The Middle East is a pretty fascinating place, and on this visit – as well as others – I am constantly surprised by what I experience there. Although we often see snippets of it, our images of the region are usually negative; people are fighting or yelling or demonstrating. Glimpses of people going about everyday life aren’t especially easy to come by outside of these countries. Because situations change seemingly daily, it’s not always possible to go to certain places when you want to travel to them. But fortunately, the time was just right for me to go to Lebanon.
The first thing you notice in Lebanon is that the people are quite friendly and as I started writing this post about my trip, two young boys are playing around me at the airport while my flight home is delayed (for nine hours!), gingerly saddling up beside me, touching my computer screen with curiosity. In western countries, we are afraid of people and we’re told not to talk to strangers. And if someone came over to you in the airport and touched your computer screen, you might have a coronary. Or deck them.
Here, the closeness seems natural. Lebanon is a country of just about four million people, with half living in the capital of Beirut. And like most other countries, there is a mix of religions, social classes, and so forth that all live together, with varying degrees of success. But there is an undercurrent of what they call “Lebanese hospitality” – I was warned that if someone invites you into their home, whether you are a friend or stranger, it’s rude to say “No.” Instead, you always say, “Next time.”
And on my way out of the country, at airport security desk leaving Lebanon, I didn’t fill out whatever form needed to be filled out. So the officer took one off the top of the stack and filled it out for me. Then we had a nice chat about how good Lebanese food is. Honestly, when was the last time where you had that kind of exchange with an airport official?
People in Lebanon, of course, speak Arabic. But many are fluent in English and/or French, and folks will pull words from the three languages to say what they want. Oddly, the two currencies used in Lebanon are Lebanese pounds and US dollars, which you can get at one of the many ATMs located just about everywhere. Restaurants and shops all take US dollars. (A friend of mine is Lebanese and he gets paid in dollars and his bank account in Lebanon is also in dollars.) I’m not sure how that works, but it was one of the few places I’ve been to where the dollar still rules.
Of course, it’s not paradise. And many Lebanese and Middle Eastern people from other countries travel to Beirut because it’s such as cosmopolitan and modern city, and provides a respite from any conflicts back in their own countries. Lebanon stretches against the Mediterranean Sea and driving up and down the country, it’s not hard to catch glimpses of the soothing water from the cities and the mountains.
During the first part of my trip I was a guest of the Four Seasons hotel, and the staff could not have been more gracious. When I arrived, there was an adorable little tarbouche filled with chocolates, which was the most delightful thing I picked up, which I carefully carried around all week so I could make sure it would arrive home safely. When the fellow who brought me to my room right after I checked in and he heard I liked Salep, a warm drink thickened with orchid roots, he offered to bring me a cup right away. I declined, because I wanted to put on the fluffy white bathrobe and slippers, and sit on the bed and eat my chocolates undisturbed. And check out the view of Beirut.
So what was I doing in Lebanon? I had read somewhere online that Taste Lebanon and was giving away spaces in one of their culinary trips to Lebanon and shared it on my Facebook page, for readers over there. (As much as I wanted to enter, I didn’t, in deference to others.)
But I did add a note to the post, that I’d always wanted to go to Lebanon, and wished people luck. Then Bethany Kehdy, who does the tours, contacted me, asking if I wanted to come on a special trip through the country with her and a few other journalists. So I packed my bags, and left.
In terms of traveling through Lebanon, Bethany grew up in Lebanon as well as in the United States, and is fluent in several languages. So when you go to a bakery or restaurant with her, she easily assimilates you into the culture. And it was funny to go into small shops where the elderly owners came over to greet her, reminiscing about when she came in as a child and the owners gave her sweets.
All grown up now, she spends her time taking people around Lebanon. Parts of the country can be challenging for visitors, especially smaller villages, and while I didn’t feel unsafe in the remote souks and bakeries (although one guy tried to sell me a Hezbollah t-shirt…), I felt absolutely fine walking around with her.
Fortunately I had a suitcase full of shirts so didn’t opt to buy one, but we did see the astounding ruins of Baalbeck, where the guide was just as happy to recount knowing Anthony Bourdain as he was to show off these remarkably well-preserved Roman ruins.
And crawling up and down them helped us work off the Sfiha ba’albackiyeh, words I was happy to let a native speaker pronounce, which were meat and pine nut-filled pastries that we saw being made in the roaring fires at the souk. (Shown at the very top of the post.) With a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, it was hard not to eat the entire box of them while they were still warm from the oven.
Having Lebanese friends, I’ve learned about “Lebanese time”, which means that when invited for dinner, they may show up an hour (or two late). Or that a thirty minute visit to an orange flower water distillery in the morning will end with you and the distiller – and his two brothers – heading to a restaurant like Chez Zakhia for lunch, picking out fresh fish from the bins by the door, then settling in for an afternoon of eating generous meze and salads, fried fish, washed down with good Lebanese rosé and arak (distilled anise liquor), finishing it up with strong coffee and perhaps a hookah or a cigar. (I tried my first hookah earlier in the week, but after inhaling a cigar by accident when I first tried one of those years ago, I stay away from the stogies nowadays.)
Then spending the afternoon drinking and eating. Then heading to at winery to watch the sunset from the top of a mountain, overlooking the towering Lebanese cedars.
Honey producers will take you to see their colorful beehives, which reminded me of Mondrian paintings, set up in tiers on the hillside.
I took a jar of wild thyme honey home, although when I got back and drizzled a little on my morning toast, I wished I had brought back all the jars the thick honey the beekeeper had in the back of his truck.
I watched kilos of highly fragrant orange flowers being unloaded into a distilling tank, where I learned it takes a kilo (2.2 pounds) of blossoms to make ½ liter (2 cups) of orange flower water.
Each bottle also got topped with orange oil, which helps preserve and perfume the water as it sits. When no one was looking, I dabbed a little under my nose so that I could carry the scent around with me for the rest of the day. However that eventually passed, as a glass of brandy from a trip to their cellar, where they are making “Zognac”, a brandy similar to Cognac (whose name is protected), burned away most of the scent of the oil.
In Beirut, there was ice cream at Hanna’s made with salep and mastic, which gives the ice cream a toothy, sticky quality.
The crunchy almond flavor was my favorite. But there were ice creams made of everything, from German chocolate (excellent) to those with more of a local flavor, including rose water and mango.
Having a Syrian grandfather, I grew up gorging myself on red-shelled pistachios, which he kept on hand in big 5-pound bags. I still remember the brand’s tagline, which was “You just can’t stop eating them!” which was certainly true. And back then, I always had the red-stained fingers to prove it! So if you love pistachios as much as I do, you’re in the right part of the world.
That’s for sure!
And I watched the owner knead his own almond paste, in the tiny shop, which he used to form Ma’amoul with his mother; golden-brown cookies that he was making for Easter, filled with bright-green Iranian and Turkish pistachios. Thankfully, the red-dyed specimens seem to be a thing of the past.
And did I mention the terrific almond ice cream topped with big bits of crackly caramelized almonds, that had me scraping my cup clean – even though I had just polished off two lunches?
A few days later, we headed to the seaside town of Betroun, where we began lunch with traditional dishes of bzoorat, a mixture of roasted nuts and seeds, along with icy glasses of rosé, before moving to a table where fresh salads and platters of seafood right off the grill were shared by all.
There were raw scallops that looked like no scallops I had ever seen, served grilled as well as raw, and fried fish served with tarator (tahini-garlic sauce)…and perhaps a hookah of something was smoked in the background. And no, it was nothing illicit. I was already high from the food.
Smoking has been banned in restaurants in Lebanon, but you still see ashtrays on tables next to no-smoking signs.
Still, living in a country of heavy smokers, people in Lebanon are pretty considerate of non-smokers. And hookah smoke is a lot less-offensive when you’re eating than cigarette smoke. In fact, hookahs are often smoked at the same time as eating.
Another day, driving home from a culinary expedition in the south of Lebanon, on the side of the highway, we saw someone selling fresh black truffles. But we didn’t stop for them, although Lebanese traffic is legendary, and pretty helter-skelter. There is an “anything goes” policy on the roads and taxis swarm the city of Beirut, and it’s common as soon as you leave a restaurant or a shop for a few taxis to descend upon you. (Another difference from back home, where taxis seem like they doing you a favor by stopping for you.)
When stuck on a highway in slow-moving traffic, I saw a man on a scooter driving in the opposite direction, between all the cars, without a care in the world. No one said anything or looked at him differently. And crossing the street in Beirut was the most dangerous thing I did in the country.
Speaking of problems, just before I left for Lebanon, I heard that the US State Department issued a warning about Lebanon. I was just a bit hesitant, but I have also heard Europeans express concerns about going to Chicago because of the gangsters riding down the streets with machine guns, or going to New York City because they had seen police chasing criminals down the busy streets and sidewalks on television crime dramas.
In my experience, I didn’t feel at all as if I was in any danger during my trip. There are security checkpoints on certain roads, especially out in the countryside, and you’ll see armed guards in downtown Beirut. And there are cities that are not advisable to go to, which locals were sad about as well.
On my last night in Beirut, where we were happily enjoying farewell drinks and dinner on the waterfront, there was a terrible bombing in Boston, a place I have visited many, many times, which is somewhere I’ve always felt safe to visit.
You can’t compare tragedies, which sometimes happen where you don’t expect them to. I spent a week in Lebanon and didn’t see any strife – although you do pass bombed-out buildings, scars from the past. The only bad taste in my mouth was arriving at the airport to head home and learning that my flight was delayed those nine hours. (And being given a voucher for a soda and a snack as compensation, by the non-Lebanese airline.)
Fortunately, thanks to Lebanese hospitality, I was trying to figure out how to plug my computer in as I settled in for the long, long day, spent on the worn carpet of the airport and one of the maintenance women saw me struggling came over to helped me with my European plug, adjusting the outlet so I could use my computer. She even offered to find me a converter in the back office. Maybe I just lead a sheltered life, but I can’t imagine that happening in many other countries.
Of course, there are all sorts of places that I could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve gone to if I had a few weeks. (My next visit will include the Souk el Tayeb.) But like the rolled up grape leaves that were part of several meze that I enjoyed, by the time I was ready to leave, I was stuffed to capacity.
But I feel content to have packed so much into one week of tasting and touring, all tempting me to someday go back.
Note/Disclosure: This trip was organized by Bethany Kehdy, who leads culinary tours, for her company, Taste Lebanon. She loves to share her country, and its cuisine, and I recommend her highly as a guide if you visit Lebanon. (We had been in touch prior to the trip as she had invited me to speak at Food Blogger Connect for the past few years, which I couldn’t participate in, until this year.)
The Four Seasons hotel in Beirut was kind enough to host me for the first few days of my trip. And the last few nights were at the Riviera Hotel, which provide a more modest experience…and is just asking to be turned into a hip, retro hotel. But was located right on the ocean. (Although if you go, me and my new friends nearly cleaned out the bar the last night, you might want to wait a while for them to restock.)