Introduction

Introduction

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

It is early evening and we are sitting on the patio outside our apartment in Halat sur Mer, a small beach resort about twenty minutes along the coastal road that heads north from Beirut all the way to Syria. The evening air is soft and warm, even though it is early April and spring is yet to fully arrive. The apartment looks out onto a beautifully manicured lawn that slopes gently down to the waterfront. Ahead of us, the sun is a like a golden coin, slipping slowly into the Mediterranean.

Greg is poring over a huge map of Lebanon, steadily cracking his way through a dish of bisr – salty, dried pumpkin seeds – scattering the husks over table and floor. Over the next four weeks I will spend hours trying to perfect the technique of splitting the husks open between my front teeth and then prising the inner seed out of its shell with the tip of my tongue.

This trip has been a long time in the planning: eleven years to be exact. Greg was born in Australia, but he identifies strongly with his Lebanese heritage. His career as a chef has taken him all over the world – to France, Italy, Austria, England and Hong Kong – but never to the Middle East. When we married, eleven years ago, we came to Lebanon and Syria for our honeymoon. Those two weeks were enough for us to vow, ‘We must come back here. We will come back!’

For me, the thrill of that first trip was the usual tourist’s excitement of visiting a region so different from the England where I grew up, and from Australia where I now lived. For Greg, the pull was more visceral. It was about coming face to face with a world he had previously only glimpsed in flickering black-and-white home movies of pre-war Beirut and through stories he had heard around the family dinner table. It was about exploring Zahlé, the Malouf family hometown, and meeting his Lebanese cousins for the first time.

And of course it was also about food. As is the case in expatriate communities the world over, Greg grew up in a family whose deep longing for their homeland was most often and happily expressed through the food they cooked. His childhood was filled with the noisy chatter of several generations of women sitting around the kitchen table preparing traditional Arabic dishes in the same way that they’d been made for centuries. Greg’s earliest memories are of his grandmother teta Adèle’s chicken and rice dish, roz a djejh; of his aunt Larisse’s kahke bread; and of his mum’s kibbeh nayeh, the famous Lebanese version of steak tartare. As a little boy, his usual after-school snack was arus bi laban, a yoghurt-cheese sandwich, or a handful of leftover stuffed vine leaves. Sunday lunches were an endless array of mezze dishes followed by platters of chicken, kebabs or lamb, roasted Lebanese style, served with a mound of nut-laden rice. For Greg, as a chef, the pull towards the Middle East was a profound yearning to explore his earliest culinary influences in greater depth.

Eleven years on from that first visit, much has changed. Most significantly, perhaps, Greg and I are no longer married. Thankfully, we have both worked har-d at remaining friends – good friends. We collaborate on cooking and writing projects and have coauthored two books about Greg’s modern Middle Eastern food. And through it all, we have kept alive and nurtured the dream of returning to the Middle East.

Things have changed in Lebanon and Syria, too. Our visit will coincide with a particularly interesting time in the intertwined history of these neighbouring countries. The brutal and repressive rule of former Syrian president Hafez Assad has given way, by birthright, to his son, Bashar. There have been tentative movements towards political and economic reform and a softening of the country’s hard-line attitude to the West. Although Syria has been branded part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ by the United States, as a visitor this ‘evil’ is hard to see. During that first visit, local people were warm and welcoming. They were interested in finding out about us and about Australia, and were keen to share their pride in and love for their homeland.

And then there is Lebanon, a tiny beleaguered country that continues to endure the weight of its own reputation. Almost fifteen years on since the end of the relentless civil war that tore the country apart, Lebanon is still better known for bloody bombings and kidnappings than as the original ‘land of milk and honey’, the former intellectual centre of the Arab world and, in its golden years, the Paris of the Middle East. And now, at the start of the twenty-first century, Lebanon’s story has become a kind of allegory for the whole benighted human condition; the very word ‘Beirut’ is synonymous with the corrupting effect of poverty and repression, and of all that is hateful about religious and ethnic bigotry.

The underlying resentments that fuelled Lebanon’s civil war remain unresolved, as was evidenced by the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri that sent the country into a spin just weeks before we arrived. And yet there is something irrepressible about the Lebanese spirit. As journalist Robert Fisk observes in his extraordinary account of the Lebanese civil war, Pity the Nation, the Lebanese have an inherent belief in happiness, ‘that if they believe(d) hard enough in something, then it would come true’. To us, as observers, the visible groundswell of public outrage at the Hariri murder, coupled with growing resentment within Lebanon at the hegemony that Syria has exerted for the last few decades, seems to have sparked a renewed sense of national pride among the country’s youth. It is almost enough to convince us that this time the people themselves might actually succeed where successive governments have failed. That Lebanon will, finally, shrug off its past, free itself from Syrian control and evolve into the syncretic society it so longs to be – truly a culture of unity and tolerance.

It is against this backdrop of political uncertainty that we are visiting Lebanon. By happy coincidence, Greg’s sister-in-law is also spending some time here visiting her own family, who are scattered around Lebanon and Syria, and we have persuaded her to join us on our voyage of discovery. Amal spent her childhood and teenage years in these countries, before moving to Australia as part of the mass exodus during the civil war. Her knowledge of the region and her fluent Arabic make her the ideal candidate to be our guide, translator and trouble-shooter over the next month.

Joining us, too, is Melbourne photographer Matt Harvey who worked with us on one of our previous books, Moorish.

Greg’s excitement about this journey has been palpable over the last couple of months, undiminished even by news of bomb scares and mass protest rallies. For him, this is to be an exploration of a cuisine – his cuisine – that has its origins in cultures that date back thousands of years. It is chance to recharge his imagination’s batteries, to find inspiration.

So here we are, poised to start our journey. We have four weeks ahead of us of eating, drinking and exploring some of the richest historical sites in the world. I sit quietly for a few moments, watching the evening sun sink into the sea, then I open my notebook, pick up my pen and begin to write.

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