These last couple of weeks I’ve been in the Beirut restaurant kitchen more and enjoying it. Every day a different lady comes in and if language permits, I get to hear a different story, and if I’m lucky, nab a recipe or two. This week I nabbed a recipe for Baklawa bi Halib, (baklava but not as you know it), a super easy and delicious dessert made of milk, semolina and rose and orange blossom water. It was an all-round hit.
When I have conversations with the ladies it is hard to get out of my ‘results’ development mindset, trying to assess how poor they are and what percentage of them have had their lives changed through working in the restaurant. Using my average participant observation skills I check out their clothing, jewellery, and feel slightly dismayed if I see some gold rings, and inwardly rejoice if I see a headscarf or some other item indicating poverty and marginalisation (before anyone angrily responds, a headscarf does not automatically equal poverty or marginalisation, it’s just the symbol I chose, ok?). Then I have to remind myself that this is not a development project, but a social enterprise, a concept which I am yet to fully understand. But yesterday, unprompted. a Druze woman from the Chouf mountains told me how working in the restaurant and the farmers market had changed her life, increasing her income so that now she could send her children to school and university. What music to a development worker’s ears!
In between asking ‘what difference is this making to the lives of the poor and marginalised?’, while chopping tomatoes I am also regularly asking more introspective questions, ranging in profundity, from ‘am I any good at cooking?’ to ‘why am I here?’.
So just over one month in perhaps it is time to make a quick assessment of stage 1 of the sabbatical. As every current and former development worker knows, there is nothing like a good analytical framework when it comes to assessment. I have decided to use Donald Rumsfeld’s famous one, slightly adapted and improved, of course.
The known knowns
I know how to chop tomatoes for tabbouleh, but pretty slowlyI know how to dice an onion correctly, but slowly
I know how to prepare green beans for loubieh bi zeit (green beans in oil), but less fast than desirable
I know how to ‘julienne’ an onion, moving with the fibres of the onion so as not to let water out of the onion, but at the speed of light divided by the speed of light squared
I know how to say parsley, coriander, allspice, seven spice, nutmeg, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, pepper, tomato, onion, garlic, lemon, courgettes, aubergines, semolina, burghul, etc in arabic
Stew with baked bread and hot yoghurt is now my number 1 comfort food.
I know how to say hello, how are you, ’something/nothing/same thing’, ‘let’s go!’, ‘seriously?’, ‘finished!’, in Arabic.
I know how to say yes in colloquial Lebanese (eh), Palestinian (ah), and Egyptian (aiwa) Arabic.
I know at least one bad word in Arabic, taught to me by aforementioned Lebanese friend and brought to life by a Lebanese taxi driver in Beiruti traffic.
I know Lebanon is filled with many beautiful places, including Baalbek, the most important Roman temple complex in the Middle East
I know the rubbish crisis is not resolved, and it is now raining, and the rubbish is going somewhere, probably into the water making it all the more poisonous
I am pretty sure Google maps is adjusted to local walking speed
The known unknowns (these are things I know I don’t know and to which I suspect there is an answer, or things I have been told but I haven’t actually proven in practice)
Lentils: I know there is a version of mujaddara with red lentils and burgul. But should it taste of slightly burnt onion? Where do they actually make it, in the south or the north?? What did that woman from Beirut who made the lovely sweet mujadarra put in it???
Aubergines: what the feurk is Baba Ghanoush anyway and how is it different from Mutabbal (yes I still don’t know…)? How the fook do you cook aubergines to get them all cooked and not have one or two rebel pieces which insist on staying rubbery?
General cooking: am I any good at it? does it matter? (ok maybe this last question goes into last category) how the fuck do you get faster at chopping without removing a finger?!!
Ahem, language: When people say ‘binit’ (girl, in arabic) over and over, are they talking about me? if so does that mean I look young enough to be a girl?
Ancient history: how did they get those 800 tonne stones into Baalbek (ok the guide did say something about the 100,000 slaves, elephants and iron chord, but who knows if he knows?)?
Slimey foods: Lemon juice apparently makes bemieh (okra) and mouloukhieh (jew’s mallow), less slimey
Politics: who? what?! complex? Or money, power = same stupidity everywhere?! why the feck can’t they sort out the rubbish for starters…do they not know that rubbish washing down streets and into people’s drinking water is only going to make their lives more difficult? March 8 or March 14?
Refugees: How long can a refugee camp be a camp? there are now three generations of Palestinian refugees living in camps, without any legally recognised nationality
Rubbish crisis: what happens to the rubbish when it disappears from some places and not others?
Unknown unknowns (according to Rumsfeld’s analytical framework there technically should be no questions below, but I am defying him by putting questions I don’t know if there is an answer to, here)
Will I ever get faster at chopping?
What will happen in Lebanon as the internal political crisis and the Syria crisis do not abate?
What am I doing here? Will the meagre knowledge and experience I have acquired be of any consequence?
I am going one up on old Rumsfeld and adding two more categories.
Why is it not fooking possible to walk more than 10 metres without having to go around a car taking up the whole footpath or having the car reverse into you?
Crowdsourcing questions (this category would have been unpopular with Rumsfeld during certain decision-making processes I suspect)
What should I do for my last three weeks here?
What should I do after that?
Why am I here?
Answers on a postcard/comment….
Anyway, in an attempt to answer question 2.3.1, I hosted a modest Lebanese dinner party last night. This was made possible through my temporary residence in a bachelor pad loaned by a generous friend who is away on holiday for 10 days (in exchange for plant care, a verrrry dangerous bargain indeed), and my very flexible work schedule, allowing me to spend two days cooking and one day washing up. I am proud to say that in true Lebanese style I made enough to feed at least three times my 3-guest party, so there will be a round 2 tonight.
This was the menu and the response:
A Romeo and Juliet cocktail – many mmms
Mutabbal – at least two mmms
Arnabit bi tahina (cauliflower with tahini dressing)- at least three mmms, one ‘molto buono’ and a request for takeaway
Tabbouleh – half-hearted mmm
Mujaddara hamra – one mmm, one request for takeaway
Fattet batinjen (aubergine stew with garlicky yoghurt and baked bread) – two mmm, one request for takeaway
Freekeh djeij (smoked green wheat with chicken in spices) – no detectable mmm, but I liked it!
Beklawa bi halib (milk baklava) – three mmms, one molto buono and one takeaway request.
Unfortunately I took no photos but here’s one of my bachelor pad:
5 cups milk
1 cup coarse semolina
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup rose water
¼ cup orange blossom water
sweet breadcrumbs (there is something here called kaak matron or chapelure, but digestive biscuits crumbled could also work)
chopped pistachios for garnishing
Mix and heat the milk, semolina, rose and orange blossom water and sugar in a pan. Bring to a simmer and stir frequently until thickened.
Grease a baking tray (the mixture should be about 2.5cm deep) with butter and a scatter of breadcrumbs
Pour in the mixture and leave to cool and set.
Once set, slice into approx. 2.5x3cm pieces
Top with slivers of butter and sprinkle of breadcrumbs
Pop into a preheated oven at 150 degrees for 7-10 minutes, just enough for the butter and breadcrumbs to turn golden
Leave to cool and scatter chopped pistachios on top.