keito potato

Memorable meals in Lebanon and Syria
August 23, 2009, 10:06 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , ,

I spent most of my summer in Lebanon, in a program through my grad school. My mornings were spent volunteering at a center in Beirut for street kids, doing art with them and setting up an exhibit for their work. My afternoons were filled with Arabic language classes. I also spent my last two weeks (and my free weekends) traveling around Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Needless to say, I ate very well. I kept all of you friends in mind, and properly documented my memorable meals.
A typical breakfast for me in Beirut was manaeesh, a grilled flatbread topped with fresh cheese. This particular one was topped with feta and fresh thyme.
eggplant salad
This arugula salad was topped with a mound of sauteed eggplant. It lacked a conventional dressing because once tossed, the sticky eggplant would slick up against the arugula to create its own sweet and sour coating. The flavor reminded me of the rich and complex Sichuan dish “yuxiang qiezi”.
Hummous in Lebanon in always fantastic, but approaches the realm of the divine when topped with warm, toasted pinenuts.
After wandering the old souq of Tripoli for hours, we had a late lunch at this cafe that only served hummous. This one was garnished with chickpeas.
When in Syria, I had to visit Aleppo, the birthplace of muhammara. You might remember that my first recipe on keitopotato was for muhammara. I’m crazy about the pepper-walnut-pomegranate mash, and I got a few friends there addicted to it as well. This little batch of it in Aleppo was by far the best. It had the perfect balance of walnuts to peppers. Rich and luscious, yet spicy. I wanted to lick the plate clean. In Syria they know how to make it pretty, topped with crushed walnuts and a drizzle of more pomegranate molasses. I’m going to start serving it like this at home.
thyme salad
These two dishes were part of mezze at a rooftop cafe in Damascus. The thyme salad was for serious thyme-lovers. A mound of thyme mixed with feta, kalamata olives and minced onion in a lemony dressing. The labneh next to it is a stiff yogurt, that here was mixed with fresh mint, walnuts and garlic. A friend told me that the Lebanese have always eaten so much yogurt that the name of the country might possibly have been named after their favorite food. Labneh. Lebanon. The land of yogurt. What an adorable legend.
Look at this cute little log of haloum! This particular log of the squeaky cheese is coated and deep fried, ready to be sliced and eaten with fresh hot flatbread. There are so many ways to serve haloum, and you honestly can’t go wrong with any of them. I first fell in love with haloum at a backyard birthday party in London for a guy from Cyprus. The party was populated by Cypriot guys, who were having a good time at the grill. They grilled platters of super-fresh haloum, in hunks a full inch thick and 3 inches wide. They squeezed lemon over and brought it out on platters to us white-wine-sipping girls. Hot and chewy, but sizzlingly-crispy on the outside. I was smitten. Because of my crush, in Lebanon my fragile little heart wouldn’t let me pass up a haloum dish. And there were many.
stuffed eggplant
Eating this stuffed eggplant, I finally realized why people wax poetic about them. This little guy was stuffed with roasted peppers, kalamata olives and walnuts. Rich and spicy from the walnuts and peppers, with a solid floor of earthy, salty umami flavor from the olives.
In Syria we tried fatta, which is an unusual assembly of humble ingredients. It consists of crunchy, dried flatbread that is then soaked in tahini. It’s finally topped with chickpeas and drenched in olive oil and yogurt. This one had a sprinkling of pistachios as well.
The Syrian Lonely Planet disappointed me time and again with inaccurate descriptions. One time they actually got it right was when they recommended this little cafe in Aleppo that only serves ful. Ful is a warm fava bean stew, rich and zesty with fresh garlic and plenty of lemon juice. Since this cafe only serves ful, they know how to make it memorable. They add to the stew a thick stream of tahini sauce, and pour the famous Aleppan red pepper sauce over. The cafe was tiny and dingy, packed with men inhaling bowls of the hot bean stew. What a find.
potatoes with herbs
Mashed potatoes isn’t a common mezze dish here in the states, but I’ve got to tell you that it works. Instead of being mashed in butter and milk, imagine then smashed into olive oil and fresh thyme. The result is fragrant and soft, and easily lends itself for bread-dipping. I wouldn’t serve this by itself as an appetizer, but it’s a great complement to other mezze dishes.
fried potatoes
This was another fun potato mezze dish. They’re like cube-shaped french fries, but they’re tossed in garlic, parsley, red chiles, and lemon juice. This restaurant near the Place d’Etoile made the best ones I found. They were the crispiest and had the most assertive garlic-lemon flavor.
Le Chef
I ate at Le Chef at least 4 times. It’s a scruffy hole in the wall place tucked in between the posh restaurants and bars of Gemmayzeh. We kept coming back to Le Chef because they make affordable Lebanese comfort food. The daily assortment of vegetarian stews won me over. Things like Turkish eggplant with cinnamon or the broad beans stewed with tomatoes. This “Lebanese omelet” was fun. It’s flat (instead of folded like a French omelet) and the additions are incorporated into the egg mixture instead of being a filling. This one had minced onion and fresh herbs. Tasty. The owner of Le Chef is known for repeatedly calling out “welcome!!” to his guests and folks on the sidewalk. When I asked about the vegetarian daily specials, he cried out, “welcome vegetarian!!” He brought out this omelet as a mezze for the whole group, but made a point to me that the omelet was indeed vegetarian. Adorable. On my successive visits to the restaurant, he would see me in the doorframe and call out “welcome vegetarian!”
lentil soup
Each time I was at Le Chef, I had this lemony lentil soup as a starter. Only a dollar. You’ll notice the arak next to it. I was actually the only one in our group who enjoyed arak. But I couldn’t help it. I think licorice liqueurs are pretty fine.
eggplant on rice
I don’t normally seek out fussy things composed in a mold, but this eggplant dish just happened to show up at the table that way. What a complete delight. The thick slices of eggplant had been cooked so delicately that they completely fell apart in my mouth. Gushing to friends later, I gasped that the eggplant was so soft that it “felt like a down pillow in my mouth!” I never heard the end of it.
I had Arabic language classes every afternoon in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut, and naturally ended up perusing the cafes. Du Prague was one of my favorites. This spinach dish there isn’t profound in any way, but after eating salads day in and day out, I started to crave cooked greens. These were perfect, with garlic, lemon, and Spanish almonds. I had tried Spanish almonds a few times before the trip, but it seemed pointless to eat something shipped in from Spain when I could get great almonds from right here in California. But there is something special about that particular variety of almond. They are flatter and smoother than California almonds, and feel more comfortable on the tongue. Once again I was teased by my friends for being impressed with the “mouth-feel” of food.
Iraqi rice
Upon arriving in Damascus, tired and hot after a drive from Amman, we stumbled into this Iraqi restaurant near the convent we were staying at. We were told to simply order the number of rice platters we wanted, and they would bring out the rest of the food that goes with it. We got a table full of mezze dishes, bowls of soup, then the rice platters accompanied by 5 vegetable stews. Perfect comfort food. Stews and rice always get me. It reminded me of Iranian and Afgani food (which makes sense). We ended up eating there 3 times. We always finished our meals with Iraqi tea, a sweet cardamom tea carefully crafted by the man on the sidewalk who was commissioned by the restaurant.
The highlight of Tripoli was the baklava. This grand bakery is known as making the best in the world, and apparently ships boxes of their baklava to Lebanese expats everywhere. In my limited experience, they are by far the best I’ve ever had. The butter is browned, which provides a richer, toastier floor of flavor. The toasted nuts are packed in a thick layer. Simply exquisite with a cup of espresso or arabic coffee.
Spent a lovely afternoon at the Massaya winery in the Bekaa valley. After a fantastic lunch, we were brought a bowl of apricots and plums to finish off our bottle of reserve wine.
Here’s another spread of complimentary fruit. We had been waiting weeks for figs to come into season, and these were our first, served with perfect plums, miniature green apples and watermelon.
ice cream
Most ice creams in Lebanon broke my heart because they were infused in rose water. I find rose water insipid like a cheap perfume. This cafe in Baalbeck was one of the few we found that served rose-water-free ice creams. Refreshing.
pistachio ice cream
We heard the best ice cream place in Damascus was near the Umayyad mosque. They make soft homemade vanilla and chocolate. It’s so soft that the server just grabs it with his (gloved) hand and smooshes it in your glass dish. The next guy down the counter pounds bright green pistachios with a behemoth mortar and pestle (think of the girls pounding lemons at the hot-dog-on-a-stick). A handful of the pistachios are pressed onto all sides of the ice cream like emerald sequins. The best part of the ice cream experience was Amanda’s accidental charades with the waiter, but you’ll have to ask her about that.
tea with mint
My first week in Beirut, I was profoundly baffled to find my tea options limited to Lipton yellow label. It was the main concern I wrote home about. I had always assumed that tea was a big deal in the Middle East. I quickly learned that tea just wasn’t a big focus for the Lebanese compared to their other foods and drinks. Once I arrived in Syria, I found fantastic “tea with mint” on every menu. Not “mint tea” mind you, but strong, sweet, black tea with floating fresh mint leaves. It’s usually served in clear glasses which enhances the visual experience of watching the green leaves float lazily. I always loved getting it at places like this, served on a traditional round metal tray that sat on a tripod to create a table.
coffee beans
It’s easy to fall in love with Arabic coffee. It’s the cardamom. When I came home, I made a pot for my Grandpa Elvin, who is normally suspicious of non-american-style coffee. Even he became a quick convert.
juice stalls
One of the joys of a hot summer in the Middle East is finding a fresh juice stall in the afternoon. This row of stalls was a block from my hotel in Aleppo. My favorite was half orange, half strawberry.
frozen lemonade
This man in Damascus makes the best frozen lemonade. He pours fresh lemonade into the whirling ice cream maker. While it is spinning, he constantly drags splashes of the lemonade up the side with his spatula. In a few minutes, this process creates super-fine ice crystals that feel like velvet on the tongue. It’s chemistry magic.

5 Comments so far
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all of this brings back so many good memories, and makes me hungry! and, thanks for reminding me (and the world) of my “charades” in Damascus. haha. 😉

Comment by Amanda Morgan

WOW KATE! impressive BLOG!!! very nice point of view about the middle east! thanks for sending me the link.

Comment by Joseph El-Hourany

“tea with minth” is also my favorite!!! How to explain its flavor for those who never tasted it?! impossible. However, the oriental context “condition” (as a verbe) the flavor…

Comment by Joseph El-Hourany

I am sending you this mail from LE CHEF gemayzeh! I showed CHARBEL, the man who works here about your blog and his picture! he was so happy! he send you his best regards and invite you to revisit lebanon!

Comment by Joseph El-Hourany

I only saw these travelogue pics & comments recently. They’re great! You should do more the next time you travel!

Comment by andersonabella

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