Sa7tein!

Note on the title of this post: “Sah-tein” (Sa7tein) is the Lebanese equivalent of bon appetit. When you drink, one says “sa-ha,” (sa7a) and the dual form ending (ein) is applied to the word for eating; double saha.
It’s no surprise to y’all that I love Middle Eastern food.The standards are common in the States: tabbouleh, hummus, fattoush, kabob, pita bread, and (my favorite), waraa’ einab (grape leaves). Since many are familiar (and yes, so good here) I want to share with you some food discoveries I’ve made while in Lebanon. Links to recipes are included for the curious.
Makdous  are small eggplants stuffed with walnuts, red pepper, garlic and salt, cured in olive oil (some people add chili powder also). I don’t think I’d ever heard of them prior to coming, but they are so delicious. They’re probably a little to elaborate for me to attempt to make on my own, but you can buy them like you would pickles or olives in many markets. They can be eaten them alone, or (I like them) as the filler of a pita bread sandwich, with labneh.
Labneh is yogurt strained with muslin, and is similar to Greek yogurt (but better!). Not to be confused with laban (which means plain yogurt), labneh is thick, and similar in consistency to cream cheese. It is ubiquitous and delicious, commonly eaten as a breakfast food, drizzled with olive oil and served with pita bread, but is also frequently used as a condiment, etc. Other common variations include adding garlic, olive oil, cucumbers, or other various spices (pictured with sumac, below). I eat it with just about everything, as the rest of this post will make clear. The Wikipedia page goes through some of the interesting regional variations of how labneh is prepared and consumed across the Arab world. **Note to the Toledoans reading this:  if you want to taste test the difference between labneh and Greek yogurt, commonly known via brands like like Chobani or Fage, they serve it at Poco Piatti, and I’m told you can find labneh at some of the Middle Eastern markets in Toledo proper.
 
Lebneh is commonly used as a topping on Manouche (plural, Manakeesh, also known as saj for the convex circular griddle on which it is traditionally prepared), which is sometimes called the national food of Lebanon. There are probably as many variations of manouche as there are stands that serve it (minimum one every 2-3 blocks in my neighborhood, I’d guess), but the standard, or starting point is generally a piece of flat bread, spread with a mixture of zaatar (see below) and olive oil, and then baked on a saj. Common “fillings” include cheese , vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, olives, onions, fresh mint leaves, etc.) and sometimes meat. It is then served either folded in half, or rolled up, wrapped in paper. Manakeesh is sometimes regarded as “Arab pizza,” is a common breakfast food, and is often my lunch (depending what you put on it, it can cost between $.75ish and $2.00!) So. Good.
Also commonly known as Lebanese pizza, lahme bi ajeen is actually of Armenian origin, and is basically a flat meat pie made with very thin bread. It has just a litle kick to it, and it’s delicious. You can often find it at manakeesh stands. I also like to put labneh on this to make it even more savory. I have yet to have it prepared, as the recipe linked above suggests, with vegetable fillings.
A Palestinian friend introduced me to zaatar last summer- it is a condiment made up of thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. It is pictured above, mixed with olive oil, in the image of the manouche. I did not realize before coming here that there are regional (and familial) variations to zaatar- I had a Syrian variety that was almost black in color, many are forest green-ish, and others which have a higher ratio of sumac are reddish.
My friend Joe introduced me to a simple, healthy dish that I’ve seen called either hindbe or khobbeizeh bel zeit. The second name defines the dish: khobbeizeh being the word for dandelion leaves, zeit being oil. The leaves are boiled and served with oil, garlic, lemon juice, and fried onions on top. You could eat it with a fork, but it’s even better just scooped up in some pita bread. I also feel like you could do this dish with many varieties of leafy green (chard, spinach, etc.)  (see below), but the use of dandelion is what makes this food authentically and particularly Lebanese.
Varieties of Coffee:
Nescafe is instant and everywhere. I have it most every day.
Turkish or Arabic coffee came to Lebanon through Ottoman rule (someone check me on that?) Thick, strong, and bitter, it is served in very small cups. You see old men on the street, everywhere, drinking it out of what are essentially plastic Dixie cups. The founder of my organization is Turkish, and we’ll often have it in the office, mid afternoon.
White coffee is hot water with a few drops of orange blossom or rose water (and I like to add a sugar cube or two). I first had this at Coptic Christmas with my family last January; it is fragrant but mild, and very soothing. My aunt told me stories of my great-grandmother harvesting baskets and baskets of orange blossoms (back when the family had property outside of Cairo), and created a device to acquire the orange blossom water in one of the bathrooms of the family apartment! A nice respite from the other highly caffeinated hot beverages, I like to have a cup before bed.
Known in Lebanon as bakleh, purslane is an incredible green, rich in antioxidants and omega 3s. Its 16 calories per 100 g, and
besides all that its yummy and incredibly versatile, and can be served fresh or cooked. I was at a supermarket attempting to find spinach (haven’t found any outside of restaurant dishes yet) and I spotted this thing that looked like it could be a cross between spinach and arugula, so I thought I’d take it home, and give it a shot.  It grows all over the world, and is commonly found in Latin American and South Asian cuisines, but has yet to really trend in the States.  So far I’ve used it sauteed alongside some fried eggs, in a curried rice and lentil dish, in an orzo dish with yogurt sauce, and in a fatoosh salad… it’d be great to throw in as a green on a sandwich or in a stew, or steamed with some lemon juice.

Purslane alongside my eggs and mixed in a fattoush salad, along with green tea and a fresh baguette from the market two blocks away. Sa7tein!

In addition to purslane and dandelion (above), I’ve discovered many other types of produce, including these white blackberries (really bizarre and perhaps a bit unsettling to eat, tasting a bit like honeydew with the texture of a blackberry) , and these mysterious yellow fruits which are either plums or kumquats (the jury is still out, but they grow on ULYP’s Dibbiyeh campus and are nice and tart) ; pictured below.
I think it goes without saying how amazing the beef and chicken schwarma sandwiches are, but I feel like the post is incomplete without mentioning it. Seriously unreal.
ADDENDUM re: street food :
Recently I was hanging out with two Lebanese guys. We were hungry, it was late, and we were trying to decide what to go get. This, verbatim, is the exchange that followed:
Lebanese-Canadian dude: Lets go get McDonalds
Tess: No, that’s disgusting, I’m in Lebanon, I’m not going to eat shitty American food.
L-C dude: Fine, lets go get hotdogs.
True story. Our incredulous stares prompted his defense, sputtering, “they’re totally different here!!”
My guess is that hot dog stands come in a close 3rd for most common street food behind man’ouche and schwarma places. They often don’t open until at least midnight, some are open 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., you get the gist. These are no Ballpark Franks though. Almost always halal and made of beef, the most common topping, as with many things here, is mayonnaise. Gross. Like manouche, you can pick from a number of toppings, including melted cheese, onions, tomatoes, jalepenos, ketchup, mustard, etc. Hotdogs as a food were no culinary discovery of mine, but their popularity here certainly was.
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Week 2

This week marked the beginning of my internship with the Unite Lebanon Youth Project. My primary responsibility for the summer will be work affiliated with ULYP’s BRIDGE IV SAT prep programming. For the rest of the month of June, I will be (mostly) working to develop lesson plans, and create curriculum and classroom materials for a 5 week SAT program (which beings in July, and for which I will be an instructor). Classes will be held 4 days/week on the Dibbiyya campus. The student population is half Palestinians from refugee camps, and half underprivileged Lebanese from across the country, all of whom have been competitively selected to participate. Coursework includes intensive SAT prep (focusing on critical reading, as all are non-native English speakers), conflict resolution, and college preparation.

photo credit: roomie Nahed

Compared to last week’s whirlwind, this week was mellow: doing laundry, figuring out groceries, etc. I’m pretty sure a mystery “rash” that’s ‘plauged’ me all week is actually just lots of mosquito bites, origin unknown. Other revelations from this week/ teasers for upcoming posts:
I really like olives. (be on the look for my favorite foods list, to be posted soon and updated throughout the trip.)
I’ve listened to more American pop here than I ever would at home (stay tuned for my exclusive list of “Beirut nightlife: most random songs to watch people freak out to and love,” coming soon.)
I had planned to go on a hiking trip in Shebaa in the south today with a travel group, but the trip was postponed, most likely for security reasons as the village lies on contested territory with Israel. The trip is currently re-scheduled for next Sunday.
Salaam!

First Week Highlights

I know I’m going to be bad about updating this (already have been), but here’s a summary of my first week:

Sunday: Arrived in Beirut and got a taxi to Saifi Urban Gardens, a hostel with a cafe/bar, rooftop bar, and Arabic language institute all in one. After a much needed shower I hung around the cafe (first meal: waraa ‘einab and tabbouleh, of course)  until I made friends. Me out with new friends:

Monday: Caught a cab to Hamra (the neighborhood where my office and new apartment are) where I met up with Soona, a Maumee Valley grad and current student in Beirut. He showed me the ropes and AUB’s campus, helped me sort out a Lebanese phone (etc.) and later I tagged along for dinner with a group of his friends. I also met with Nahed and Maha and saw their apartment. Back at the hostel, another late night socializing.

A view of the sea from the American University in Beirut’s campus

Tuesday: My boss came to pick me up from the hostel, and we went to her apartment in Tallat elKhayat (neighborhood) where I stayed through Tues-Thurs. We went to dinner with a group of her friends at a cafe in Hamra, and she showed me where the office is.

Wednesday: I intended to go meet a friend for a quick cup of coffee when my 15-20 minute walk from Tallat elKhayat to Hamra turned into a 2-3 hour excursion with many many many many wrong turns, a malfunctioning(?) GPS, and the steaming sun overhead. I kept walking until I found the sea, and then walked along the highway that runs along the edge of the water, knowing that that eventually led to the neighborhood I wanted. The walk was beautiful, but I didn’t catch pictures because I was so flustered. The friend graciously rescued me with a bottle of water in hand, and locals tips on getting by in Beirut (first chicken schwerma and narghileh[hookah] of the trip!) We took a bus back to his neighborhood, and I had a hilarious 5 minute meet-and-greet with his parents (“You look like a gypsy!”) before going back to meet friends at the hostel, and subsequently winning their bi-weekly “Quiz Night.” Team “White Trash” won a bottle of champagne for their meritorious efforts:

White Trash Wins Big

Thursday: Nervous about repeating my 3 hour trek to Hamra, I stayed in and relaxed Thursday morning. The day took a drastic turn when I was invited to attend the final hours of a Palestinian wedding being thrown anonymously by a private donor at the ULYP campus, about 40 minutes outside Beirut. The campus is beautiful (it will be where some of my teaching is done later in the summer, expect more pics in the future). The wedding was fascinating, fabulous and funny. There was also a gorgeous, scenic drive to and from Beirut.

scenic view on the drive home

After the wedding I attended an open air concert by the  Mercan Dede and the Secret Tribe ensemble in downtown Beirut– I sat with the founder of my NGO and co-workers having dinner at a hotel across the street. The group is self-described as Turkish Sufi-electropop fusion, and while most played traditional instruments to me it seemed an appropriation of the tradition rather than a reflection of it. The audience of almost entirely stylish, upper-class Beirutis added to the my feeling of cultural transplantation and objectification, maybe? I mean, the “dervish”‘s ensemble glowed in the dark with flashing lights during one number….

Friday and Saturday: Moving day to the new apartment near Hamra/Qoreitem. I spent most of the day sleeping, and then my ahsan rafii’i jadid (my new best friend) offered to drive me to my new place, a task that required incredible patience, as I could not provide directions to the apartment in Tallet elKhayat, nor to the new place, where I’ll be for the duration of my stay. I have a huge  room and three very nice female roommates (2 Lebanese, 1 Syrian), and well as three (or more) cats in the apartment.

I enjoyed much of the famous Hamra nightlife the next two nights, with many more “important” firsts, including Barbar (a ubiquitous street food company) and arak, the Lebanese liqour (mine was homemade from the family of the pub owner, made in the mountains of Lebanon).

Sunday: The fourth roommate for the summer, Marah, moved in this morning, and the four of us enjoyed an incredible lunch of food she brought from Syria. My evening was spent on the Walk Beirut tour (an incredible experience I would HIGHLY recommend to anyone visiting or living in Beirut. It was a thorough, detailed reflection on the juxtapositions and representations of Beirut and its history. Absolutely lovely.) A few of my favorite pictures from the tour are below, but you can see many more pictures from my time here in this Facebook album.

St George Cathedral and the Al Amin Mosque, the oldest and youngest religious sites in Beirut, respectively

Martyr’s Square

I start work tomorrow, so I must be off for now. Thanks to everyone for the love and support!  Ciao!

A New Adventure

I write this sitting at my terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting for my connecting flight to Beirut, Lebanon. I will be there for the next 10 weeks, interning with an organization called the Unite Lebanon Youth Project. As such, this site is going to shift and be something more of a travel blog for the next couple months (best of photos, travel highlights, etc).

I’m pre-gaming with this lovely essay by Ahlem Mosteghanemi. Highlights:

What need is there to live in a place that lives within us? It’s there in the voice of Fairuz, the poems of Gibran, the cedars and the debka dance; in the special beauty that Beirut exports to the whole Arab world and in her voracious appetite for life….There is a Beirut for everyone: a truculent city of vices, a city of resistance and reconstruction, a city of piety and of delights where churches and mosques rub shoulders with nightclubs…..Beirut’s generosity isn’t just that she invites you to eat, but she opens your appetite for life. In all she does, she bites the apple of life with infectious voracity. She is always hot. She experiences her delights like an endangered pleasure, so accustomed is she to snatching joy from the jaws of death. So there is no escape. After her, you’ll never be able to live anywhere else.

This song has been echoing for me the last few weeks- I went to the doctor and got to my immunizations. Headed to the mountains of Lebanon, inshallah. My family doc advised me not to drink the local water, so the fountain is TBD, but I can’t wait to learn from the children and adolescents with whom I’ll be working. Beirut is bound to leave me with both questions and answers… wa Allahu ‘alim.