Cooking with Kamal Mouzawak

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Photos courtesy Kamal Mouzawak

Kamal Mouzawak is the food czar of Beirut. He instigated the city’s first farmers’ market in 2004. He has built up a network of local farmers and food producers, and helped them make the switch to certifiably organic methods and means. He was an erstwhile supporter of the slow food movement, and he remains an enduring campaigner not only for eating locally, preserving Lebanon’s rich culinary heritage, restoring the country’s place as the breadbasket of the region and — no joke — unifying a famously fractious society through food, but also for free trade, recycling, non-smoking, and more.

All of which would make him incredibly irritating, if not for the fact that he’s so utterly genuine about it all. That and the fact that he’s a preternaturally gifted host and a terrific cook who, one year ago this November, opened a restaurant on the outer edge of Mar Mikhael, where different, equally terrific cooks from all over the country rotate in and out of the open kitchen every day, each with their own specialties and secret recipes. You never know quite what you are going to find at “Tawlet” Souk El Tayeb, but you know it’s going to be good and — well, yes — good for you, too. The catch is that, though he may be a czar, Mouzawak’s approach is moderate (nothing in the extreme, everything with its opposite), and anything but militant. He quotes Gandhi all the time, and he means it. When asked, mostly as a joke, if he ever intended to go into politics, he says he does politics every day, all day long.

“It’s always about the best solution possible,” he explains. “There’s no best solution in the absolute. To decide about the best solution possible means that you have to think, and you have to be responsible, so you need first of all awareness, which makes you a responsible individual, and a free individual, who will make his or her own decision every time. And this is what people don’t want. They just want a formula, like ‘Eat organic,’ and that’s it. People don’t want to think, they just want to close their eyes and their minds, mainly, and do what they are told. But I’m sorry — life is not like this. Life is about being an individual, an aware individual, who will make his or her own choices in every situation, because every situation is different.”

Mouzawak was born and raised in Lebanon, but never really knew the country until he was in his early twenties, when he was commissioned to write a guidebook. Lebanon is admittedly tiny but notably labyrinthine. Mouzawak discovered it all by driving to every corner and crevice in an outrageously oversize 1980s Oldsmobile. Before doing the guidebook, he had studied graphic design and worked in a cultural center. Afterward, he got into travel writing and food writing full-time. He hosted a television show on healthy eating with a divaesque macrobiotics enthusiast. Then, in 2004, when he was hired to do something for an annual garden show in Beirut, he opened the farmers’ market that has been going strong since.

During the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, many of the producers that Mouzawak still considers family were directly affected — their villages destroyed, their crops ruined, their land strewn with cluster bombs — but after a few weeks’ hiatus, Souk El Tayeb rather valiantly returned, first in the mountains, then back in Beirut.

“This is not about death, destruction and war,” Mouzawak wrote at the time, “but about families, children and individuals trying to live… about small farmers and producers from all over Lebanon who gathered to form a farmers’ market beyond their religious, regional, political, or confessional beliefs… about Nelly and Mona from Majdel Zoun, who have been reviving old crops and recipes like kechek el fouqara and jebnet el burgol, a vegan cheese from only fermented cracked wheat and water… about Gilbert Aoun, who runs a project supporting land-mine victims from the last war and raises free-range chickens for eggs, bees for honey… about Youmna and Tony, who came to ‘the mountain souk’ with the best vegetables of the season.”

Mouzawak says that he comes from a family of farmers and producers in which the men were always in the fields, the women always in the kitchen. But he also tells a story about being fifteen-years-old and inviting all of his teachers over to his house for crepes, which would suggest that he might once have been something of a brownnoser as well. But perhaps one of the most interesting things about the entire Souk El Tayeb enterprise — which now includes not only the market and the restaurant but also a newsletter, books, a dekaneh (the Beiruti equivalent of a bodega), surprisingly solid photography exhibitions in the dining room, cooking classes, and a scheme for preserving old houses — is that Mouzawak has weaned it off of international development aid. It runs itself independently and self-sustainably, without grants, without charity.

Mouzawak has no guilty pleasures when it comes to junk food, but he adores shawarma and never turns up his nose at street food, no matter where he is in the world. For a health nut, he is paradoxically indifferent to sports. “I can’t take aggression — in any form,” he says. This leads, naturally, to a digression on Lebanese driving, and then Lebanese politics. “It’s not about changing the world,” he says, “but they push you to be a wild beast. This is a shit hole where we are, but I think we’ve created something nice and clean. It’s an attitude, and it’s about figuring out what you need to perform. I’m bitching, I know, but you cannot just have one tag in life. You cannot be just organic, respectful to a tomato but impolite to your neighbor. You cannot be just about fair trade. You have to be to the producer. But you have to take care of yourself, too.”

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Quedisse Barbara

If we advocate to eat local, then we should also feast local, and, in Lebanon at least, celebrate old-school Barbara over newcomer Halloween.

When we were kids, we used to wait weeks in advance for the Barbara night in December; on this date, we would dress up in old clothes from the tetkhiteh (attic), put masks on our faces, and wander to our neighbors’ houses, dancing and singing bessyieh Barbara.

Story, mythology, and religion were not among our main concerns. We were more interested in having fun, dressing up in costumes, and devouring the sweets that came along with the occasion, too, such as katayef, ouwaymet, and qamhyieh.

Barbara is one of the oldest Christian saints. Her story lies somewhere between myth and reality, dating back to roughly to the third century AD, when paganism was sanctioned as the state religion, and Christians were persecuted.

It is said that Barbara was the only daughter of Dioscorus, a wealthy and fervent pagan, who locked his daughter in a tower to keep her safe from the dangers of life. But Barbara knew a thing or two about Christianity already, and she got to be a strong believer in this new faith. This drove her father mad, to the point that he not only punished her, but also tried to kill her.

According to legend, many miracles conspired to save Barbara. The face of a cliff opened for her to hide inside; then, while running across a barren land, rows of wheat sprouted so quickly that she found herself camouflaged in a tall field.

The miracle of the wheat lives on to this day in the dish known as qamhyieh — made of boiled wheat (preferably whole wheat), and served with sugar, orange blossom water, rose water, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, and raisins — which is traditionally served for the Barbara feast. Every year, in late autumn or early winter, people also prepare “wheat gardens,” by sewing seeds of wheat onto small plates covered with cotton; after a while, they yield a green carpet of small, tender wheat plants in time to serve as Christmas decorations.

These wheat gardens probably stem from the ancient tradition of the Adonis gardens, in reference to the young god of fertility. In times of antiquity, life, death, and rebirth were symbolized each season by wheat seeds that were made to sprout in small plates; they would grow and die in the same plate, a symbol of perpetuity, the cycle of life and death and seasons.

Barbara is said to have been from many places, but for the Lebanese, she is only from Baalbek. Theodosius, the Byzantine emperor who instated Christianity as a state religion, turned one of the Roman temples of Baalbek into a church dedicated to Saint Barbara. Even today, the Greek Catholic Cathedral of Baalbek is dedicated to Saint Barbara. It is believed that Saint Barbara died in Baalbek, and that her remains were taken to Constantinople, then to Venice, and, finally, to Rome.

Quedisse Barbara remains one of the most revered saints in Lebanon, and her feast day, on December 4, but mainly the night before, on December 3, is a highlight for kids everywhere in the country — costumes, songs, dances, katayef, ouwaymet, and qamhyieh are better than pumpkin seeds, no?

Qamhyieh is served for Barbara and also to celebrate a child’s first tooth. It is very easy to prepare: Simply soak the whole-wheat kernels overnight, change the water in the morning, and boil on low heat until the wheat is well cooked and the kernels are cracked and mushy. Serve tepid with sugar to taste, a drop of orange-blossom water, rose water, raisins, pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, and walnuts (all the nuts must be soaked overnight and peeled).


Kebbet batata
(potato kibbeh)

Kibbeh comes in many styles and tastes. Ehden (and its winter quarter Zgharta) is the kibbeh capital of Lebanon, boasting more than twenty different versions of meat kibbeh. Kibbeh is mainly made with meat, but there are vegetarian versions, too, especially during the season of Lent, when you’ll find lentil, pumpkin, and potato kibbeh, among others. Kibbeh is a mixture of a finely ground ingredients held together by fine bulgur and aromatized with fresh herbs.

3 large potatoes, boiled
1 small onion
2 sprigs of marjoram
2 sprigs of basil
2 sprigs of mint
1 cup of fine bulgur
Olive oil for serving
Salt, to taste

Soak bulgur in cold water for 30 minutes, then drain excess water.
Mash the potatoes until you have a smooth puree.
In a food processor finely grind the onion and herbs. Add the bulgur so it mixes well with the other ingredients.
Process the bulgur and herbs with the mashed potato to obtain a smooth paste.
Add olive oil if the paste is too thick.
Form dough into ball shapes.
In a frying pan, fry kibbeh in oil for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown.
Drain on paper towels.
Serve with a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of olive oil.


Tabouleh

Tabouleh is as famous as the Cedars of Lebanon. It is the trademark dish of Lebanese cuisine, and one of the most well known in the world, though unfortunately it often comes in odd variations. Tabouleh is a salad made of flat-leaf parsley with a little mint, tomato, and green onion — all chopped very finely — along with fine bulgur, salt and pepper, lemon juice, and olive oil. It is eaten with fresh, crisp leaves of lettuce or cabbage or, in the first days of spring, with tender, freshly picked vine leaves. The secret of a good tabouleh is in the dexterity of the chopping; it’s important that the parsley is cut without being bruised, sliced more than chopped.

2 bunches of parsley
1 small bunch of mint
2 medium-sized spring onions
1 large red and firm tomato
½ cup of fine bulgur
Salt and pepper
Juice of 2 lemons
⅓ cup of olive oil
Romaine lettuce or white cabbage leaves

In a saucepan, pour 1 cup of boiling water over bulgur and stir well. Cover the pan and allow it to stand for 30 minutes, until water is completely absorbed and the bulgur is tender.
Dice the tomato, finely chop the onion, mint and parsley and add to the bulgur.
Dress the tabouleh with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, to taste.
Serve with fresh romaine lettuce leaves or tender, crisp white cabbage leaves.
Optional: a great extra for tabouleh is finely diced, green hot pepper, to taste.

The end result should be a fresh, slightly acidic salad — juicy without being drenched.