It was Suzanne Doueihy’s turn to take to the stoves at Tawlet. This unique cooperative-style restaurant in Beirut not only showcases regional Lebanese cuisine, it honors the cook behind the meal.
At Tawlet (“kitchen table” in Arabic), women from various villages in Lebanon are invited to cook traditional foods from their region. Every day it’s a different cook, a different region, a different meal, a different story.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Lebanon’s first farmer’s market Souk el Tayeb — which supports local farmers, artisan food producers and the culture of sustainable agriculture in Lebanon. The New York Times described Kamal as Lebanon’s answer to Alice Waters. Kamal told The Daily Star: ”The idea of the market is to remind shoppers that other fellow human beings are behind the production of the food they eat. If you cannot go to the land anymore, at least you can have a link to the producer … so people are not just buying lettuce, they are buying Abu Rabieh’s lettuce.”
This one-time TV chef, food writer and former board member of the Slow Food movement has become a local food hero in Lebanon and his growing celebrity status was evident by the attention he drew in Tawlet’s charming dining room — which by no accident features communal tables where Muslims and Christians unite over the sharing of a home-inspired meal that was prepared with love. Kamal’s basic message is to “make food, not war.” He believes that in a country that’s been divided along ethnic and religious lines for decades of conflict, the common act of shopping and enjoying the same foods begins to erase those invisible barriers. “Nothing can bring people together as much as the land and food,” he said.
I had read about Tawlet and was eager to experience it myself during our vacation in Lebanon. I was thrilled to have a chance to sit down with Kamal and enjoy the amazing “producer’s buffet” prepared by Suzanne Doueihy, a Christian Maronite from Zgharta in Ehden, a mountain village in northern Lebanon that we passed through earlier in the week on our way to visit the famous Cedars of Lebanon — a forest of 2,000 year-old trees that have played a vital role in history. Her name and village topped the chalk board menu that outlined the day’s offerings.
One of the dishes that Suzanne prepared was stuffed grape leaves (Warak Trish bi Lahmeh). She had spent hours rolling these Lebanese delicacies at home prior to the final preparations in the restaurant.
I was fortunate to get a taste from Suzanne just as she was putting the completed dish on the buffet table.
Suzanne’s mountainside village is known for its kibbeh and she prepared two versions, Kibbeh Nayeh (raw) and Kibbeh bi Labneh (with yogurt). The Kibbeh Nayeh is similar to a pate in texture and steak tartare in flavor.
Suzanne and her husband proudly served the Kibbeh Nayeh to the eager restaurant patrons — adding a drizzle of olive oil, a sprig of fresh mint and a wedge of white onion to the plates. I was so touched by their immense sense of pride and the obvious joy they felt when sharing their food, telling their stories.
Kibbeh bi Labneh was something new to me. This traditional dish of ground lamb was filled with a layer of yogurt and pine nuts. It was baked in a large bread oven that gets extremely hot to help the top layer of meat get brown and crispy. The individual portions are cut into diagonal shapes.
Lucky for me, the buffet also featured freekeh — an amazing green wheat that’s been picked young in the field and then roasted. I love the smoky taste of freekeh and I’m convinced that it will be the next big whole grain in the U.S. (see my previous post Freekeh, The New Quinoa?). Freekeh is sold crushed or whole (bags of the grain were available for purchase at the restaurant, along with other artisan food products). Our dish was made with whole freekeh that had been stewed for hours with meat and carrots.
The buffet also featured savory vegetable pies Fatayer Homayda that were filled with a variety of seasonal greens. Suzanne’s village is known for folding the dough in this particular way that’s become a signature shape of the region.
I also tried Mujadara, a hearty mountain meal of rice, lentils and caramelized onions.
Nestled among the buffet items was a beautiful combination of lebneh (yogurt) topped with olive oil, white cheese and tomato jam.
And there was a stunning dessert table with Othmaliye, a layered dessert topped with rose petals and crushed pistachios…
And a spiced rice pudding called Meghli, which is traditionally made to serve well wishers after the birth of a child.
The ambitious display of food was aided by Tawlet’s chef Garo who prepares about half of the items on the day’s menu (typically the salads and other core items). The featured villager or producer is in charge of the rest — often preparing foods from their own farms.
Garo also works with the designated cook of the day to plan the menu (which changes daily) and ensures that the home cooks follow strict food safety guidelines. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of planning and coordination to pull off this authentic farm-to-table, rural-to-urban dining experience.
Tawlet is not like any Lebanese restaurant you may visit in the states. This is home-style Lebanese food, not the flagship hummus and tabbouleh that most people know. This is Teta or grandmother food, it’s rural or village food. And it’s about family recipes that are at risk of being lost in modern-day Lebanon, which is not immune to the popularity of fast food and other Western influences. Kamal is helping to reconnect the Lebanese with their increasingly neglected cultural heritage. He’s championing authentic “home made” Lebanese dishes and he’s making it trendy. He’s helping to preserve Lebanese food traditions and honoring the contributions of Tetas every where. To me, this is the ultimate celebration of the home cook.
Kamal told me Tawlet is much more than a restaurant — it’s a human development project. He’s lifting the image of a farmer as a artisan producer. He’s helping to support small food producers throughout the country and offering new venues for them to make a living (including teaching cooking lessons that are offered at the restaurant in the afternoon). The rural producers make a significant daily wage for their work and have new opportunities to sell their food to city dwellers. But beyond the financial rewards, I can tell that they gain so much more. They’re helping to safeguard Lebanon’s culinary heritage. They’re proud of the contributions they’re making to the next generation.
What are we doing to preserve culinary traditions in the U.S. ? Yes, we’ve embraced the concept of farmer’s markets (and I even wrote about how farmers are the new celebrity chefs). But what are we doing to preserve home cooking? How are we honoring the contributions of American home cooks? We may not have centuries-old recipes, but what are we doing to keep regional food traditions alive? Are we losing the art of a home-baked pie? Are we not passing on our grandmother’s recipes? Something to think about.
Read about what other people had to say about Tawlet, which is a must stop if you’re traveling to Lebanon: