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.
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.
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.
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.
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.