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Sugar Street Review guest blog post – Beirut Street Food

1 May

Thanks to Will Dobson of Sugar Street Review for sending over this ode to Beirut. Ever since my stint in Tel Aviv, 2003, and hearing tales of the magic of this neighbouring city – and the parties to rival Tel Aviv, I’ve wanted to get me a bit of that….

If at Eat St. the aim is to normalise good food, then we need only
look at Lebanon for inspiration. Not only is good food appreciated
there, it’s inextricably linked to the culture. It’s a way of life or,
to quote from Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Souk Al Tayeb, the first
organic farmers’ market in the country, ‘food is the best expression
of our tradition.’ As Beirut becomes more and more international –
it’s a city with a passion for sushi perhaps only rivalled by those in
the US, outside of Japan of course – what is wonderful is that they
still embrace their own culture through their cuisine.

Among the smart Italian and French eateries in Downtown there are
still any number of elegant and upmarket restaurants serving
mouthwatering Lebanese fare, while areas such as Bourj Al-Hamoud and
Mar Mikhail reflect the large influx of Armenians who fled their
homeland after the genocide. However, for amazing street food, then
Hamra, buzzing with students, international journalists and Western
tourists still leads the way.

Bliss Street, in the heart of the area, offers a wonderful
juxtaposition. The American University of Beirut, founded back in 1866
sits on the one side, looking like something straight out of Orange
County, with elegantly modern buildings, leafy passageways and views
over the Mediterranean. On the other are open shop fronts selling
manaeesh, freshly cooked on a saj (a convex-dish shaped griddle)
topped with za’atar, jibneh or nutella. This Lebanese style ‘pizza’
make a wonderfully fresh and flavourful snack, such a contrast to
ubiquitous kebab vans which cater for students here. Meanwhile, the
delightful scents of flavoured tobacco, mixed with burning charcoal,
freshly brewed coffee and jasmine, redolent of spring, waft down the
street.

Of course though, the food isn’t merely limited to this one street.
Everywhere you turn you seem to be greeted with another place to eat
and choosing can be tricky. However, every taxi driver seems to
recommend Barbar as the place to go and it’s easy to see why. This
Beirut institution is completely utilitarian in décor and serves
fresh, simple and tasty fare which epitomises what makes Levantine
food so special. As well as the ubiquitous mezze selection (including
fantastic fries), it’s the grilled meats which steal the show. All are
cooked on charcoal, imparting a delicious smokiness, and they’re
delicately spiced, subtly enhancing the natural flavours of the meat.
The lahme meswi (grilled lamb) is served with little cubes of fat
which just disappear in the mouth, while the spatchcocked chicken,
marinated in garlic and lemon, is succulent, juicy and delectable.

Lebanon is a country trying to come to terms with its past, struggling
to move forward from the atrocities of the Civil War. Reminders are
dotted throughout the capital, none more striking that the gutted
shell that was once the Holiday Inn, opened in 1974 as the most
luxurious hotel in the region and left ravaged as it become the focal
point of the fighting. However, as Beirut rejuvenates itself, nothing
promotes all that is good about this wonderful place more than their
cuisine.

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