Travel and Leisure, the website that is a “one-stop resource for sophisticated travellers” has declared Beirut to be “the Best International City for Food”, even though the ranking is apparently based largely on the reputation of Tawlet, a restaurant that has already been dubbed a global phenomenon by that other hipster mag, Monocle.
And while Tawlet’s fare is indeed extremely delicious and well-presented, much of the credit for the restaurant’s fame is down to the phenomenal PR skills of Kamal Mouzawak, one of the owners. I wrote last month that the irrepressible Mr Mouzawak should be tourism minister and I stand by that assertion, but I’m not sure a city’s culinary reputation can truly be carried on the shoulders of one establishment?
OK, our national cuisine is fabulous, not least because we have wonderful ingredients. The presentation is always stunning and the service, when they get it right, is second to none, but let’s be honest, Lebanon 2016 is not yet a gastronomic world beater and so we shouldn’t get too carried away.
There are a few key components missing before we can claim to be the real deal, chief among them is a serious market in the style of London’s Borough market, New York’s Union Square Greenmarket or Budapest’s Great Hall.
Tawlet has tried. A restaurant that seriously champions unique and rare regional recipes, it was spawned by Souk El Tayeb, a Saturday farmers’ market that began life on a corner of the Beirut Central District (BCD), or Downtown, by the side of a busy intersection. Hardly the stuff of dreams, but it was a start. That plot of land has now been developed and the Saturday market moved to the nearby Beirut Souks shopping mall, where, it is still open for business. On Wednesdays, Souk El Tayeb can be found in a 70s mixed-use development in Ras Beirut near the American University of Beirut, but both locations lack soul and the project deserves better national support.
A nation with such a massive food heritage should have a hub for farmers across the country as a showcase for their produce but there is no vision, either on a state or municipal level for maximising the pulling power of Lebanon’s culinary assets. And yet, now that Lebanon is welcoming more and more European tourists, there is surely an urgency to develop such an attraction.
So assuming we all agree our food needs a shop window, where could it be located? It is no secret that the BCD, the 1.9 million-square-metre city centre, that 16 years ago was touted as the jewel in Lebanon’s retail crown, one that would be a magnet for Arab shoppers from all over the Middle East, is now a ghost town. Politics got in the way and the always-controversial area has become associated with perceived ambitions of the Hariri family.
The shops in the beautifully restored cobbled streets are home to a few VERY high-end boutiques but many of the units are empty. So why not offer the street – or even the shops –to specialised food producers from across the country and breathe some life into the area.
If Solidere, the area’s management company, is too uptight to see the potential, then the nearby district of Gemmayzeh, which sits on the Eastern edge of the BCD and which has experienced something of a slump since the nightlife moved to Mar Mikhael, and Hamra could offer a pedestrianised venue for producers along the straight and flat and mandate period thoroughfare.
But arguably the best solution for a genuine weekend market would be to find a location on the edge of Beirut, an old warehouse, for example, with plenty of parking space. With the right municipal support, Souk El Tayeb could roll up its collective sleeves and get to work on a genuine national project that would showcase everything from what the Romans called the Empire’s breadbasket.
Pie in the sky? Maybe. But the debate over how to best celebrate Lebanon’s rich and exciting food culture is essential. It’s not just an exercise in folklore but a powerful tool to promote Lebanon, create jobs and bring much needed energy back to Beirut. Then we might have something to shout about.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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