Monday, 15 November 2010

Food and family in Lebanon and Syria

Beirut's Corniche (waterfront promenade)
I recently revisited both Lebanon and Syria in search of authentic recipes, good food and family ties. On my first visit to Lebanon, seven years ago, I didn’t manage to find any relatives but I did find an amazing connection to the people I met through food. And many of my family ways around food all of a sudden made sense.
On this second trip, I could not get over the changes in Beirut. A huge amount of redevelopment has taken place over the last few years, meaning much of central old Beirut has been changed into glass high rise buildings, verging on the style of Dubai. And other parts had been modernised, too, which I can’t help but feel is a shame, in some ways.

However, my favourite part of Beirut remains the corniche (waterfront promenade), which is buzzing with life, especially in the early evening when everyone comes out for a walk. There are people fishing from rocks, families strolling or swimming, and everyone enjoys snacking on street food sold from carts, barrows and bikes by an enterprising array of vendors.  Corn on the cob is popular, as are tasty sesame flat breads that you can have filled with salty, feta-like white cheese.
Simple Lebanese sweets (pastries)
After 25 years of searching I have finally managed to trace my family links and when at last I meet my great aunt Abla and her family in Beirut, the first thing we do is eat sweets. The Arabs have a great love of sugar, and by sweets I mean pastries. Sweet shops are hugely popular and are a wondrous sight to behold. Sugary pastries of all kinds are displayed in the most elaborate ways. There are great pyramids of syrup-drenched morsels, intricate swirls of different coloured creations, honey coated jewel-like numbers, nutty filled baklava, and the list goes on and on. It’s terribly hard to choose but the assistants are on hand to ply me with tastes and to help with my decision making. 
Coffee in Tripoli, Lebanon
Beirut is good for a few days stay but I definitely prefer spending time in the northern town of Tripoli. To me this town feels much more like old Lebanon. In fact, visiting the souk (market) is like stepping back in time by about a hundred years. I stop for a coffee from a street vendor and enjoy chatting to the coffee man. He explains that his coffee pots were passed onto him by his father and that they are very old (1967 - not so old, I think). Then he tells me how they work, which I find fascinating. He shows me that these free-standing coffee pots have an internal cavity containing hot coals that he refills throughout the day with glowing embers purchased from a hot coal vendor.  The coffee, contained in a central cylinder, is kept piping hot by the burning charcoal. It is an ingenious system and I’m so pleased to have learnt this small but interesting fact.
sour pickled grapes and vegetables
Conversely, Arabs also have a great love of sourness in food.  Sumac (a sour tasting crimson coloured berry); lemon juice, pomegranate and yoghurt are all used to lend their tartness to cooking. They are also very fond of pickled vegetables that are so lip puckingly sour that they make my eyes water. The vivid tang of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice I enjoyed every morning for breakfast lingers in my mind. And I still have the taste of true labneh (strained yoghurt cheese) on my tongue – it has a silky consistency and creaminess that cannot be precisely reproduced outside its homeland.

My favourite Syrian fattoush salad
Another indelible food memory is the startling taste and texture of fattoush, a much-loved pita bread salad from this part of the world. In Lebanon, fattoush is dressed liberally with lemon juice, but in Syria the dressing is made with pomegranate molasses, elevating this humble salad to lofty and flavoursome heights. 

My days in Lebanon and Syria are punctuated by food. I count myself lucky to be able to taste time-honoured recipes that are part of a varied, tasty and healthy cuisine. The meals I eat almost seem to be infused with an otherworldly dimension. Layered with vibrant flavours, which echo a colourful past imbued with history and tradition, this is food that possesses a definite sense of place.
You can’t help but know you’re somewhere magical when you eat food like this. And for me, I know I’ve come home, as this is my ancestral land and I am eating with family. Food has never tasted as good as this food my family have made to demonstrate their love for me.

Footnote: How I found my long lost relatives in Syria and Lebanon is a tale of epic proportions and so, naturally, I plan to eventually write a book about my discoveries. My personal story will be interwoven with authentic recipes and travel photos taken to document my journey.


  1. Julie, I'm so glad to see you've joined the world of blogging! I'm not sure how you fit it in with all that must be going on in your life - I'm looking forward to seeing your posts on here :)

    Lisa - Sunday Hotpants Blog.

  2. Hi Lisa - thanks for your lovely warm welcome to the world of blogging! Yes, pretty crazy trying to fit it all in but then, as they say, if you want something done, ask a busy person...
    Great to know you're following my blog - tell your friends, too, as I need some more followers :-)

  3. Hi Julie! I stumbled your blog when I am in search for Lebanese sweets. So glad to see you write a blog too. Haven't you joined NZ Food Blogger association yet? It is all us, Kiwi bloggers, place to share and support each other.

    Welcome to the blogging world!