Monocle Magazine recently awarded Tawlet in Beirut an 8th place on their list of Top 50 Restaurants. I was so happy when I read the wonderful news. I visited Beirut in December last year and was privileged to spend a day at Tawlet, immersing myself in the story, the food and the people who make it all happen. Beirut is one of those cities I just can not get out of my mind and the desire to return to experience more of its people and definitely its food is almost daily. Following below is a piece I wrote about our experience and the story behind Tawlet and Souk el Tayeb.
“Our identity is that we are different. Muslims and Christians, bikinis and veils”, Kamal says as we navigate the early Sunday afternoon Beirut traffic. We only met an hour ago and I have already been introduced to three of his friends. Now Kamal makes it his priority that I have the best sharwama in the world. He apologises profusely that he won’t be able to join me for lunch, but I am just happy for the insider’s tip on what to have as my first proper meal in Beirut.
As we drive to Boubouffe, Kamal points out various restaurants worth visiting but I have one main purpose for this trip, to visit and experience Souk el Tayeb and Tawlet. In my research about what and where to eat in Beirut I came across the story of the market and subsequent restaurant Kamal started in 2004. I was immediately attracted to the bigger story and a short holiday in a very unique destination turned into a holiday with a purpose of learning more. Here food is being used as a tool of reconciliation and to cross boundaries in a country with a history of conflict based on ethnic, political and religious differences.
I also discover the story is more than that, it is about empowering women by using what they do every day, cooking for and nurturing their families. Giving them the opportunity to generate an income that is not just used to survive, but to offer some financial independence and even get their children an education.
Souk El Tayeb (Farmer’s Market) and Tawlet (Farmer’s Kitchen) is the brainchild of Kamal Mouzawak, the sharp witted and charismatic son of farmers whose love for Lebanon, it’s people and food is evident from the moment you meet him.
He founded the farmer’s market in 2004 as a means to celebrate difference whilst finding common ground between the diverse people from the various areas of the country. The market brings the producer from the rural to the urban area where there is a demand and purchasing power for their goods and where the farmer and producer is as important as the actual goods for sale. That direct link between consumer and producer creates pride and recognition with an important economic return. At the same time it is an important opportunity for the buyer to have direct contact with the grower and to realise that food is more than just a commodity.
A few days later I visit Souk el Tayeb at Beirut Souks. I am greeted by smiles wherever I go and later find it hard to take any photos as I am offered tasty morsels from literally each of the 60 stands. Of course there is a huge language barrier but good food made with love tastes fantastic in any language. I am totally blown away by the selection of fresh produce available from all over the country. Each stand is named and has a brochure with details of the offerings, making it easy to navigate.
The market gets busier and more festive as the morning passes with the adjacent restaurants filling up as people gather around tables to talk, share and eat.
I ask Kamal about the “trendiness” of farmer’s markets where the exclusivity factor sees products for sale at a premium, which excludes a fair amount of people from these gatherings. By now I am used to his pragmatic answers and he does not disappoint. “Of course they have to be exclusive and we need the trendy people to come. They support it and spread the word. And the products deserve to cost more. They are not mass-produced and are made with care. The ones who have must give to the ones who have not.”
A few years on from the start, in 2007 it was decided to connect with producers in their own villages and a regional Food Festival by the name of Food and Feast was started. Festivals are held in villages with the focus on empowering producers by bringing them recognition and income. These festivals proved to be very popular and from there the idea for the Farmer’s Kitchen brought these village cooks to Beirut. Tawlet was started in 2009 and every day a different cook prepares lunch with dishes from her region. The first one was in Beirut with subsequent opening in Ammiq and Bkessine.
Situated in the Mar Michael area of Beirut, the Tawlet is a beautiful airy space with an open kitchen separated from the dining area by a large buffet table where lunch is served. When we visit, Zainab Kashmar from Hallousiyeh in the south of Lebanon is cooking and the kitchen is a flurry of activity. Lunch includes dishes like Mjadara hamra, Shoumar m’alla, Friket djej and Kawaj maa lahmeh.
Walking around with camera in hand I find it difficult not to go overboard with photos. Every corner has an image or object that catches the eye. Every few months a local artist is invited to paint on the walls and there are artisanal products for sale. The long table that seats 18 people dominates the space and allows strangers to sit and enjoy the experience together.
The staff breaks for lunch before serving hour begin and Zainab offers me some “winter breakfast”. A piece of flatbread dish of fermented burghul and yoghurt keshek, with some preserved goat added on the dish today. Later as we sit chatting to Kamal a bigger bowl of eats arrives. We talk about mouneh, a Lebanese food preservation and every now and then Kamal calls out to a member of staff to bring an ingredient for us to see and taste.
Next, lunch from Zainab’s area. I slowly work my way through them all, making various returns to the buffet table. As the restaurant fills up, it is impossible not to notice the friendly relaxed atmosphere. Or how patrons are engaging with Zainab and with each other. Service is incredibly efficient. We are joined by more of Kamal’s friends and it feels like we are all one big family. We taste some local craft beers and enjoy excellent Lebanese wine.
Dessert is fresh fruit and Lebanese pastries, pancakes with hazelnut filling, pistachio and Arabic cream and a new favourite, Lawziyeh (almond short bread cookies), a speciality from the Chouf mountains.
The food and experience are fantastic, but Zainab’s story so important. She has gone from a mere ‘peasant’ in her Southern Lebanon village to a successful business woman that runs a catering company from her home, enabling her to provide for her family and educate them. Today she has dignity.
But the story does not end here. We speak about Atayeb Zaman (The Delicious Past) and the Tawlet Cafeteria at the UNHCR. This first Atayeb Zaman was a 5-month culinary training workshop with Syrian refugee and Lebanese women, to keep alive their culinary traditions, promote understanding between their communities and at the same time improve their livelihoods by using catering to generate income.
Funded by the UNHR, about 20 women took part in the first workshop and from all the dishes prepared during the workshop around 14 dishes remain on the menu. Most of the women cook these dishes for Tawlet as well as the UNHCR canteen in Beirut. Where they started off as strangers, often stressed and depressed, they now have hope, bonds of true friendship and some financial independence. All acquired by using the skills gained in the workshop. The aim now is to raise more money so that more women can be reached.
It was at the market that I met Samira Ismail. Of all the memories of my trip to Beirut, it is Samira’s spirit and generosity that morning that I think of first. She makes and sells Mhammara, a Syrian flat bread with nigella seeds in the dough and then topped with a chili and tomato paste. Samira and I do not speak each other’s language, so with hand gestures and a big smile she tried to explain to me what she makes. The bright red topping looks delicious and I gesture back that I would like one of the flatbreads. They are delicious and the perfect breakfast. As I reach for wallet to pay she point blank refuses to accept any money.
It is only later that I hear Samira’s whole story. She fled the war from Syria and came to Lebanon as a refugee. Today there are 1 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country with a population of just over 4 million people. She enrolled to participate in the first Atayeb Zaman program. When the program came to an end she started working at the canteen at the UNHCR and decided to join the weekly market in downtown Beirut. Today she is supporting herself and her family. As Pamela, manager of Souk el Tayeb says to me, “she is a true heroine”.
Atayeb Zaman is just one of the projects that Kamal refers to as Capacity Building. Projects of human development and national identity to regain pride and dignity, all built around food. “By using what they do every day to nurture their families, we develop those finding themselves in tough situations” he points out.
The latest Capacity Building project is with the War Widows in Tripoli. In Lebanon’s third largest city the Bab Al-Tebbeneh and Jabal Mohsen communities have been devastated by a conflict of many years. Working with the non profit organisation Ruwwad Al Tanmeya Lebanon, chefs from Souk el Tayeb have been working with about 20 women from both communities, teaching them new skills as well as preparing traditional dishes from the area. From all the dishes they make during the program a final 20 or so will be selected to form part of the final menu they will use for catering.
Kamal recounts how incredibly uncomfortable the first few meetings are. These women have lost family members to each other from the opposing sides. But the love for food triumphs when they see they are all the same in the same distressing situation. Friendships are formed and indeed indirect conflict resolution starts to take place. These women now cook together as a team and earn an income together by catering for organisations like the Red Cross working in their own area.
Kamal’s motto is “Make food not war” – a motto he, his team and all the women involved in the various workshops and projects are living proof of. He admits to me that is it hard work, but his warm personality and smiling exterior somehow defy this reality of the past 10 years. When I ask him what is next he doesn’t hesitate. He wants to see a Tawlet in every major city in the world.
As we say our final goodbyes the thought of a Tawlet in every city makes perfect sense. How many of us, not even living in conflict situations really know the other communities we share our cities with? How wonderful to get to know them through a common love of food.