A Little Taste of Texas in Lebanon
Parigi chef Chad Houser traveled to the Middle East to learn how Kamal Mouzawak uses food to change his world.
In March 2010, I read a story in the New York Times about Kamal Mouzawak, a Lebanese chef and restaurant owner. The Times piece dubbed Mouzawak “the Alice Waters of the Middle East” for his dedication to bringing together people from different religions and cultural backgrounds by creating a farmers market in Beirut. He is a farm-to-market visionary.
I told my friend Chad Houser about the story, because I knew he and Mouzawak shared the same belief in the powerful bond that can be created by cooking and sharing food. His mother grew up on a farm in East Texas and spent her summers selling produce at the Dallas Farmers Market, and his family had a tradition of big Sunday suppers built around the bounty from their garden. Houser brought that spirit to Parigi, the restaurant where he is co-chef and co-partner. He is also president of the Dallas Farmers Market Friends and one of the founders of Cafe Momentum, a nonprofit restaurant that serves as a culinary training facility for at-risk youth. So I knew Houser would appreciate Mouzawak’s story.
“His dedication is the same as mine,” Houser said. “By creating a market, he has established a place where Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Jews are buying and selling food, the one thing they have in common, together in one place.”
It took only one email to reach Mouzawak. He not only offered to host us, he also asked Houser to cook a Texas-inspired meal in his restaurant, Tawlet. Because that’s what Mouzawak does: asks people to cook. He started the small restaurant two years ago. The concept is inspirational. Each day, he invites women from different villages to come and cook versions of what they serve their families. It gives these remote housewives a place to showcase their talents and get paid for it, too. Because of Mouzawak’s curatorial approach to the restaurant business, Tawlet has been credited with defining the regional cuisines of Lebanon.
We decided to take Mouzawak up on his offer. Houser packed a suitcase with corn grits and cornmeal from Homestead Gristmill outside of Waco. “I know I won’t be able to find it there,” Houser said. “I can’t cook the food I grew up on without them.” He also took gifts of Texas olive oil and a bottle of Becker Vineyards’ Viognier.
Before we left, Houser hosted a brainstorming session with friends and chefs at his house. He wasn’t sure what kind of ingredients he would be able to source for his debut at Tawlet.
“I’m leaving with a file with recipes for about 30 dishes,” Houser said. “But I’m going with an open mind, because I have to wait and see what I find.”
Beirut is sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Lebanon Mountains. In the same view you can see sand and palm trees and, in the distance, snow-capped mountains. The city is full of pale white high-rise buildings with balconies covered with lines of laundry hanging out to dry. The sounds of the city are deafening. Some streets smell like urine, and the breeze off the sea carries the not-so-faint stench of dead fish. Then suddenly you turn a corner and the street reminds you of New Orleans or Paris or Southern Italy: pink and green buildings, gables on the balcony, cafes, Vespas weaving through the cars. No matter where you go, the sight of policemen wearing battle fatigues and police stations surrounded by piles of sandbags is unnerving.
It’s April, and we are sitting in Mouzawak’s swanky apartment in a quiet neighborhood of Beirut. We can hear the distant sounds of jackhammers, of honking cars. When Mouzawak rented it 12 years ago, the building was in ruins and only blocks away from the notorious “green line,” a swath of the city that divided Beirut during the civil war. “Green” because it had been a no man’s land for so long that nature had taken over and created a leafy forest, a convenient cover for warring snipers. When he moved in, the block was full of empty buildings; he says he woke up one day and found himself living in a party zone.
Mouzawak’s apartment in Beirut is beautiful—arched windows overlooking palm trees, 20-foot ceilings, and an eclectic mix of Bauhaus furniture. He is warm, gentle, and shoeless. He sits reclined on his sofa surrounded by two assistants with laptops as he discusses our schedule. Tomorrow, we will visit Souk el Tayeb, the market Mouzawak created in the center of town. The day after, Houser will prepare a lunch at Mouzawak’s house in the country about an hour north of Beirut. For the next week, we will visit farms, artisanal food producers, wineries, and restaurants. We are stunned, jet-lagged, excited, and starving.
We take the 20-minute walk through the city to Boubouffe, a kitschy, homey bistro Mouzawak has recommended. As we walk, we swerve to avoid speeding scooters and pass many of the new bars popping up in the city. Suddenly we spy the waving arms of a passenger in a car. The man yells, “Yalla! Kifak! Bon jour! Come with us, we are going to Boubouffe! Come, you must come!” It is Mouzawak, his friend Rania, and her two kids. We begin eating around 10 pm.
Mouzawak orders a spread—thin Lebanese pita, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, chicken shawarma, lamb shawarma, and hummus. The chicken shawarma is wrapped in pita and stuffed with several French fries, a yogurt sauce, and enough garlic to kill a dozen vampires. It is a revelation. Gyros in Dallas are a nice greasy snack sometimes; chicken shawarma in Lebanon, which from a distance look like just another gyro, is an experience. Everything at Boubouffe is amazing. It feels like before this we’d eaten Lebanese food in black and white and here it is live, in Technicolor. Nothing on the menu is new, and yet nothing tastes quite like anything we’ve ever eaten before.
In the morning, we drink Lebanese coffee in small espresso cups, and then we’re off to the Souk el Tayeb market located in Saifi Village, a stylish and renovated area in downtown Beirut. By 9 am it is bustling. We stand on a platform in the center of the market, a former parking lot. There are plans for a mall to go up next door. Across the way is a mosque, beautiful and sparse. Another building straddling the northeast corner is only a shell from the war, but cranes are there, ready to assist the rebirth. Down the street, Hermès is already up and running. Luxury and destruction, tossed together. You can feel the momentum.
Souk el Tayeb translates into “the market of good.” “What does it mean, ‘the market of good’? First, it means good people,” Mouzawak says. “We are finding people in Lebanon who love what they do. They cook, they make jewelry, or they grow food on a farm. So we bring them together in the market and use their produce at Tawlet. Somewhere in all of this, we hope that it will make a difference in our lives.”
I ask Mouzawak if he is trying to change history with his market. “I am only focusing on what is good,” Mouzawak says. “If we bring it together today, hopefully we can keep it together tomorrow.”
The market is full of product. There is organic dairy, honey, and vegetables; marzipan shaped into roses or, because Easter approaches, into chicks and eggs; halloumi, a cheese that is sliced and then grilled; and a drink called jallab, which Mouzawak tells us is grape molasses, in this case with a touch of rose water. Like the organizers have done at the Dallas Farmers Market, Mouzawak has divided his market into specific areas: local and organic; local; mix of some local and foreign. “Farmers and consumers are now becoming interested in quality control and buying local,” Mouzawak says.
A woman sits on the ground rolling out dough with her hands into a small circle on a wooden board. She slowly stretches it on her arms like you might (gently) stretch a pizza and drops it on a convex grill beside her. As small bubbles appear, she takes a spatula and rubs oil and za’atar across the dough. She starts the process again. And again. The way it has been done for thousands of years.Houser begins his search for ingredients. He’s intent on serving fried okra. He moves around the market examining the produce. He finds romaine, Bibb, and iceberg lettuces. There is also zucchini, wild asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes, and loquats.
“I’d never eaten loquat,” Houser says. “But I knew it had to be on my menu.”
We drive north along the coast and settle into Mouzawak’s house in the old quarters of Batroun, a fishing village that is among the oldest cities in the world. From our post near Batroun, we will spend the next four days visiting wineries and farms. But first, we prepare lunch for 20 people in the garden.
In the morning, I am up at 6:30 making fish kibbeh with Mouzawak. A beautiful bowl is filled with translucent white fish, cayenne peppers, cilantro, onions, saffron, cinnamon, zest of lemon and tangerine, and fine wet bulgur. Kamal grinds the mixture using his KitchenAid mixer, and the result is pressed and laid across a bed of onions, pine nuts, and salt. It is baked slowly. Houser grills a whole octopus next to zucchini, stuffed with grated halloumi cheese, topped with a homemade molcajete.
If you have seen the movie Big Night, you have a sense of what we go through to get the food on the table. We are all overwhelmed with the food, the conversation, and the surroundings. For three hours, the food and wine flow. We’d created a little international community.
The next day, we visit Coteaux de Botrys, a winery perched 1,000 feet up, on a cliff overlooking the sea. Owner Nayla Bitar and her French oenologist Yvan Jobard escort us across the operation. The winery has been in Bitar’s family since 1998. But the family has been making noncommercial wine in the region since the 1700s. Wine has been produced in Lebanon for at least 5,000 years. It was very fashionable for Egyptian pharaohs, who imported huge quantities of Phoenician wine, to put a couple dozen bottles in their tombs for their next lives. Bitar’s winery is small, producing about 40,000 bottles a year. The inventory includes a white, a rosé, a Syrah, a Cabernet, and a Cuvée, a blend of Syrah with a dash of Grenache and Mourvèdre.
To get to the largest wine-growing region in Lebanon, we take the fabled road to Damascus, driving literally through the clouds over the Lebanon Mountains and then coming down into the Bekaa Valley, the breadbasket of Lebanon. Drive another hour and you are in Syria. We happily stop short at Domaine des Tourelles in the little town of Zahlé, situated on the last hills of the Lebanon Mountains, overlooking the Bekaa Valley.
Faouzi Issa, who worked at Chateaux Margaux in France, is the proprietor. Domaine des Tourelles, the oldest commercial winery in Lebanon, dates back almost 150 years, when it was started by François-Eugéne Brun, a Frenchman. Brun’s armoire is still there, along with all the original buildings he built to make the wine. Issa rubbed the sides of the walls to show us why they don’t need to add yeast to their wine—it is literally in the air after nearly 150 years of winemaking in the same building.
Next we visit Massaya, a winery owned by Sami Ghosn and his brother since the 1970s. Ghosn’s winery, like Issa’s, produces about 300,000 bottles a year; 200,000 of those bottles are wine and the remaining 100,000 are filled with Arak, the high-alcohol-content, anise-flavored liqueur favored by Lebanon’s drinkers. We are lucky enough to taste Massaya’s Silver Selection Red with Michael Karam, who is considered the authority on Lebanese wine. It’s an amazingly smooth, international blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Cabernet, and Mourvèdre, with a nice bouquet of hay and raisins.
Ghosn hosts us for lunch outside his house in a lush, landscaped garden and tells us tales of how, during the civil war, his house was full of squatters. There is still a dog from those days that lives on the property and won’t allow anyone to pet him.
Houser squeals with delight when he spies a pile of fresh zucchini blossoms at Al Rabih Organic Farm, the largest organic farm in Lebanon. He picks one from the ground and eats it raw. Farm manager Abu Rabih wrinkles his brow, points to the trash, and yells, “No good! No good! No good!” Instead, he tries to sell us radishes as he pops one in his mouth, smiles, and says, “Good!” We learn later that zucchini blossoms, the flower of zucchini plant, are picked off so that the vegetable will grow. In Lebanon, nourishment is still more important than gourmet. We call the manager at Tawlet and ask him to translate our order for a bushel of the squash blossoms. Rabih just made money on an ingredient he planned to toss out.
After spending 11 days walking across farms, drinking wine in Hezbollah territories, and foraging his way through the Qadisha Valley, Houser is ready to assemble his meal at Tawlet. The menu he has created includes 12 dishes, all inspired by the Texas-style comfort food served at his family’s Sunday suppers. But he procured all the ingredients, with the exception of the cornmeal and grits he brought from Dallas, during his travels through Lebanon.
The buffet luncheon takes place on Easter Monday. During the day, many of the friends we’d met along the way show up eager to taste a little of Texas. There are also a few VIPs such as Maura Connelly, the American ambassador to Lebanon; Tim Murphy of the New York Times; Calé Sali (a former assistant to Christopher Hitchens); and Ziad, the local “Trash King,” a colorful character with whom we’d spent many late nights discussing politics.
The luncheon buffet menu includes Southern specialties such as old-fashioned pickled beets, potato salad, coleslaw, and deviled eggs. Houser uses lamb to make meatloaf and bills it as American kibbeh. He turns makanek, the popular Lebanese sausage, into corn dogs. He makes green-chile cornbread by combining the cornmeal he brought from Dallas with peppers he found at Souk el Tayeb. He makes a version of his grandma’s chicken and dumplings. He rubs beef tenderloin with Lebanese coffee and sumac, and serves it with a salsa made with loquats, which turns out to be a radical preparation nobody had ever tasted. “They looked at me like I was crazy, turning a loquat fruit into a salsa,” Houser says.
The family we created during our time in Lebanon mills around for most of the afternoon, chatting about food, politics, and life in general. They didn’t understand many of the dishes they ate, but they ate it all.
As our trip wraps up, we think back to one of the highlights, the day we spent with Georgina Bayeh, the most famous pastry maker in Lebanon. Her ma’amoul—shortbread pastries filled with dates, pistachios, or walnuts—are loved by people of all faiths in Lebanon. Thanks to her work with Mouzawak and her popularity at Souk el Tayeb market, Bayeh has been transformed from a housewife into a pastry chef who gets so many calls for her ma’amoul that she needs more room for cooking. She is one of many success stories in Kamal Mouzawak’s food projects around Lebanon.
“Kamal helped her negotiate a fee to be a paid spokesperson of Lurpak Butter Company,” Houser says. “She took the money and is building a bakery that will employ five women who, like her, would have never had jobs. That is just one example of how food is empowering the people in Lebanon.”
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