Kamal Mouzawak’s Souk el Tayeb is the fruit of a visionary and heartfelt commitment, aimed at uniting the communities of his native Lebanon around cuisine and flavors.
This morning, once again, the weather is magnificent in Douma (altitude 1,000 meters), in Batroun District, northern Lebanon. Kamal Mouzawak, a self-described “culinary activist,” is dawdling in the garden of his guesthouse, Beit Douma, a traditional 19th-century stone building, with triple-arched windows and vaulted ceilings. In his cup, lemon grass (or sometimes verbena) from the garden, and to go with it, stewed prunes. Perfectly ripe, they will also be used in the afternoon tart.
For Kamal, nourishment is more than just food; it’s an entire language. He has seen Beirut in every state, from the direst to the most luminous. Yet a central thread weaves through all these years, one as diverse and contrasting as the mountains and the sea, the Christians and the Muslims.
“It’s an ensemble,” he says, “like a tabbouleh. All the elements add to it, none stands out; it’s the universal message of this dish.” It’s midsummer and Kamal is rereading the final proofs of his book on the cuisine of Lebanon (published by Marabout), his native land. The book was long in coming, as he traveled from village to village and household to household. In so doing, he understood that this is where “genuine” gastronomy flourished. “It’s a long way from industrial processed food or that of chefs. The latter are more like businessmen working to make a name for themselves, to dazzle, to entertain, to balance the books. My friends and I are more interested in the cuisine of our mothers, people who think about their families, who pay attention to the quality of produce, household budgets and good health. These dishes are like a gift, an offering, love. It is a cuisine of emotion.”
Kamal travels the world “to make food, not war.” With his people skills and his good looks, he is like a ringmaster. He promotes the cooks (none are “chefs”) and the general public. He pays tribute to the women who are timidly emerging from painful pasts or from the anonymity of small towns. At Tawlet, his restaurant in Beirut, these women take turns cooking, producing gleaming hummus, fattouche (pita bread salad), tabbouleh and kibbeh nayyeh (raw minced beef, lamb or goat). An organic farmers’ market, the Souk el Tayeb, has been held twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday, 9am to 2pm, since 2004. It features local producers who grow their own fruit and vegetables.
Kamal recreates his humanist, pacifist vision from Singapore to Paris, as he did recently at Merci, via the dish served at Tawlet. Drawing on this experience in Paris, he should soon be joining the Hôtel Merci project (2019). Yet Kamal insists that food does not shape history: “We are the ones who keep it moving, not by staying seated and contented, but through action, by perpetuating proper values.”
12, impasse Naher (par la rue d’Arménie). Tél. +961 1 448 129.
Souk el Tayeb
Rue Trablos (le samedi) et au Gefinor Center, rue Clemenceau (le mercredi) Tél. +961 1 442 664.www.soukeltayeb.com
Kamal Mouzawak. Éditions Marabout (à paraître le 25.10).