THE SIMPLE PHILOSOPHY TO “MAKE FOOD, NOT WAR” GUIDES KAMAL MOUZAWAK’S NETWORK OF CAFES, FARM MARKETS AND INNS ACROSS LEBANON. THE RESULT: HE’S MENDING WARTIME WOUNDS, SAVING TRADITIONS, EMPOWERING WOMEN AND SERVING DELICIOUS FOOD.
The simple philosophy to “make food, not war” guides Kamal Mouzawak as he brings people together and serves delicious food across Lebanon. By Lauren Mowery
It’s Wednesday, just before 1 p.m. and Beirut’s denizens are filling Tawlet’s wooden tables. Students shrug off backpacks next to businessmen pulling newspapers from their briefcases. Together, they check the chalkboard for the day’s dishes, while waiting for the buffet to open. Jamale, a cook from the town of Batroun, about an hour up the coast, works behind a steel table in the sunlit space. Brow furrowed just below her white headscarf, the sturdy middleaged woman floats between platters of food, adding final flourishes before the storm of diners ravages her work. She drizzles olive oil over smoky baba ghanoush; strews fresh herbs and pomegranate seeds atop stewed beans; dresses tangy labneh and greens with slivers of almond and a sprinkle of tart sumac. She wipes her hands on her apron, then adds a serving spoon to each dish. The afternoon repast may begin.
Tawlet, which references both a table and a farmers’ kitchen, serves lunch Monday through Saturday. To the casual observer, the laid-back self-service of this Beirut institution belies the importance of the social experiment happening inside. Indeed, the restaurant is based on an unusual premise: Every day, a woman from a different village travels to the city to prepare dishes from her hometown, using market produce. These women hold the secrets to recipes at risk of extinction as the country’s youngest generations lose touch with their stovetops. And Lebanese food and travel writer Kamal Mouzawak feels compelled to preserve those recipes. The first Tawlet opened in Beirut in 2009, but according to Mouzawak, the idea came not from an “aha” moment but rather as an organic extension of a series of projects. The seeds were planted far earlier, not long after Lebanon’s bitter civil war ended in 1990. At the time, he became involved with a cultural center in a bullet-riddled house in Beirut. “The idea was to bring people divided by the war together,” said Mouzawak. “People who had been enemies the day before flocked to this house for art and culture activities—and this amazed me. It was a great teaching in my life. I understood the importance of having a common ground.” In May 2004, Mouzawak was asked to organize a small produce exhibit for a garden show in Beirut’s hippodrome. It proved to be so popular that he secured a permanent space at a weekend flower bazaar, founding the first open-air farmers’ market in the capital. The market, called Souk el Tayeb, became a democratic space where people—no matter their origins, politics or wealth—could come together around food on a Saturday morning. The market begat Mouzawak’s next idea: transporting city-dwellers to the countryside to connect with farmers in their villages. “When you live in a city, you’re confined to
a box called an apartment. Then we’re amazed that people lose contact with nature,” he said. The goal was to celebrate local traditions through regional food festivals called Food & Feast. Needing lunch at the festivals, Mouzawak asked village cooks— by default of tradition, always female—to prepare a buffet meal. The success of that venture led to another concept: “Take the model further by opening a restaurant on a daily basis, in a reachable place—beirut.” Thus, the first Tawlet was born. Driven by an ethos of economically empowering women and small farmers while uniting the country through nourishment, Mouzawak defined his growing organization’s slogan as “Make food, not war.” With help and vision from business partner Christine Codsi, what started as a single market evolved into a string of six restaurants and four guesthouses (called beits) across Lebanon. He’s quick to point out, however, that he’s not a vegetable vendor, restaurateur or hotelier: “I’m just creating an exchange. Everything we do is a human development project. It’s about the people, not the product.” That last sentiment may be best exemplified by the work Souk El Tayeb does in refugee camps. Mouzawak and his team, for example, raised money for women inside the Palestinian refugee camp Burj El Barajneh to fund what is now a thriving food-truck business (see page 4). Women have benefited the most from Souk El Tayeb. Nearly 700, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees, Christians, Muslims, young and old, have been trained to work across the various businesses. He finds them, said Mouzawak, through referrals, word of mouth, friends, sisters, mothers. When he opened his first B&B, a renovated historical
Lebanese home in Douma, he hired Jamale to run the kitchen and guest cooking classes because of her reputation within the village. Asked about her experience of sharing her food, Jamale beamed. “At first I was nervous,” she said. “I thought people in the city wouldn’t like it. But then they came; they told me it’s good. And I was proud.” Mouzawak dreams about taking Tawlet beyond Lebanon’s borders—anywhere that women’s traditional home-cooked cuisine could be showcased. “It’s not about doing more myself. It’s about getting more people involved,” he said. “It’s all about inclusion.” LAUREN MOWERY, J.D., D.W.S., is an award-winning writer and photographer, and contributing travel editor at Wine Enthusiast. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Wine certification.
Rima Massoud stretches dough for bread she sells at the Beirut souk. She’s famous for her bread, as well as preserves made from fruit grown on her farm—one that’s been in her family for hundreds of years. Since getting involved with Souk El Tayeb, Massoud has worked to master her village’s recipes so she can share them when she cooks in the Beirut Tawlet.
Drive about 37 miles southeast of Beirut and you’ll find yourself in the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site that protects one of the largest stands of Lebanese cedar trees. Wander the reserve’s 155 miles of trails through stands of these magnificent trees, then bed down at Souk El Tayeb’s Beit Ammiq guesthouse (pictured here). It overlooks the Bekaa Valley, home to many Lebanese farms and vineyards. Learn more about Souk El Tayeb’s restaurants, guesthouses and markets at soukeltayeb.com.