A year ago, I walked across Lebanon with my two best friends. It was actually for my new travel book but was part mid-life crisis, part attempt to get fit and lose some weight. Despite averaging over 20 kilometres uphill a day, we ended up putting ON weight. The problem was that every time we stopped for the night we were placed in the care of wonderful Lebanese home cooks who plied us with every aspect of tabékh, the tradition of comfort food that you don’t often find in restaurants. Every mouthful took me back in time to when I grew up in that extraordinary country.
I flew back to Lebanon last week for a two-day food road trip with one of my walking companions. We were having Lebanese food withdrawal symptoms and needed a fix.
This time we were not even going to bother to walk. We had a car and were just going to drive from meal to meal. Life doesn’t get much better.
First things first, I needed a manakish. This flat dough covered in zaatar and olive oil and baked in a wood burning oven is the only way to start your day. It differs all over the Middle East, the zaatar is different in every country and some people opt for saj as opposed to manakish, but saj dough is too thin for me. I like a thick manakish, with the oil oozing into the paper wrapped round it.
Every Lebanese has his favourite shack that they claim makes the best manakish. Mine is on the road up to Brummana from Beirut, on a roundabout just as you leave Mansourieh. The owner greeted me like a long-lost brother and refused all attempts to pay for his baked treasure.
That evening we ate at Khairallah, a wonderful family restaurant in the gorgeous village of Mtein, high up in the mountains. The table groaned with pretty much everything on the menu and we did our best but, if the truth be told, we were soundly defeated and withdrew to our beds to lick our wounds. I’d particularly gone to town on the Kibbe Nayyeh, minced raw lamb mixed with bulgur wheat and spices and eaten with copious amounts of onions, so any social interaction was a no-no for the next 24 hours.
The following morning saw us descend from the mountains and roaring up the coast to Lebanon’s second city – Tripoli. There was only one thing on our minds, to go see Abou Fadi: Malek el Samke el Harra, the king of spicy fish. People make road pilgrimages up from Beirut to try one of his sandwiches, and they never disappoint.
We sat on plastic chairs outside his modest establishment in the port district of the city and munched contentedly on our spicy booty while we watched the world go by. Life does not get much better.
Next time, I think I’m going to forego the tiresome effort of writing a travel book, it’s going to have to be a cookery book for me – and I have a lot of research to do…