Tawlet: Lebanese Locavore Love

tawlet

On my first visit to Beirut’s Tawlet, I stopped to ask a shopkeeper directions. “Tawlet?” she verified. I nodded. “C’est très bon,” with a delicate flutter of the fingers accompanying her très, before she pointed me in the right direction. I’d heard great things about Tawlet for quite some time. The shopkeeper’s gesture was the icing on the cake. I knew the way I know my own name that this meal was going to be exceptional.

I found Tawlet at the rather inauspicious end of an industrial cul-de-sac in Mar Mikhael, an up-and-coming neighborhood with an exciting slate of new shops, some of them quite innovative.

It was still on the early side but I couldn’t wait. I walked into Tawlet before the restaurant opened for lunch and sat patiently for the wait staff to finish setting things up. A Saudi television crew was taping interviews of the day’s chefs. Just when my hunger had reached epic proportions, just when I thought I wouldn’t be able to wait any longer, a distinguished looking man approached me in English and told me I could begin to eat. He carried himself like a proprietor. And as it turned out, he was Kamal Mouzawak, the head honcho. I introduced myself and we chatted briefly.

Mouzawak has pioneered and tended a food revolution in Lebanon. Souk El Tayeb is the umbrella organization behind his efforts. It has spawned the Beirut Farmers Market, founded in 2004, Dekenet, a farmers shop, established in 2006 and regional food festivals, which followed in 2007. Tawlet, interwoven into the other Souk El Tayeb endeavors, opened its doors in 2009.The restaurant is an emporium of fresh, organic, and very local food from all over Lebanon. It is set up essentially as a farmers table. Different individual chefs or cooperatives host the buffet every day, working with a few permanent kitchen support staff. The result is essentially home-cooked food that reaches a clientele far wider than most home-cooked food tends to do. The presence of different chefs means that every lunch is different. (I didn’t think twice about returning for a second lunch the day following my discovery.) Including VAT, the buffet costs 44,000 Lebanese pounds ($29). Water and dessert come with the meal. Not included are regional wines, some very good.

The chefs-for-the-day come from all over Lebanon, bringing local variations in recipe and ingredients to the attention of a wider audience, elevating local regional culinary traditions to national attention. Tawlet publishes weekly menus online, which detail upcoming menus and chefs. On occasions Mouzawak himself does a turn as guest chef. Tawlet also offers brunch on Saturday.

What Mouzawak has done with Souk El Tayeb has major far-reaching implications. He has established a blueprint for encouraging and supporting local food traditions, for transforming vernacular food into recognition-deserving “cuisines” and for giving a wide range of cooks and chefs exposure to larger markets. This blueprint is broadly applicable to other countries and territories. It is a model for championing sustainable local food traditions.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]

The World’s Best Gyros?

gyrosThe Italians have their pizza, Mexicans have tacos, America is the home of the cheeseburger, the Germans dig their sausages and the French eat crepes. In almost any country there is one ubiquitous food staple budget travelers can count on for inexpensive sustenance. I recently spent six weeks in the Greek Isles, where the Gyro is king.

By my own informal calculation, I think I ate about 30 gyros while in country. I’d hate to have my cholesterol checked, but I’d guestimate that my level went from 210 to about 250 while in Greece. So my arteries might be very clogged, but I had some awfully good gyros and never spent more than €2.5 anywhere. In fact, I’d say the average price of a gyro in the Greek Isles is a paltry €2, making them a must eat treat for anyone traveling on a budget in Greece.

I got sick of eating gyros at times – I even resorted to eating at a couple of crap Mexican restaurants – but if you want something fast and cheap on the Greek Isles, there aren’t a lot of other options. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one gyro place from another but there was one establishment called Thraka (charcoal in Greek) in Chania on Crete that stood out from the pack.

I knew I had to try it the first time I walked past the place, which is located just past the Old Town on busy Chatzimichali Ginnari street, just down from a pet shop. While every other place had a smattering of customers, Thraka was packed with locals devouring gyros, souvlaki and kebabs. Aside from the cheap, mouthwateringly delicious gyros, you can also get a three skewer plate of souvlaki for €5 and kebabs for a ridiculous €1 each.

What makes the gyros at Thraka special? For me, it’s the quality of the pita, the meat and the tzatziki. And the fact that you leave full after spending €2 is an awfully nice bonus. My vote for world’s best gyros actually goes to a place called Samos, in Baltimore’s Greektown, but like all gyros in the U.S., they go for twice the price you pay in Greece. Check out the video but be forewarned – you’re going to want to run out and get a gyro when you see it.

Think Globally, Eat Locally At Culinary Backstreets

culinary backstreets - Istanbul fish restaurantBudget-savvy and food-loving visitors to Istanbul have found an excellent resource in Istanbul Eats for several years, and now can find more authentic and off-the-beaten-path tips in Athens, Barcelona, and Shanghai, with Mexico City on the way. Culinary Backstreets was launched this week as an extension of IstanbulEats.com, a blog reviewing Turkey’s best street food, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and unique dishes. Founded in 2009 by two American expats, Istanbul Eats launched a book in 2010 (now in its third edition, and available at nearly every bookshop in Istanbul and online, in English, Turkish, Greek, and even Korean!) as well as culinary tours through the Old City, Beyoglu, and even cross-continent. Istanbul Eats has garnished a devoted fan base who’ve been wishing for “an Istanbul Eats-like guide to restaurants in every city,” hence the creation of Culinary Backstreets.

Culinary Backstreets is a site for travelers who eschew tourist menus, ask cab drivers where to dine, and frequently find themselves the only foreigner in a cafe. Each city will be covered by local food writers who regularly comb the streets in search of the tastiest tidbits. So far, each city has posted a “State of the Stomach” guide, outlining the current food scene, the eats locals line up for, and practical tips for following your stomach to the traditional and the trendy restaurants. Culinary walks are currently being offered in Istanbul and Shanghai, with more cities coming soon.

Get hungry at CulinaryBackstreets.com.

[Photo courtesy of Yigal Schleifer]

Gifts From Abroad: What To Bring Your Family When You Come Home

gifts from abroad
My wife and I travel a lot, sometimes together, sometimes separately. We both have careers that require us to travel and while it can be tough to be apart, at least we have the regular ritual of seeing what gifts from abroad are popping out of each other’s suitcases!

My wife just came back from an astronomy meeting in Tokyo and brought back this haul of loot. The Japanese are masters of packaging, whether they’re being stylish and traditional or garish and modern. I wonder what a supermarket full of this stuff must look like. The panda head cookies are especially good. I’ve always wanted a bag of decapitated pandas. The T-shirt is for her, because she knows I’m fond of her “especially cuteness.”

What I forgot to include in this photo were the three bottles of sake she brought back. While I’ve always had my sake warm, she tells me it’s often served cold in Tokyo and that regulars have their own monogrammed bottle reserved for them behind the bar!

When I came back from writing my travel series about Greece, I brought her and my son lots of olives since they both love them. I also brought back some honey from Sparta. My wife adores honey and it’s a good gift to bring from abroad because it tastes different in every region. Of all the honey I’ve brought her from far-flung places, she’s liked the Spartan honey the most.

You’ll notice that we mostly bring back consumables. A great way to share the experience of your trip is to share some of the tastes. Also, we live in a European apartment (read: small) and we have too much stuff anyway.

What gifts from abroad do you like to give or receive? Tell us in the comments section!

gifts from abroad

Got Milk? This Swiss Soft Drink Does

It looks like soda. It tastes like soda. But the Swiss soft drink pictured above has a peculiar key ingredient: milk whey. First introduced in the 1950s, Rivella beat out both Coke and Pepsi in sales in its home country, and a spokeswoman once said the Swiss people are “almost as familiar with it as breast milk.” Still, the drink remains practically unknown throughout the rest of the world. Efforts in the early 2000s failed to introduce the drink as a “health food” product to Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, and today the Netherlands is the only country that seems to have embraced the product, drinking up 90 percent of Rivella’s foreign sales.

My assessment? The first sip was okay, mostly because I wasn’t told that it was made from milk. My boyfriend, equally unaware and severely lactose intolerant, was even more aghast when the key ingredient was announced to us. Needless to say, he steered clear of a second taste. I was a little reluctant to take another sip after hearing the news but had no complaints about the carbonated apple juice flavor. Besides milk, Rivella is made with lots of fruit and herbal extracts, and sources say that the filtration process used for the serum removes all the fats and proteins from the whey, making the soft drink rich in vitamins and minerals. Next time, I’ll probably try the version of Rivella with the yellow label, which is made with soy rather than dairy milk – it should be a little easier to stomach for both my boyfriend and me.

[Wikimedia photo by Parpan05]