Monuments to the dead
I 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.
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
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.
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.
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)
For the dressing:
20mls Pomegranate molasses
20mls Lemon juice
40mls Olive oil
1 tbsp sumac
2 cloves garlic, crushed (optional)
1 tsp salt
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.
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
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.