Cook­ing It Down

Preparing for win­ter in Le­banon means stock­ing the larder with homemade tomato paste


Mak­ing tomato paste in Le­banon

It was still sunny and hot in Houmal dur­ing the wan­ing days of sum­mer, but the vil­lage had al­ready given it­self over to preparing for the colder months ahead. Fam­i­lies worked to bring in the year’s sumac har­vest. The air was thick with the scent of woodsmoke and slowly stew­ing toma­toes. I had come to Le­banon with my friend An­gela Mualem Fout, who lives in New York but grew up in the vil­lage. Twenty min­utes on nar­row, dusty roads into the moun­tains to the east of Beirut—it was a world apart from the hur­ried cap­i­tal we had just left be­hind.

Round­ing a hair­pin cor­ner, we en­coun­tered Saida Daou, a fam­ily friend, stok­ing a fire in her court­yard. Salty tomato paste is an el­e­men­tal com­po­nent of Le­banese cui­sine, and in Houmal most res­i­dents make their year’s sup­ply at home from toma­toes they have grown them­selves. Saida’s disit— a large, wide pan hap­haz­ardly

set on a metal stand—steamed ex­u­ber­antly with the red­dest red toma­toes I have ever seen, with days’ worth of coals smol­der­ing un­der­neath.

Saida had started by pick­ing the ripest end-of-sea­son red plum toma­toes from her vines, blend­ing them to a pulp, and re­mov­ing the seeds and skins with a food mill. Now she let the juice cook over the fire for hours as it slowly thick­ened into a vis­cous paste. The goal was some­thing with the con­sis­tency of lab­neh, she ex­plained. We mar­veled as this woman of nearly 65 wielded a 5-foot plank of wood to stir the mix­ture. Once it thick­ened, she added the only other in­gre­di­ent: co­pi­ous quan­ti­ties of sea salt, which helps pre­serve the paste, al­low­ing it to be stored for months un­re­frig­er­ated. As the coals cooled, Saida left her disit in the hot di­rect sun, where it would sit for days to cure the mix­ture and bind it to­gether. Once the paste be­came thick and leath­ery, she would spoon it into jars to be sealed and stacked in her cup­board.

You would find a sim­i­lar sup­ply in most homes in Le­banon, where the ul­tra-con­cen­trated tomato gives a hint of sum­mer to vegetable stews and shak­shuka, to beans and roasted lamb. That would come later. To­day, Saida pro­duced some fresh flat pita and fresh olive oil made from the fruit from the trees in her grove, farther up the moun­tain. It was still sum­mer, and the warm toma­toes were too good not to try fresh.

Saida Daou cooks down a year’s sup­ply of tomato paste in her court­yard—it’s a project too large for the small kitchens typ­i­cal in Houmal. Plus, it’s just the way it’s al­ways been done.

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