Taste of Beirut started in 2009 and its main purpose is to share Lebanese heritage with the world through recipes, anecdotes, and cultural tidbits. The Taste of Beirut Blog is filled with recipes, anecdotes, and cultural tidbits about Joumana Accad's Lebanese heritage.
I was invited to visit an NGO, SAWA, operating in Lebanon, BarElias (Bekaa valley) by the refugee camps. I agreed, spontaneously, excited to get an insider’s look at their operation, but I was apprehensive. I figured I’d be rubbing elbows with folks who had had their lives tragically interrupted and were trying their best to cope/survive and the visit would be depressing if not morbid. In reality, this experience took me completely by surprise, and I got back home feeling elated and charged-up. Here is why.
view from the camp
one of thousands of homes dotting the landscape around the city.
I was greeted by Marwa, a pretty and lithe brunette originally from Michigan, and taken on a tour of the building where, for the 7th consecutive year, Ramadan Iftar dinners were being cooked, packaged and distributed to 7,000 people on a daily basis; the meals were prepared from scratch, from fresh local veggies and meats (1 ton of meat/chicken daily stored in a walk-in cooler), by the refugees themselves, volunteers and the SAWA staff. The atmosphere was very friendly, easy-going and the emotional bond between everyone was palpable. I met a Syrian chef there who had been cheffing at the fanciest eateries in Syria during his 25-year long career; he told me he wanted to prepare the best and most authentic Syrian food for Iftar and was happy to donate his time, year after year, to help his fellow countrymen and women. I scrutinized everything and saw that restaurant-grade hygienic standards were applied at every turn, and quality and taste were also provided, with the use of Syrian spices such as dried lime (to cancel out the taste of chicken grease, apparently).
Packaging and distribution under one roof
The meal included meat pies, with fresh dough and meat spiced just right, and baked in the industrial oven on-site. Three men and one French volunteer were busy rolling, filling and shaping the miniature pies (sfeeha) and someone turned on a boombox playing Arabic music and spontaneously everybody started dancing, mimicking belly dancers, laughing and just having a great time. I was thrilled to witness this! (I was not able to take pictures to protect their privacy)
From the communal kitchen we got in the car and drove out to the next building housing Master Peace, a newer project in which experienced mentors teach marketable skills to interested candidates in the fields of ready-to-wear and woodwork producing sellable pieces ready for the local or international market. Marwa explained to me the mission of SAWA (that word means “together” in Arabic): Giving refugees skills in order for each and every one of them to be self-sufficient and help their family, as well as practice teamwork and be respectful of one another. I loved the concept but was eager to see how it was being applied. The building housing the two workshops on different floors was outside of the camps; the clothing atelier was mainly staffed with women, while men were in the woodworking section.
Daily coaching with excellent results!
The clothing workshop was manned by a talented young designer, Hazem Kais, his assistants and a formidable Syrian woman, Um Fawzi. Behind Kais desk, I saw that he had stapled prints of traditional Syrian garb for men and women from last century. His approach, which I loved, was to capitalize on the crochet and hand stitching skills these ladies were practicing, in order to design pieces inspired by these traditional Syrian clothes; kind of like meshing old and new and making beautiful clothing with a sense of the eternal past yet practical for contemporary living (one size-fits all). Um Fawzi was a Syrian refugee as well, a mature woman who had experienced the horrors of war, but who discovered that getting involved in the Master Peace program gave her a new beginning. She realized she had talents beyond her obvious skills at crochet and knitting and sewing; she was able to galvanize the women, both old and young, who joined the workshop, by, as she puts it, just loving them. Her talent as an exceptional coach jumped at me the minute I met her and observed her interactions with them. Her powerful yet calm and soothing bedside manners were the wind blowing the sails of that ship forward. A look at the pieces created convinced me that they would soon find success in the competitive world of fashion, including at the international level.
Learning a skill not getting a handout
Focused attention during the process
Planning the collection
Syrian traditional garb from each region for inspiration
It starts with just some yarn and willing hands
Designed with talent and flair, executed with love and dedication.
The talented designer and his team
In conclusion, I wholeheartedly recommend SAWA to anyone interested in contributing a small donation to, say, the Ramadan kitchen, volunteering or ordering an item of customized clothing. Any piece of furniture as well. Master Peace will soon be holding their first exhibit in Beirut next month at Kamal Mouzawak’s venue. Here is the link to Master Peace. Check out the beautiful clothing!
NOTE: Researching this NGO online, I found out its founder was a remarkable Syrian/Lebanese young woman, with a very impressive academic pedigree, and a long list of international awards. Unfortunately, I did not have time to explore more of the various efforts of her organization, such as the schools or tutoring centers set-up for the many Syrian refugee kids who are turned back from Lebanese public schools (because of the sheer number as the schools are not sufficiently funded to accommodate them). Planning another visit!
It was on a bright June day that I set out to visit what I thought would be your typical olive press, i.e. a frantic, grubby place with noise and slime galore. The only hint that it may not have been the case was the intriguing and sophisticated name, Adon&Myrrh.
Turned out quite the opposite of what I had expected; the setting, atop a mountain about 20 minutes from Beirut, was just lovely; at first glance, a perfectly manicured lawn spread out ahead, crowned by a 350-year old olive tree artfully cloud-pruned; beyond, the view of greater Beirut coastline 500 meters below; and instead of an unkempt concrete tilt-up, I saw a pristine property with clear wood-framed window panes and a red-tiled roof. This was definitely something special.
The lawn was filling up; the crowd was here for a foodie-style event focused on organic local producers, cooking shows led by known chefs, and a tour of the facility. I was most interested in the tour, and joined the others lining-up. At first glance, we saw a nine foot tall brand logo, a very stylized and elegant design, replicated on dark iron (?) sheeting. Next came a wood panel (pic below) describing the story behind the name “Adon” and “Myrrh”, involving mythical Phoenician Gods, and the history of the town, Bdadoun.
Not only was the town, Bdadoun, (where the plant is located), connected to these tales but the name Adon as well; Bdadoun is rooted in Phoenician language and means House of Adon, which is associated with agriculture.
We were led into the plant through an elevator, guided by experts who were there to explain the functionalities of all the cutting-edge machinery we encountered. The place was immaculate. I never once saw the drop of olive oil on the floor, or dripping from the machines; our guides proceeded to explain with factual details how the extraction and the ensuing processing takes place. Everyone was riveted. Here is what I learned:
One important fact to know is that only green olives are picked. Black olives which have matured on the tree do not have the same health characteristics as green olives. In addition, the olives are collected with the use of a machine which protects the tree and its branches, unlike the traditional method of beating them with a stick till the olives fall on the ground. The old-fashioned method actually bruises the tree and the olives. When the olives get bruised, they ferment and smell of dirt as they are very sensitive to air, temperature and aroma. As soon as they are picked, the olives are transferred to the plant in white plastic crates, so as not to develop an unsavory scent (unlike the bags used by farmers in the past)
The extraction of EVOO starts less than 24 hours later to avoid oxidation. The cutting-edge machinery (from Italy) allows for the processing of 3 to 4 tons of olive oil per hour. The olives are first washed with water only. The pit is removed from the olives by machine and the pulp goes through a malaxer for about 40 minutes, without any contact with oxygen in order to avoid a bad reaction. The temperature in the malaxer is no more than 28C, which conforms to the international standards for First Cold Extraction. This initial extraction produces less quantity but finer quality. Heat is not desirable here as it will dilute the phenol so it is critical that no heat is in contact with the oil.
While the olive paste is refined further, the olive pits are turned into small pellets sold as eco-friendly fuel (for energy purposes). (Many factories use these for fuel with England being the largest importer). The other by-product of olive oil extraction is called black water and is highly toxic to the environment. At Adon&Myrrh, it is purified in an evaporator and reused for irrigation.
(As a side note, I was reflecting on the olive oil we took to the local press last Fall; not only did we take black olives instead of green olives, but the press did not recycle its black water)
At that point, EVOO is routed directly to stainless tanks where the temperature is a constant 16/17C. EVOO is highly sensitive to light, temperature and air, and these factors are controlled at Adon&Myrrh to comply with the highest international standards. EVOO has a shelf life of two years (when maintained under the best conditions).
What are these standards? First, cold extraction and acidity level. It should have a low acidity level and at Adon&Myrrh, the two olive oils are at levels lower than 0.8% and 0.4%. The olive oil should have a vegetable/fruity scent, not one of wine or dirt or taste pungent (due to its high polyphenol level). ( Note: Polyphenols are antioxidants only present in EVOO and linked to better health).
What about storage? The best containers for storage of olive oil are made of stainless steel and these are the ones used at the plant. Storage of olive oil is critical and olive oil should not be stored in clear glass containers, which is why the Adon&Myrrh oil is sold in black glass bottles (small quantity) or stainless steel buckets (large quantities).
Photo above shows the olive pellets produced in-house and recycled and sold as eco-friendly fuel.
Adon&Myrrh’s testament to their international appreciation by world olive oil experts. Here the Bronze Medal Award in Los Angeles in 2016, and the Grand Mention at the 10th China International Olive Oil Competition.
I left the tour in awe at what this small Lebanese olive oil company had accomplished, and proud of their achievements. I also decided to forego my local village press in the Chouf. From this point forward, I will know what to look for, and will not settle for a press which will damage the environment. Adon&Myrrh is raising the bar for all olive oil presses in Lebanon.
Adon&Myrrh is located in Bdadoun, about 30 minutes from Beirut.
I had been an avid reader of Feride Buyuran’s blog, the AZ cookbook; I learned she was getting ready to finally publish her own cookbook based on her native land’s cuisine, Azerbaijan, and was eager to lay my hands on it.
I’ve had the cookbook in my possession for several months now, and I cannot let go of it and put it away.
This is a definitive book on Azerbaijani cuisine. It is a hardback cookbook made-up of 332 pages in which each recipe is illustrated by color photos, thorough explanations including cultural annotations and anecdotes.
This cookbook reminds me by its sheer scope of Marcella Hazan’s on Italian cuisine or Najmieh Batmanglij’s on Persian cuisine. Honestly, I dont think I will be needing another work on Azerbaijani cuisine. It is comprehensive and clearly laid-out; the collection of recipes will satisfy the most exacting cook. The cultural tidbits and descriptions will delight those of us who yearn to travel through food. In that sense, it is not just a cooking guide, but also a travelogue. This book sums-up five years of canvassing Azerbaijian, tasting recipes, mingling with locals, questioning Feride’s relatives and contacts and getting hundreds of tips.
The best I can say about this work is not only how impressive it is due to its magnitude, but also how deftly Feride teaches us about her culture. The margin notes contain “words of wisdom” in which Feride annotates a common proverb related to that dish, which adds a cultural depth to the recipe. Feride is able to teach the reader while making it seem fun and easy. Each recipe is thorough, ensuring success. Her prose is excellent, which is quite a feat considering English is not her native language.
As a Lebanese-American, I found the recipes familiar at first glance; the savory hand pies, the way to cook veggies and fruits into compotes for instance; further reading though uncovers their uniqueness. For instance, a “compote” is actually a combo of fresh juice and fruit and is served in a glass kind of like a fruit punch or a sangria. Feride explains the method is to first drink the juice, then scoop out the fruit chunks.
The book offers a “Menus” section, with suggested menus for various occasions such as Novruz, breakfast, Kids snack, etc; a section entitled “Basics and Techniques”, essential in an ethnic cookbook as it offers detailed explanations on such traditional cooking steps that may not be familiar to the Western cook such as basic yogurt making, cheesemaking, sour paste, grinding cardamom or how to remove bitterness from eggplant.
The cookbook includes traditional beverages “sharbat” and there is even a section on the wine industry in the country.
The sweets section is made-up of preserves and pastries. The preserves are traditional and based on the local fruits in Azerbaijian such as mulberry, cherry, quince, apples, fig, apricot, and even pumpkin which is also found in Lebanon.
Each section is preceded by an detailed introduction explaining the place of the section in Azeri lifestyle. For example, sweets are made-up of 18 items, from baklava-style pastries to hand pies to sweet breads, cookies, halva, jelly and even an omelet cake.
I was especially interested in noting the similarities between Azerbaijani cooking and Lebanese cooking and traditions. for instance, some recipes use the saj oven, same as in Lebanon, like the saj crêpe “makhara”. For example, one of their homestyle dessert, “firni” is basically a milk pudding thickened with rice flour, which is almost identical to our “muhallabiyeH” (Page 199); or the tradition of adding a leaf of scented geranium while cooking preserves, which is also practiced in rural areas in Lebanon.
In the above dish, for example, in Lebanon in the Shouf mountains, people might add a swirl of pomegranate molasses to the eggs; in Azerbaijan, the eggs are fried atop a bed of onion and pomegranate arils. Similar dishes include a yogurt salad with purslane or the tradition of cooking lamb in lamb fat to preserve it.
The green beans dish above was also similar to the Lebanese one, the difference being that basil and eggs are added. (Delicious!)
I LOVED Feride’s rice section, all of six pages with photos and an equipment list, which included a section on “crust”, and the different crusts (potato, bread or rice) used to obtain that golden crispy crust so essential when making pilaf.
Some cultural descriptions in the recipes are charming, such as this one: “ a goose feather dipped in a saffron infusion decorates the top layer” . Glad I live in the mountains, and we actually have some geese in the henhouse, so it would not be a problem to get a hold of some feathers!
Some recipes are so unique, such as the Cow’s Feet Soup (Khash), reminding me of similar Persian or Iraqi hearty recipes like Pasha, the soup made with sheep head and feet.
Some bread recipes reminded me in their technique of Armenian breads, and lavash is also listed as part of the important bread and pastry section.
Some recipes are from the Soviet-era and are still popular in Azerbaijian, such as the Capital Salad. Interestingly, the Lebanese became quite enamored with this salad too, which was called “salade russe” and served in all coffee shops in Beirut; my guess is that it was introduced by the White Russians who immigrated to Lebanon after the Soviet takeover.
I was very interested in the recipe for sour paste made from plums; it is used as a condiment in many recipes in the book and I wished I had made some with the overflow of plums we had in the orchard this past Summer!
The book is chockfull of photos, both of food and sights.
The book is also not lacking in practical sections, such as one on sourcing the ingredients, a section on metric conversions, as well as a valuable section on additional resources for the reader eager to deepen his or her knowledge of Azerbaijani culture.
I would have liked very much to see a map in the book so that I could locate Azerbaijian and its neighbors in Asia, in addition to a topographical map showing the various regions and cities the author refers to when listing the recipes.
In conclusion, just order it! You will not regret it.
PS: Last year, Feride started organizing food and discovery tours in Azerbaijan (and neighboring Georgia I believe); I hope to join her next time, as its a part of the world I would love to visit.
If you are ever in need of food, and good food, in Beirut, your search has ended. Head on over to the happening food emporium for the savvy foodies in town: Goodies.
Conveniently located on the corner of the high-traffic Verdun road with a parking lot on its side manned by several attendants, Goodies makes shopping there a no-brainer.
As soon as one sets foot inside, a feverish, animated buzz (unique to Goodies) permeates every corner. Everywhere your eyes land there is food, but the best, the freshest, the most tantalizing, be it seafood, meats, deli items, dairy, juices, produce, pastries, confections, or breads. And everything is calling you. Here and there you catch the friendly nod of a staff member, with an inquiry, or an engaging smile. Goodies staff know their regular patrons, but are open to increasing their number. My parents used to shop there for decades. That most-favored neighborhood market and caterer has now turned into a mega food enterprise, producing many of its items (dairy, baked goods, confections, traditional meals)
Thing is, they’ve got it all. A bakery and pastry shop making breads from scratch, like the paper-thin markouk with oats or the kaak (basket bread from street vendors), to French-style cakes or Arabic confections called malban, and maamoul and baklavas, to name just a few. A juice bar next to the produce section displays every exotic fruit imaginable, from mangos, to passion fruits, to pomegranates to apricots, peaches, jujube (when in season), fresh lychees, green almonds, fresh pistachios, etc.
The staff at Goodies is knowledgeable. I got into a conversation with a produce staffer once on eggplants and its different varieties, and he obviously knew what he was talking about.
Here is in a nutshell what I love about Goodies: Not only are their products and selections superior, gourmet to a fault, but their staff is super pro, friendly, genuine, and the atmosphere is convivial, frenzied at times, focused on the task at hand, i.e. prompt and excellent customer service, delivering highest quality products, always.
For instance, a customer getting ready to travel can place an order at the flagship store in Verdun, and pick-it up sealed and vacuum-packed at the airport store, a few hours later, right before boarding!
The shawarma sandwiches were the best I have ever tasted, perfectly seasoned and juicy!
The spices, dried fruits and snack section reminded me of Istanbul’s Bazaar.
Taking a look at their menus scattered throughout the store, here’s what I found:
In their sandwiches, in addition to the regular cold cuts, there’s vegan options, like a dandelion salad (hindbeh), cauliflower; lots of tasty cheeses, like goat labneh, halloumi, kashkawan or Bulgarian feta, with either pita, markouk or baguette. Their hot sandwiches include ten different kebabs (Turkish, Iranian, Orfali, Izmirle, etc), plus the shawarmas and traditional Lebanese and Armenian meat pies. They also offer these as platters with hummus, pickles and all the trimmings.
Their hot dishes include all the traditional Lebanese classics such as moghrabiyeh, frikeh, fawaregh (stuffed tripes), eggplant makloubeh, baked kafta, shish barak in yogurt sauce, sayadieh (fish and rice pilaf), as well as the international favorites like paella, curry, biryani, or trendy foods like quinoa with veggies, Asian favorites, etc.
Their salads and appetizers are just as tantalizing, with daily creation of tabbouleh, fattoush, muhammara, stuffed grape leaves, moussaka (Lebanese and Turkish version), vegan and meat kibbe balls or torpedoes, all kinds of savory pies and turnovers, as well as contemporary mixed salads to please the gym crowd (purslane with strawberries and dried fruits or smoked hams, among many others).
Needless to say, ALL of the food offerings at Goodies, from seafood to meats and produce and breads and pastries are always as fresh as can be. A business operating from both ends of the supply chains such as this one can guarantee freshness, since their bakery, workshop, commercial kitchens and dairy are all part of the Goodies family.
I thought this was a carrot cake, but NO, its actually a delicious roast beef sandwich and the flowers are made with sweet potato shavings! One of the hundreds of items to order for a fancy brunch.
Truffle (kema) and wild zaatar salad with pomegranates.
Strawberry salad with pine nuts and dried fruits and baby arugula. Scrumptious.
Sujuk and goat labneh rollups.
Juicy and perfectly seasoned shawarma sandwiches served with all the trimmings.
Salmon rolls with a creamy veggie sauce, outstanding!!!
Loved that artsy watermelon bowl carved out of the skin.
Dainty savory bites, among them pumpkin kibbeh, zaatar puff pastry, purslane mini-fatayer, olive puffs.
Homestyle desserts to go include muhallabieh (a silky smooth milk pudding) topped with fresh mango coulis, or meghli (spice pudding) topped with nuts, plus the whole array of French cakes and pastries, as well as baklavas, maamouls, confections, sesame and other nut brittles, and others.
Incidentally, the store opened a brunch section with glass enclosures and tables laid out with tablecloth and pretty silverware, interspersed with indoor plants. I am including some of the items I sampled at the brunch, one of the best I’ve had!
I would definitely recommend visiting Goodies if you’re ever in Beirut or trying their hot meals if you live in the capital. I am impressed that this family business has managed to survive and thrive since 1880.