Market unites Beiruti farmers — and foodies

BEIRUT — The diversity of Lebanon's small population may have been a root cause of its bloody and protracted civil war, which ended in 1990.

But as the 30th anniversary of the war's beginning rolled around in 2005, one man, Kamal Mouzawak decided that rather than mark the occasion solemnly, he would hold an event that celebrated the country's religious and ethnic variety.

So Mouzawak set up a farmers market on the former site of Beirut's no-man's land, where Lebanon's Christians and Muslims had once fought across barbed wire and barricades. He dubbed it, "United Farmers of Lebanon."

“We had farmers and producers from all over Lebanon, from all different religions, politics and everything,” he said. “And we had a huge map of Lebanon, with no names of cities or villages, but only the food specialties of every region.”

Although the civil war ended in the early 1990s, the country is still divided in many ways. Just  last week, violent clashes took place between rival political parties, whose memberships are largely based on religious and sectarian identity. But Mouzawak's farmers market, called “Souq al Tayeb,” or “market of the good and tasty,” is trying to change that.

“Land, and products of the land, and food, is one of the things that can really bring people together, around one table, one project, one vision, and one dream,” Mouzawak said.

The market takes place every Saturday morning. About 70 vendors come from all around Lebanon to sell their locally produced vegetables, meat, honey, wine, cheese and olives, with a focus on sustainable and regionally unique foods.

The variety of food is astounding for such a small country. About the size of Connecticut, Lebanon has wildly varying geographic features that have bred a cornucopia of cuisine. With a 124-mile coastline abutting 8,000-foot mountain peaks, and a high-altitude plateau known in ancient times as the bread basket of the Roman Empire, the country is ripe with culinary delights.

“The cuisine of the coast is very different from the cuisine of the mountain,” Mouzawak said. “You see very colorful, very tasteful cuisine on the coast. People use a lot of fish, a lot of coriander, and lemon. “

Lebanon’s mountain cuisine, Mouzawak said, is just the opposite. The craggy mountain valleys and snow-covered peaks bred an appetite for “harsh and hard cuisine.” Goat meat was especially popular, since it was the only animal that could survive on the rocky mountainsides. Dried meat and dishes that could be preserved for the winter shaped the highland’s taste buds.

The country’s south, where rolling, rocky hills dip into the Mediterranean, is home to orange, olive and lemon orchards. The dry, high-altitude Bekka Valley is good for growing tomatoes, cultivating vineyards and grazing sheep.

The people of Lebanon are as diverse as the country’s landscape. Maronite Catholics inhabit parts of the coast and mountains, where Christian villagers traditionally lived side by side with Druze. Shiite Muslims live in the south and the Bekka Valley. And Sunni Muslims have traditionally lived in the coastal trading towns of Sour, Saida and Tripoli.

Members of each group come to Souq Al Tayeb to woo customers with their homemade goods, recipes and raw produce.

“Here’s the organic section, without pesticide,” said Souq manager Zeina Ballouz as she pointed to a row of 20 vendors selling tomatoes, oranges, and other fruits and vegetables. “It takes them three years to get the organic certificate."

Nearby, Suzanne Dwayee and her husband Sarkis sold traditional Lebanese mountain dishes from Ehden, about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. Their specialty is a Lebanese dish called “kibbe," made of ground beef and bulgar. The dish can be eaten raw or cooked into dumplings — some sinfully filled with fat. A vegetarian version was available at another stall nearby, with the beef replaced by mashed pumpkin.

The Dwayees — whose food all comes from their own farm and village — also served a Lebanese specialty called mujadara, a hearty mountain meal of rice, lentils, olive oil and caramelized, liquefied onions. Suzanne takes particular pride in her version of the dish, which is served in a variety of forms around Lebanon, and, like most meals, transcends Lebanon’s religious divides.

“People in our region cook it this way,” she said. “But the taste really depends on how much effort you put into it.”

Their journey to opening a stall at Souq Al Tayeb is partially rooted in some of Lebanon’s instability.

Sarkis lost his job in Lebanon's north after the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated. He came to Beirut to look for a job, and stumbled on the market. Now, he and his wife say they come to Beirut twice a week to sell their food, and pay $25 per day for a stall at the farmers market. They say it has paid off: The couple often has 10 orders for their famous kibbe before they even get to town.

“We started very small, selling jarred food,” Suzanne Dwayee said. “Now, the more money we’ve made, we’ve started selling everything and making home-cooked meals.”

Mona Salman and her business partner Nelly Chemaly have also had their share of success, as well as pain. As owners of the sandwich shop “Earth and Co.,” they originally based their operations out of a farm near the Israeli border in south Lebanon.

When the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel left cluster bombs littering their land, the pair had to move their business north of Beirut. But now customers line up for the ladies’ sandwiches, made with what Chemaly says is locally produced, non-genetically modified whole wheat. It’s cooked on an oval grill with homemade cheese and homegrown veggies.

“This whole thing is about the people that come here, that show you their own product, their own expertise,“ said Souq Al Tayeb regular Fadi Charr, as he ordered up a cheese and vegetable wrap sandwich from Salman and Chemaly.

Although the market at present has a largely upscale clientele, Mouzawak says that's not because of the prices. And, looking around, it’s not much more expensive than a Lebanese supermarket. Although the New York Times mentioned Souq al Tayeb when it selected Beirut as its No. 1 travel destination in 2009, many Lebanese don’t even know the market exists — foreigners living in Lebanon make up much of the regular client base. 

That could have more to do with Lebanese shopping habits than any aversion to local producers. Beirut's neighborhoods are full of small corner stores that sell vegetables, bread and other staples. The fact that Souq Al Tayeb sits in the still-under-construction city center means it doesn’t enjoy the benefit of being in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

But for many, the market includes a mixture of food and people that are rarely found in one place.

“I am happy that I am here. It’s a big family for me,” said Maurice Habib, a beekeeper and honey producer from the southern village of Jezzine. Habib extracts his cedar, wildflower and oak honey at the market using a homemade centrifuge.

Renee Codsi, a regular market customer and high school biology teacher, echoed Habibi’s opinion as she eyed a stand selling “kishik,” a food made from bulgur soaked in yogurt and then dried in sun.

“I get my tomatoes from the same guy every week, my mushrooms from another guy, my olive oil from another,” she said. “Everyone knows you here.”

And that’s the point, Mouzawak said.

“Food is not something you buy, food is something that is produced, something that is living, transformed or cooked,” he said. “So we cannot ask people to go back to gardening, or back to kitchens, but we can ask them to at least to have a direct contact with the producer.”


Read more GlobalPost dispatches from Lebanon:

Tale of two Lebanons 

Some Lebanese call for civil unions

Dreams of return buried in Gaza rubble