For first time visitors Beirut can seem a jazz-hands city, intent on blinding you with fast cars, glamorous dining and fancy boutiques. The construction cranes were busy grinding up above, slapping another high rise to the city skyline, as I walked through the rejuvenated Downtown district. The arcaded pavements radiating out from Place d’Etoile were full of shoppers toting designer bags. It was the kind of scene I’d come to expect in a city that markets itself as a glitzy night life and restaurant destination. Scrape below the glossy veneer though and you find Lebanon’s capital has layers that are easily missed.
Visitors can be forgiven for seeing Beirut as a thoroughly modern Middle East city. After all, the Downtown district was completely obliterated by 15 years of civil war and had to be rebuilt from scratch. There are tiers of history though under the pristine facade. Below the restored Greek Orthodox Saint George Cathedral the crypt hides Beirut’s most surprising museum where archaeologists uncovered a necropolis and the foundations of the original 5th century church. Between the cathedral and the slender minarets of the new Al-Amine Mosque, the remnants of Roman Beirut’s Cardo Maximus lay strewn out in rubble piles of hefty marble blocks across an unkempt plot of land. Down the road the uninspiring modern entrance to the Al-Omari Mosque contrasts with its beautiful prayer hall boasting the distinct Gothic architecture of its Crusader church origins. Beirut is a city where you have to dig a little deeper to find what’s happening underneath.
Lebanese food is the perfect example of this. Levantine cuisine is one of Beirut’s great draw cards for visitors but the dishes offered in most of the capital’s restaurants are only the tip of the iceberg. “There are two entirely different cuisines in Lebanon,” Kamal Mouzawak explained to me. “In restaurants there is mezze and grilled meat and then there’s our private cuisine. The food we cook at home has traditionally been secret. The only way you could access it was by getting an invite to someone’s house.”
Kamal is the founder of Souk el Tayeb; a food enterprise turning Beirut’s dining on its head. They run a weekly farmer’s market every Saturday right in the heart of Downtown bringing Lebanon’s small-scale food producers to the city to sell their produce direct. And on weekdays they run Tawlet restaurant, offering diners that family soul food in a restaurant setting, fuelled by a roster of Lebanon’s best home cooks that serve up their regional specialities in the Tawlet kitchen.
I had come to Tawlet for lunch. Their cheeky motto ‘Make Food Not War’ is a reminder that this is a city still best known for being the epicentre of a long and bloody civil war. “What we set out to do,” Kamal told me. “Is to try to connect the Lebanese through food and celebrate our diversity rather than use it as a reason for conflict.” Today with neighbouring Syria mired in war, they’re now going one step further; starting up a food project with some of Beirut’s ever-expanding population of Syrian refugees.
Syrian women are now serving up their home cooking every weekend at the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market and this lunchtime they were in the Tawlet kitchen creating their spicy Syrian cuisine for diners. It’s a way of not just helping to generate income for the refugee community but also aimed at preserving Syria’s distinct food heritage. Ibtissam Nesto was one of the cooks in the kitchen. “I’m so proud to be representing Syria by its food and keeping the culture alive this way.” She told me as she set down a tray of kibbeh (fried meatballs) smothered in a pomegranate and chilli paste sauce. “Cooking is our way of showing affection. If I’m not cooking from my heart, you won’t like my food.”
Cooking from the heart was definitely what was going on. Everything that Ibtissam and her fellow cooks produced for lunch sung with the flavours of Syria. As I headed back onto the street a beautifully coiffed woman wobbled past me on skyscraper heels leading a tiny dog bedecked in a diamante-encrusted jacket. Beirut’s slightly over-the-top glamour tag is well-deserved. The city has become adept at hiding behind its shiny facade but with local initiatives like Souk el Tayeb and Tawlet, savvy traveller can easily peel back the layers to find the soul underneath.
This story first appeared in the April issue of Colours Magazine.