Traditional food means mezze in Beirut, Lebanon

A different cook – Christian or Muslim – from a different region serves up traditional food at Tawlet in Beirut, Lebanon, reflecting the tiny country's rich diversity.

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    Tawlet’s guest chefs serve up traditional food in Beirut, Lebanon.
    Lucy Fielder
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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Growing up cooking with her mother in their southern Lebanese kitchen, Saidey Hanna Rizkallah never dreamed she’d one day dish up village food in one of the capital’s hippest restaurants. Yet over a recent lunch at Tawlet restaurant (Arabic for “table”), the supermarket worker watched with a smile as a young man helped himself to her lentil kibbeh – a paste mashed with bulgar wheat.

“Did you see that guy coming up for seconds?” she laughed. “People come here and remember: ‘Ah yes, this is what we used to eat at home.’ ”

Ms. Rizkallah’s day of presiding over a kitchen of trained chefs, passing on the recipes her mother learned from her grandmother, is nothing unusual in Tawlet. Every day brings a different cook from a different region. Most are women with no formal training.

Lebanon is a country of diversity. That can create war or be a source of pride,” says Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Tawlet and Souk El Tayeb farmers’ market in Beirut, Lebanon. “In Lebanon we have regional cuisine, but not religious cuisine; in any village Christians and Muslims eat the same thing. Food is a product of the land and the season.”

Mezze and grilled meats, the dishes known abroad, are the preserve of restaurants more than Lebanese homes. Now Tawlet and a handful of other lunchtime spots are making the comfort food of the plains and mountains fashionable: aromatic stews, stuffed vegetables, wild leaves, ancient concoctions of pulses and cracked wheat designed to fuel farmers.

Mr. Mouzawak describes his minimalist canteen as a “living museum” that keeps alive rare rural variations. Even in this nation – proud of its cuisine to the point of obsession – the allure of foreign food is growing and uniformity looms. “Ask a child now what he wants to eat, and he’ll probably ask for a hamburger,” says Rizkallah. “But shame on us if we forget this knowledge.”

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