version of raw meat balls

 
So back to focusing on understanding the – slightly simpler- language of the stomach. The eponymous freekeh is my current favourite thing: green smoked wheat, spiced, and often served (Freekeh Djeij) with chicken boiled with onion, bay leaves and cinnamon sticks. I haven’t yet attempted it so will post a recipe when I do.

 For now I leave you with something healthy and something sweet for the weekend.

 Fattoush

After a brief love affair with Tabbouleh, Fattoush has reinstated itself in the no. 1 salad spot in my heart. I spied into a book this week that told me that the name comes from the word in Arabic ‘Fatt’, not meaning someone who has eaten too much Freekeh, but meaning break or broken, referring to the broken Arab bread or pitta served on top. I love the bountiful use of herbs in salads here, including salads composed entirely of herbs (refer to the aforementioned Tabbouleh, basically a parsley salad, or Salatet Za’atar, a salad of fresh thyme). A good Fattoush for me has a mint leaf in at least every second bite.

 Ingredients:

1 large bunch/100g purslane leaves, thick stems removed

100g romaine lettuce leaves, chopped

Two large handfuls of mint leaves, picked from their stems, but not chopped

Two large handfuls of fresh, thyme, large stems removed, separated into smaller sprigs

1 large handful of flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped

2 large salad tomatoes or 4 vine tomatoes, cut into 3cm dice

2 Lebanese (small) cucumbers, cut into slices at a slight diagonal (so they look like ovals and not rounds.

8 radishes, sliced

1 green pepper, chopped

For the bread topping:

1 Arab pitta (preferably a thin round one if you can find it)
Olive oil
Sumac

 For the dressing:

20mls Pomegranate molasses

20mls Lemon juice

40mls Olive oil

1 tbsp sumac

2 cloves garlic, crushed (optional)

1 tsp salt

 Method:

Cut or tear the pitta into smallish squares (approximately 3cm squared), cover with olive oil and about a tbsp of sumac, and put in the oven until crunchy.

 Mix together the salad ingredients. Mix together the elementes of the dressing and whisk well. Pour over the salad and mix just before serving, topped with the crunchy pita bread.

Sfouf Aae’deh Safra (Sfouf with turmeric)

I’ve tried this three times and below is my favourite recipe. You could make this dairy free by substituting milk with water, and taking out the butter. For cups I would just use a tea cup if you don’t have a measure.

 Ingredients:

1 cup flour

3 cups semolina

2 cups sugar

3 tsps baking powder

2 tbsps of turmeric

¼ cup butter

½ cup oil (corn or sunflower)

1 cup water, 1 cup milk (or two cups water)

2 tbsps of turmeric

1 tsp anise powder or a couple of drops of rosewater (optional)

 Tahini, for greasing the pan

Method:

Preheat oven to 160 degrees. Mix together all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Work through butter with your fingers. Make a well and pour in the wet ingredients. Whisk lightly until well combined. Grease a medium baking dish with tahini. Pour in the mixture and bake for approximately half an hour. I was using a really bad oven so it took longer. It should be a light golden-y colour on top and dry when you stick a knife into it.

 Sahtein!

Too many cooks

My chef shadowing has continued this week, but I am spurred on by Hollywood film-style fantasies. They start something like this: It is opening night. One of the chef’s car breaks down on the way to work, and she will not be able to make it in time. Panic ensues…they will not be able to cater for their huge crowd! Suddenly their eyes fall on me, chopping a tomato inconspicuously in the corner. My moment to shine has arrived….

Ok, it’s not quite the whirlwind romance that one of my readers suggested would spice up my tales. But my English teacher at school always said: ‘write about what you know’, so take from that what you will. If I do happen to know other things during my time here, you may be lucky enough to be privy to it. 

Someone else commented that food, at least, may be creating some common ground in this divided country. But as I engaged in research in preparation for my presentation of The Real Baba ghanoush/Mutabal/aubergine dip by whatever name, I started to feel like I was on shaky ground.
It seems there is a thin and often (to the external observer) imperceptible line between orthodoxy and heresy when it comes to cooking much-treasured traditional dishes.   

Coexistence of orthodoxy and heresy at the Corniche

The feedback from various authorities and laypeople on the dishes prepared and re-prepared daily for the set up of the new restaurant has often diverged. For some, garlic in X dish or coriander in Y dish is definitely pas honnête. Others are more ambivalent. I had thought that Tabbouleh parsley should be chopped as finely as possible. But apparently not all agree: too fine and it risks creating a watery mush. A watery board, apparently, is the sign of a bad chopper. And messiness is mortal sin no. 1 of professional cooking. Guilty as charged.

I learnt this during my first formal training in knife skills this week – sheer (excuse the pun) joy-, and also that there is a right way to hold a knife! And that the tip of that knife, when chopping vegetables, should not leave the board. If you hear even more than the slightest chopping sound, you are doing something wrong. But then…today as another pro-chef chopped onions, I observed definite knife-lifting and heard distinct chopping sounds. Of course, this ruleis all very well when you have state of the art knives. Try it with your crappy kitchen knife and it will be more like a light sawing noise.

You say Ghanoush, I saw Ghanouj, you say Mutabal, I saw Melitzano(salata)….

 

Mutabal in all its glory

 

Perhaps if necessity is invention’s mother then possibility is its father, authority its grandmother. and variety its (passing sailor) lover. This week I prepared vegetables with a Palestinian woman and we discussed the crossovers between various Greek, Lebanese and Palestinian dishes, including a joint appreciation of Greek salad, on which she prefers mint to oregano (a heresy surely propagated by the Turks!). My aubergine research has told me that some Baba Ghanoush recipes do indeed seem to have tahini. And varying levels of garlic. And additions of different spices.

According to some…ok, internet pages, but what’s a career break if you can’t sit in hipster coffee shops with your cappuccino and mac computer….Baba Ghanoush is a Levantine dish that originated in Lebanon and means spoilt father, perhaps a happy old toothless father who was lucky enough to have a daughter who invented a new way for him to eat aubergine. I extended my research on the matter to a conversation with another chef (a sample of 2 chefs, I know it’s a poor effort), and he told me that Mutabal (the other -but sometimes the same- aubergine dip) was the dish with perhaps the least variations. So for now I give up on trying to understand spoilt fathers, who probably all want their aubergine dips a different way, and present you with the Mutabai recipe first, and then my Mama’s recipe of Melitzanosalata, the Greek version (or original dish, since everything inevitably comes from the Greek). I still prefer my Mama’s recipe, because it’s all about the aubergine.

Aubergine recipe 1: Mutabal
Ingredients:

-2 Large Aubergines (weighing approximately 800-900 grams, this will give you 270-300g of aubergine to use in the dip)

-50g tahini

-50g lemon juice

-salt to taste
-a drizzle of olive oil
-pomegranate seeds and parsley to garnish

Method:

1. For best results, score the aubergines and char them over a gas flame or barbeque, turning as necessary, for about 20 mins until collapsed on the inside. Alternatively, bake them in the oven, this may take up to 45 minutes. Leave to cool.

2. Once cooled, peel the aubergines, trying to remove all charred bits of skin and any large seeds fro the flesh. Leave to drain or squeeze out excess water with your hands.

3. Loosely mash up the aubergine with a fork, add the tahini and lemon and whisk until it has a smoother, more consistent texture (though not pureed).

4. Add salt to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and decorate with pomegranate seeds and parsley, or whatever else you fancy!

Aubergine recipe 2: Mama’s Melitzanosalata (aubergine salad)

Ingredients:
-2 large aubergines
-Juice of 1 lemon
-1 clove of garlic, crushed
-3 tsps of vinegar
-a drizzle of olive oil (just enough to get a smooth consistency
-salt and pepper to taste
-parlsey to garnish

Method:
1. Repeat steps 1 and 2 above.

2. Remove as many seeds from the aubergine as possible with a spoon. Mash up with a fork as above.

3. Add the lemon, garlic, vinegar and keep mixing until you have a smoother, more consistent texture (but again not pureed)

4. Add a little oil just to help smoothen the texture a little and create a nice glossy look, but not to drown the mixture.

5. Add salt and pepper to taste.

6. Garnish with parsley.

On originality

I have definitely grown a food baby since I’ve been here. This week, my daily food intake has been the equivalent of a tapas meal for 10, including portions of fattoush, tabbouleh, houmous, moutabbal (an aubergine tahini dip that I’m pretty sure is sold to us ignorant Europeans as baba ghanoush a lot of the time), shawarma, chicken shish, to name only a few better known dishes. All in the name of ‘evaluating’, i.e. standing around trying to make informed comments, like ‘needs more lemon, oh yass’, ‘maybe more salt, hn hm’. Highly specialist stuff. And usually it is met by a reply from the chef along the lines of ‘NON. We never put salt in zis’ (French face for extra drama). So also highly useful.

It seems that I have not made a complete break from my past occupation (but oh is evaluating food way more fun than evaluating development projects). Evaluation inevitably involves comparing what we are experiencing to some expectation or other. An expectation either based on what we are familiar with,-someone described the houmous as ‘honest’, which I presume means authentic. 
Actually she said it in French, which sounds way more sophisticated, so I might say ‘il faut mettre plus sel’ next time-, or on some ideal to which we are aspiring. Comparison is the death of joy’ according to Mark Twain. Or according to Theodore Roosevelt, who apparently said it was the thief of joy. Hard to know who said it first, since they both lived around the same time, or whether it really matters anyway. After all, innovation –another delightful concept from which I cannot escape- is just moving ideas from one field to the next, isn’t it? Which is slightly better than academic research, which a friend once told me is about moving bones from one graveyard to the next. 

When you arrive in a new place it’s hard not to make -no doubt superficial- comparisons to other places you’ve been. Walking through the streets near my house, in the more upscale parts of the Gemmayze and Ashrafieh neighbourhoods, it feels like wandering through a Spanish or Portuguese town with its small cobbled footpaths, grocery shops filled with alluring fruit and vegetables, and tall colonial apartment buildings full of old world charm.   

Oldy worldy buildings

 

  Then you pass by a few decaying and vacant blocks of flats, and it starts to look less like Europe now, and more like what parts of it might look like in a few years ;). Even the bustlier (yes, invented word), poorer parts of the city, which admittedly I’ve only glimpsed in passing so far, remind me a bit of some areas of Athens. And then you come across a building covered with bullet holes, pass a checkpoint manned by what seems to be both the army and civilian Hezbollah security, or catch a glimpse of the Palestinian ‘camps’ behind a façade of roadside shops and hotels, and you are reminded you are certainly not in Europe.  

And then there’s the driving. During the first few days, when my outings were mainly with the half-Lebanese friends who drive with Northern European responsibility, I thought the road behaviour was not THAT much crazier than southern Europe. But this week (avert your eyes worrying family) I’ve experienced true Formula 1 style driving, giving life to the Italian colloquialism of ‘vai sotto’ (literally ‘go under’ the car in front of you). I’m talking overtaking at high speed on winding mountain roads. Thankfully, I have St Christopher looking out for me (and hopefully someone higher up than him too).

 
The Mediterranean Sea, though, blue and sparkling in the sun, is the same beautiful sea shared by all the Med countries, a place of which has now become associated as much with tragedy as with beauty. And the mountains and trees of the Chouf nature reserve, which I have the privilege of calling my current daily workplace, well they are ‘more than beautiful’ as one of my pseudo-colleagues said to me today. They are indeed beyond comparison.
 

The wonderful daily view

 
 As I self-consciously write this post, I am aware that I am unlikely to be the first person to make these observations. But I might be the first person to tell YOU- dear reader(s-maybe, if someone other than my Mum is reading)- them! Indeed, being here I am coming to learn that my shy hopes of doing something original, individual, unique, which I tried unsuccessfully to quell and which were nurtured by admiring comments from friends and family about being brave and such, were, well, a little ingenuous. I came back to a house party last Friday night where half of the people were also in Lebanon for a couple of months to try something different, usually something like learning Arabic so we can adapt to the new world order etc etc. But aha! At least I’ve bought an original guidebook to Beirut, I thought (very cool and described here, if you still have your eyes open). Of course any guidebook that is on sale in the Virgin Megastore downtown is unlikely to be that exclusive and naturally, most people there had that also. But wait…surely no-one has come to ‘intern/volunteer/eat endless food’ in a Lebanese restaurant…?? Yesterday my pseudo-colleague says: ‘We had another Irish volunteer here before. She taught us ‘Conas ata tu?’’ What?! Not only another food volunteer but also Irish….Ah, I hang up my hat.

  So I suppose I’ve only one last truth to rely on (quiet postmodernists!): I am the only ‘me’ doing this, right here, right now. Wherever you go, there YOU are, according to classic mindfulness wisdom. Or according to Chanel No. 5 advertising:

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkaL4xwI1qE 

 (Perhaps only funny if you watch the original)

 I know that people are hanging on the edges of their seats waiting for the fruits of some of my kitchen stalking: an actual recipe. Stay tuned.