I meet Kamal Mouzawak at Tawlet on the edge of Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud Armenian district. Minor gentrification of the surrounding streets is imminent, but right now the eatery is still adjacent to gritty tyre repair shops, and smoky wood-fired bakeries turning out Lebanon’s iconic flatbread called manoushe.
“It’s not just the food that’s important,” he explains. “It’s the getting together and the sharing of this food that’s important for the future of the country.”
Beyond Bourj Hammoud’s industrious bustle, Mouzawak’s vision is reinforced daily in Tawlet’s sleek but welcoming interior. Tawlet translates to ‘kitchen table’ from Arabic, and Mouzawak’s focus is to harness food to bring people together irrespective of their cultural, political or ethnic backgrounds.
Every weekday a different chef from around Lebanon prepares a buffet lunch drawing on their own history, traditions, and hometown flavours. Each of Tawlet’s thirty village cooks, shepherds or traditional farmers travels to Beirut for one day a month, often also supplying the meal’s ingredients from their own gardens and small-holdings. Traditional flavours and local dishes previously threatened by conflict and the migration of the Lebanese diaspora are shared and celebrated.
Today’s chef is Oum Ali, a Muslim mother from the village of Majdelzoun in south Lebanon near the border with Israel. Tawlet’s onsite cook and waiters drift in and out of her command, communicating in a cosmopolitan and uniquely Beirut patois incorporating Arabic, French, and even the odd word of English.
Deft actions produce perfectly compact torpedoes of frakeh, with spicy raw lamb blended with bulghur wheat and spices including cinnamon, cumin and marjoram. Fatayer pastries stuffed with sheep’s cheese and olives form mini-mountains of golden-baked goodness, and abundant salads are studded with mint, thyme, and a zingy sprinkling of sumac. Laban emmo incorporates lamb in a yoghurt sauce, and young wheat is roasted and grilled with chicken for a robust bowl of frikeh djeij.
Kamal Mouzawak also passionately regards Tawlet as much more than a restaurant.
“It’s a farmers’ kitchen” he gently corrects me when we first meet, and the eatery follows another remarkable project he established in 2005.
With the motto “Make Food, Not War”, the Saturday morning Souk-el-Tayeb farmers’ market brings the country to downtown Beirut with around 45 different stallholders from all parts of Lebanon. Almost a decade from its beginnings promoting the ‘United Farmers of Lebanon’, Souk-el-Tayeb is now a Beirut institution.
Around 90% of the chefs from Tawlet are also regular sellers at the market, and Palestinian, Muslim, Druze and Christian producers from around the country showcase their artisan products and traditional foods, side by side in a location that was an epicentre of civil war just a few decades ago.
Dressed in his traditional garb of black baggy trousers, Hussein Abu Mansour from a Druze village in the Bekaa Valley has zesty fruit pestil and zingy glasses of grape and pomegranate juice. Suzanne Doueihy from the Christian Maronite town of Zgharta in northern Lebanon is the country’s acclaimed ‘Queen of Kibbeh’, and her baked dish of kibbeh bi labneh layers ground lamb with yoghurt and pine nuts. Armenian dishes from Beirut’s Sonia Tikidjian include lahme bi ajine—a spin on lahmacun or Turkish pizza, and just one of the dishes sharing an Anatolian and Armenian heritage—and Maurice Habib’s fragrant honey is from Lebanon’s famed cedar forests.
I also catch up again with Oum Ali from my lunch at Tawlet a few days earlier. She’s a regular at Souk-el-Tayeb most weekends, an ongoing opportunity that enables her to put her family through school.
Oum Ali throws me a shy smile as she sits around her saj, a convex-shaped griddle. She scatters a robust portion of chill-laced labneh cheese onto the unleavened manoushe wrap she’s just prepared, folds it gently, and carefully presents my order wrapped in newspaper. An organic espresso from an adjacent stall combines for a perfect Beirut brunch.
Brett did not wish to be paid for this article and instead asked us to make a donation to a charitable organization providing assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. We were very touched by his gesture and wanted to take this opportunity to thank him — L'HOTE LIBANAIS