Once the most exciting port town on the Mediterranean, Beirut has emerged from 20 years of war with its cuisine miraculously intact
In June of 1973 I left Beirut, that beguiling city perched on a cusp of land at the far, blue end of the eastern Mediterranean, confident that I'd be back in a year or so. As it turned out, it was 25 years before I could return--years of unparalleled brutality for Lebanon, as the country fractured into civil war. Throughout that time I held in my mind the image of the sparkling white city on the edge of the sea with the snowcapped, cedar-fringed peaks of the Mount Lebanon range rising behind. Often people would ask me where, of all the places I'd lived, I most wanted to go back to. And always I replied: "To Beirut, in 1973."
In the years I was there, studying archaeology and raising a family, Beirut was a dynamic entrepôt, a commercial, political and cultural hub where Middle Eastern, European and North African currents created a froth of ideas, causes, scandals, fads and fashions. In essence, that was the reason I was there: I was the wife of one of the many journalists who covered the region from Greece to Iran and from Libya to Turkey out of offices just off Hamra, the Fifth Avenue of west Beirut.
It's hard to say what I loved most about the city: the sound of the Mediterranean crashing on the rocks below our apartment terrace, the aroma of wild thyme from the sun-drenched countryside after a spate of autumn rain, the cries of the orange-juice and green-almond peddlers as they made their way down our lane. I loved the medieval bustle of the souks, where we bought exquisitely fragrant, beautifully shaped vegetables and fruits from the Bekaa Valley and the janoub, the south. I loved the smells of the city: mud and dust and rotting fruit for sure, but also roasting meat and cardamom-scented coffee and bakeries with crisp, buttery croissants lined up in glass cases next to syrupy, flaky, nut-crusted Arab pastries. It was my first sustained encounter with the richness of the Mediterranean and of the Mediterranean kitchen, and I was like a love-struck teenager.
When the opportunity came about a year ago to make a return journey to Beirut, I went with predictable trepidation. The city would have changed, of course, even without years of war, but I had changed, too. Maybe it hadn't been so wonderful after all; maybe I'd just been a teenager in love. I found grim signs of the civil war everywhere when I arrived--in the shell-pocked walls of apartment blocks along Hamra and in the half-collapsed buildings along the Green Line, which had separated the opposing forces. Downtown was especially dramatic: what was once the maze of souks--the gold souk, the spice souk, the furniture makers' souk--is now a level plain, bulldozed flat for the foundation of the new city slowly but inexorably rising on what the Lebanese loftily claim is the largest building site in the world.
After 20 years of hell, could there be anything left of what I remembered? "The years of hell didn't touch the cuisine," my friend Zeina assured me. "It would take more than a war to change the way we eat." Zeina had owned a bar in Beirut before the war, and it had been a popular meeting place for the young and fashionable set; now, in the new Beirut, she has Babylone, a restaurant that serves an older but still fashionable, cell-phoning clientele with dishes she has found in her travels around the world.
But I was searching for the old cuisine that had sustained the Lebanese through generations--dishes like kibbe, that labor-intensive preparation of pounded lamb mixed with minced onion and cracked bulgur and served in dozens of permutations; or the many different yakhnit, stews of braised vegetables (okra, spinach, green beans) flavored with just a little meat and served over a profusion of fragrant rice; or fool mdammas, small, dark beans stewed in olive oil and lemon juice and served at breakfast with flat bread for sopping up the juices. I was looking for dishes as simple as eggs fried in olive oil and sprinkled with tart, dark-red sumac, and as complex as shish barak, little oven-baked tortellini stuffed with meat and served in a thick, tart yogurt sauce with torpedoes of stuffed kibbe on the side.
I'll admit it: I went back to Beirut as much for the food as for anything else. And I found lots of it, in astonishingly good shape, in restaurants and homes alike. I should have known, of course. In times of trouble, people cling to what's most familiar, and what is more familiar or more heartening than food? In many ways, the years of war reinforced traditions that might otherwise have fallen victim to modern lifestyles, something I've seen happen all around the Mediterranean.
Without the war, for instance, Mymouné might never have happened. Two sisters, Youmna Goraieb and Leila Maalouf, established Mymouné to support the women of Ain el Kabou, a village high on the slopes of Mount Sannine, in central Lebanon. With so many of the village men sud-denly unemployed, Youmna and Leila set up Mymouné to put the women to work--making their traditional preserves, their rose-petal and fruit jams, their alembic-distilled rose and orange-blossom waters, pickled vegetables, sun-dried figs, apricots and dates, their thick syrups of pomegranate, mulberry and bitter-orange juice and all the other staples of the mouné, the Lebanese pantry, which was always the pride of village households.
Today the sisters oversee a nucleus of 15 women that expands in summer, when the season is at its fullest. Their handsomely packaged products travel not just to Beirut but to every country in the world where Lebanese natives long for a taste of home. "We wanted to get back to the authentic traditions, the real thing," Youmna explained to me as we watched two women making a thick soup from kishk (wheat mixed with yogurt, then dried in the sun before being ground into flour) and qawarma (a sort of lamb confit put up in terra-cotta vases) with plenty of sliced pink-skinned salamouni onions--the best, they told me. "Without our encouragement," Youmna added, "I'm certain these recipes would have disappeared."
Without the war, there might never have been a restaurant like Walimah, either--high-ceilinged and cool, with blue-and-white tiles on the floor and kilims on the wall, obviously the work of someone with simple but excellent taste. Here, again, the proprietors are two women: Asma Najjar Saidi in the dining room and Wardeh Loghmagi in the kitchen, who together re-create the careful cuisine and the calmly inviting atmosphere of an old-fashioned Lebanese home. And again the object is to give new value to the old ways of doing things, in such dishes as kibbe arnabiyeh, little baked kibbe dumplings served in a rich sauce of tahini; the juice of bitter Seville oranges; and dibsl rouman, the pomegranate molasses that adds an exotic touch to so many of these traditional specialties. "We'll never serve steak and French fries," Asma said with a proud smile.
The old bustle and ferment that once made Beirut the most exciting port town in the Mediterranean are back, and sometimes it feels as though they never really went away. Meeting new and old friends over maghrabiyeh couscous at the lively City Café, taking coffee and talking recipes with a grande dame like Leila Emile Baroudi in her luxurious apartment overlooking the bay, sampling the range of high-quality wines at Château Kefraya in the Bekaa (where wine production never stopped even in the bleakest days of the conflict), I was struck again and again by the resilience of a people who have come through hell with their chins up and their spirits undaunted. "Are you tourists?" a woman on the street asked my daughter and me one day as we came back from our morning walk along the seafront. "American tourists?"
"Yes," I said, squelching my usual abhorrence at that identification.
"Oh, it's so good to see American tourists once more in Beirut," she said happily.
And I could only agree.
All of the unfamiliar ingredients that the following recipes call for are available at Middle Eastern groceries and specialty food shops, and many are available at well-stocked supermarkets. A good mail-order source is Kalustyan's in New York City (212-685-3451).