And more food.
Yesterday was a walking food tour of Beirut. We ate ourselves silly and learned a ton about Beirut and Lebanon from Iffat, our truly amazing, warm and wonderful guide from Taste Lebanon. She spent the day with us, from 10:30 am to 8:30 pm (when we even got a peek at the fabulous apartment her architect husband designed near our hotel.). It was a super day, delicious and enriching in multiple ways.
It was just the four of us, plus Iffat, which was perfect. She started by orienting us to the city. The outlines of the sides of the Civil War started to become clear as we looked at the map and charted a course that took us between East and West Beirut.
It was impossible to ignore the remnants of war. Buildings riddled with bullet holes, well known sniper hideouts, a museum of a shelled out building preserved by a local architect to remind people of the damage and cost of war.
Gracious mansions, abandoned. Designated historical sites that no one has the will or means to restore, with broken windows and haunted gardens, or the laundry of squatters hanging from balconies. Huge shiny new high rise apartment buildings, some bustling and others empty, their multi-million dollar apartments waiting for the real estate market to come back and fill them with families. When that might happen is not clear, pegged to a vague hope that if the war in Syria ends there will be a lucrative role for Lebanon to help in the rebuilding.
But, the food. We started with breakfast, which we had prudently skipped at the hotel. We went to a tiny grocery where the owner bakes man’ouche in the early hours if the day. Piles of the freshly made flat breads lay next to his domed oven, like an inverted wok.
We tried several filling with the crispy, chewy flatbread. Za’atar man’ouche was a version of the bread and za’atar I grew up eating with my dad, for whom it was childhood comfort food of the first order.
Za’atar is a spice mix (although the word also applies to the main ingredient, a thyme-like herb, dried and crumbled. The mix also has toasted sesame seeds and sumac, a rich, red, tart and tangy spice. You can sprinkle za’atar on bread before drizzling with olive oil, or you can do what this baker did — mix it the grassy, bitter oil into the spice mixture and slather the toasting man’ouche with it, wrapping it up like a crepe.
It’s an acquired taste but I acquired it a long time ago and I savored the herbal bite of the savory mix. Loved it. That’s all.
We also had man’ouche with tangy, chili cheese and with a spicy mix of kashk, a dried milk powder reconstructed to a paste and doctored with added spice. All were excellent thigh my heart belongs to za’tar.
As we walked around the city, other carefully chosen delicacies followed, each a lovely and prefect take on a treasured classic.
At a tiny bakery where they make their own thin, flat bread dough as well as create what looked like infinite varieties of baklava, we had Lebanese pancakes, filled with a whipped up ricotta like cheese and topped with chopped pistachios and candies rose petals. We doused them with simple syrup to our taste and ate them out of hand. Not too sweet, they were light, fluffy and delicious.
We went from there to a coffee shop for a break and then moved onward to a falafel shop. Iffat has been promising a falafel to blow away all previous falafel memories I had. It didn’t quite to that — I still cherish a Parisian version with fried eggplant and cabbage salads and an Israeli one with chopped preserved lemon — but this was truly special. The falafel itself was light. Compared to the dense chick pea fritters that most places serve, this one could have floated away. We didn’t let it. Combined with tomato, pickled turnip, fresh parsley and mint, it was doused with tarator, a creamy tahini sauce, and wrapped in thin flat bread.
It was dreamy. Unlike any falafel I have had, it wasn’t bready. The flat bread was a perfect wrap (though unable to stop the tarator from seeping through — a possible drawback when you are on the move.). The falafel itself was crispy, flavor filled and not heavy. And I would eat a rock if you put pickled turnips on it. This was way, way superior to a rock. I loved it.
From there an ice cream shop that was unlike any other I have been to. The size of a really big walk-in closet, it had been there since 1949. The son of the original owner, who was still keeping an eye on the proceedings from a large framed photo, made every bit on the ice cream himself. There were several milk-based flavors and several sorbets. The milk-based ones were almost chewy, unlike anything I have tasted. Our friend Tom tried all the flavors, packed in a cup, and raves about the chocolate. The sorbets were dreamy. Lemon was the palate cleaner I was craving and apricot with pine nuts was unusual and good.
Next stop was a small restaurant where Iffat wanted us (well, everyone but me) to taste what she said was the best schwarma in town. Apparently it was awesome, washed down with really good local beer. I had some tiny triangular cheese pies in the thin dough we’d seen earlier, and a tall absolutely fantastic fresh lemonade filled with mint.
A final stop, an Armenian restaurant in another part of town was a cab drive away. Unable to find a van, four of us piled into a back seat. Pretty amazing achievement filled with all that food.
At the Armenian place, in a neighborhood that has hung on to its tightly knit community and national identity for generations, we had chili potatoes (yum!), borek (cheese pie), lentil and bulgar kibbi with tomato salad, air-dried eggplant stuffed with onions, raisins, and other good things, thin chewy bread with hummus, and a meat dish in yogurt with pieces of crispy bread that the meat eaters said was wonderful. Apricot bars showed up for dessert. I ate mine and Jerry’s both.
By now it was dark. Our “tastes” had covered breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had seen broad swaths of the city and heard tales of ancient and modern political successes and grievances. It was a full day, though not as full as we were. Iffat asked us back to what proved to be an absolutely stunning apartment for tea, and then we happily waddled down the hill to the Phoenicia.