My grandmother’s family originated from the town of Deir el-Qamar in the Chouf Mountains; as a child I used to spend every Summer vacationing there, visiting distant cousins and enjoying its lush pine and cedar forests. This is how I got to meet Um Elias.
Um Elias and her husband of 50 years, Philippe, are part of a dwindling group of authentic Lebanese farmers. They married when she was 15, an acceptable age to marry off a girl in those days, and have raised six beautiful, intelligent and learned children. Even though Philippe is a sixth-generation Lebanese farmer, none of his offspring had any interest in following in his footsteps.
As a farmer, money is tight, government subsidies scant, and regional competition is very stiff. This situation is pretty much the norm in Lebanon, where for the last forty years or more, most young people have either taken up jobs in Beirut or immigrated abroad. This may change at some point, as it has in the wine industry where many Lebanese expats have come back to start successful wineries.
Still, when Um Elias (named after her first-born son, um is mother in Arabic) decides to bake her bread and turnovers on the saj (old-fashioned oven shaped like an inverted wok), heated with dried pine needles, everybody rushes to be at her side. Um Elias practices rural cooking to a fault, and it has become trendy these days.
I was thrilled when she told me “let’s go foraging!” one bright Saturday morning. I knew I would be learning something new, as is always the case when I hang out with her. She came armed with her sickle, a plastic bag, and of course, her cigarettes (she’s got iron lungs, like most Lebanese mountain folks).
I had never heard of this wild herb before, which grows all over rural areas in Lebanon, and is called heshé wmeshé. Come to find out, many people from the Bekaa valley all the way to the South remember it prepared by their teta (grandmother). Um Elias gave me her recipe and told me that it constituted the perfect dish for Lent (vegan). I made it that night, it was so easy, rustic, and filling; the heshé wmeshé tasted like scallions or chives, without the peppery bite. It can be replaced by any green available in mainstream supermarkets.
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 cups heshé wmeshé (substitute with shredded dandelions, kale, Swiss chard, beet greens or baby arugula)
- 1 cup cooked chickpeas or white broad beans (or any beans)
- Salt, to taste
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper or allspice (or Aleppo red pepper)
Heat the oil in a skillet; fry the onion till golden, add the chopped heshé wmeshé (or other greens) and stir briefly until limp. Add the chickpeas or beans, season to taste and serve.