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You’ve probably heard Lebanese food is unlike any other. You heard right.
While you may think I am referring to the deliciousness of Hummus and the addictive quality of Tabbouleh, what I am actually invoking is our cuisine’s omnipresence and its magical powers of adaptation.
Allow me to explain. When traveling to any other country, partaking in foodless activities is always on the menu.
Eating, sampling, nibbling, grazing or whatever you want to call the act of ingesting comestible items is always on the agenda of any Lebanese activity. It is one of those cross-cutting themes that serves as a backdrop to any enterprise, the only common language we all speak, beyond religion, social status or political affiliation- that and an inexplicable fascination with Haifa Wehbe*
Take a stroll around Beirut and stop and smell the thyme. The cheese. The kishk** (sorry no way to translate that one).These are the unspeakably tasty fillings of our staple breakfast pie or the infamous Manouche. Listen to the street vendors selling fresh vegetables and fruits with Bocelli pitch. Feast your eyes with the exuberant colors of the many many restaurants, cafes, bars and other establishments that have no business selling food but do. Like gyms. Paradoxical you say? Excessive? Only to the undiscerning mind; these seemingly incomprehensible phenomena are merely a reflection of what every Lebanese knows at heart: our food is part of our identity.
Food is how Lebanese mothers love their children. How Lebanese grandmothers cure their sick grandchildren. How Lebanese friends comfort their buddies. How Lebanese neighbors bribe their landlords. How Lebanese suitors woo their sweethearts. How Lebanese patients pay their doctors (ok that may not happen often but it does happen. I have it on good authority that a pediatrician friend of mine received a basket of fresh eggs for one of her more memorable well-child consultations).
Food is a quintessential part of every major milestone in a Lebanese individual’s lifecycle. Let’s think about this for a second. If you were born and bred in Lebanon, chances are your birth was celebrated over mughli***; your disgraceful grades were punished by withholding cake (conversely your good grades were honored by ice cream); your teenage years were rife with binging on chocolate and your religious holidays were peppered with samplings of Knefeh****. If you were one of the many who grew up during the war, you have likely queued to get your hands on a loaf of Lebanese bread, you have probably shared Picon cheese with your shelter mates and roasted chestnuts over candle flames those million times your home ran out of electricity. Fast forward to adulthood and chances are you have mourned loved-ones over Baklava, you have toasted promotions with Almaza or Arak***** and have won the heart of your spouse with your impeccably-stuffed grapevines. Hell, Hummus almost sparked a national incident a few years back when its origins were disputed. (Just so we’re clear, Hummus is Lebanese. Make no mistake. With a capital L).
The seemingly absurd episode was about more than chickpeas. It was about national pride. As the elected representative of Lebanese cuisine, Hummus is our history, our heritage, and our identity.
I can see you rolling your eyes. Can you argue we have more pressing issues to deal with as a society than Hummus? Yes. Can you deny that Hummus invariably succeeds where every diplomat invariably fails, namely bringing people to the table? No. Conclusion? Hummus is hope. Accept it. Embrace it. And for your own sake, don’t resist it.
* Haifa Wehbe is a popular Lebanese singer and actress. Picture an oriental version of Betty Boop
** Kishk is a powdery form of cracked wheat fermented with milk and yogurt.
*** Mughli is a floured rice pudding spiced with caraway, anise and cinnamon and usually served to celebrate the birth of a child.
**** Knefeh is a cheese pastry soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup
***** Arak is the traditional – strongly alcoholic- anise-based local spirit