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Monday, September 12, 2011

World Travels: Open Again

As Lebanon searches for ways to bring the country and tourism back, it turns to the food that made it famous, while giving an emphatic YES to the question: Will food be Lebanon’s savior?
Beirut has always been kind to me. Eating has always been a guilty pleasure where the only thing more exciting than the culinary delights is the entertainment fueled by the superior nightlife. To me (and the rest of the world it seems) Lebanon is all about food and nightlife, right on par with Paris and Manhattan. I have long concluded that nightlife is so popular because the only thing that keeps those indulgent pounds off is dancing the night away.
All bets were off as the country struggled in the aftermath of the recent and political conflicts to find a way out of the tourism doldrums. Tragedy could not have come to a place more capable of shrugging off problems, dealing with them and thriving once again, one mouth at a time.
On my last, I made a point of going to most of the highly reputable restaurants that had reopened. Also on my list was every unknown small spot recommended by locals. The idea that you might eat an authentic Lebanese dish as it was prepared decades or centuries ago is not a fantasy. Tabouleh, grape leaves, and manakish are likely to be made precisely as they once were, but it’s the innovative recipes––a creative mixture of Lebanese and French styles––that keep you guessing and coming back. The French mandate between the two World Wars firmly established the cuisine of Paris, while the postwar emergence of Beirut as a Middle East headquarters for international banking and trade has added influences from every continent.
No one had to twist arms to get the Lebanese back to the kitchens and prepare the world’s greatest food. Even while the crisis heated up overhead, the country’s best chefs were underground serving friends, family and those who could get the right information as to where the favorite restaurants had temporarily relocated.
Abbas Naber, a chef at a local Beirut café, tells of the Lebanese push to get back to normalcy with post-conflict renovation: “Our reaction is always optimism over despair when faced with challenges. Many of the restaurants moved the rubble from the front of their doors, cleaned up and started serving. Everyone in Beirut had difficulty cooking at home. Power issues. Little food stored. So you know what we did? We went out to eat. Business was unbelievable and still is.”

Shredded Beef Fillet with Onion and Pomegranate

Serves four
  1 pound premium beef filet
  2 large onions cut into strips
  4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  4 tablespoons water
  4 garlic cloves mashed
  1 tablespoon pomegranate juice
  1 tablespoon chopped fresh iklil al jabal or rosemary
  1⁄4 cup chopped radish for garnish
  Salt and pepper

Cut the fillet into small flat strips. Heat oil in skillet on high and cook meat in three batches. Remove meat and saute onion in the same pan until soft. Add water, cover and continue to cook until water evaporates. Add garlic and cook until garlic softens.
Add meat, pomegranate juice, iklil al jaba and salt and pepper to taste. Heat to serving temperature.

Place on a large plate and garnish with chopped radish. Also perfect for serving in hollowed out sourdough loaves or as a sandwich in pita bread.