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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mar Mikhael

What's better than discovering a neighborhood? We spent much of today in an area of Beirut called Mar Mikhael, part of Ashrafieh named for Saint Michael. Before today I didn't think I liked Ashrafieh because all I knew of the area was ABC ("ahh-bay-say"), a high-end shopping mall where you can buy designer track suits for a couple hundred dollars. Seriously, walking around town with an ABC shopping bag means you must be something.

Mar Mikhael is away from the overpriced glitz of ABC and looks decidedly less glamorous. But in addition to the hardware stores and body shops, the area boasts some cool people and places. We met an artist from up north who was happy to show us her studio and chat. She kept apologizing for her English, which was very good, but she was proud, and rightly so, of her painting. Not to mention the restoration work she does on icons and Christian art from around the region. We also found a neat store that sells an odd mixture of homemade handicrafts--everything from traditional clothing (abayas, etc.) to decorations to Arabic water pitchers (I've seen a lot of public places that just put out these vessels and visitors just help themselves to a drink right from the pitcher--Americans are so obsessed with germs). We didn't buy anything but I'm sure we'll be back.

We went to Mar Mikhael to attend a book signing. I love autographed books, and loved even more the idea of getting my hands on a copy of "Man'oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery," a combination cookbook, reference work, narrative, and labor of love. The book's all about the delicious breads and the roadside stands all over Lebanon that sell them. And there's an English-language version. We met the author, Barbara Massaad, who was really gracious and interesting. And I've already read half the book, which has inspired me to get a gas saj, the big convex metal cooking disc, when we get back home next year. Nicole doesn't know this yet. But zaatar and jibnee man'oushe at our place, anytime. If you're reading this, you're invited. The saj is really great. You see them at a lot of street food places. You just slap on the dough which cooks in minutes.

Anyway, the book signing was at a restaurant called Tawlet, which operates in conjunction with a local farmer's market. On most weekdays, either one of the market's "producers" or a guest chef creates a lunch buffet using fresh stuff from the market. They also do cooking classes and various special events (like tonight's signing). The restaurant wasn't serving, but they had all kinds of free snacks, all homemade, fresh items. Jibnee (cheese) and lebneh (yogurt), fresh breads, heirloom veggies, and something called "hashish el baher" that I'm pretty sure is NOT what it sounds like. It was some kind of herb along with carmelized onions on pita. Really delicious, and had no intoxicating effects, I swear.

And we met a beekeeper there. Anna and Mazin: We got his card for you guys but he doesn't have an email address, just a phone number. Sorry. But he was very excited to hear that we have family who keep bees in the U.S. Mr. Habib sets up at the market and had a really impressive spread with him tonight too. Including cedar honey, direct from the famous cedars of Lebanon. He had these fresh cheese curds from his farm and he was stuffing little mini breads with the cheese and the cedar honey. When we told him about Anna and Mazin's bees back home, he even broke off some pieces of honeycomb for us.

Really hope to connect with some of these folks again, very soon. And we'll definitely be heading back to Tawlet for the extremely fresh foods they offer. Maybe even for their cooking classes. I'll need some tips for when I get that saj next year.

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