In Lebanon, women are carving their way into the culinary scene
BEIRUT - It is just before noon outside Tawlet, a busy restaurant in the trendy Beirut district of Mar Mikhael, where 52-year-old Oum Ali is taking her first cigarette break of the day.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” she promises. Once a month, she leaves her village of Majdal Zoun in southern Lebanon at the crack of dawn, carrying enough meat and produce to feed 100 people. This includes three kilos of meat, a kilo of beans, and half a kilo of molokhia, a leafy dark green vegetable, to name a few.
At Tawlett, the schedules of around 20 women from all over Lebanon are rotated every day of the week to help serve local and little known specialties. A small permanent team of three - two women and one man - help them out with cooking and logistics.
Today, Oum Ali has made mansoufeh, a type of cabbage salad with parsley, tomato, lemon, mint and onion; and bissara, a cold dish of ground fava beans and molokhia.
“Bissara is only found in south Lebanon because it’s originally a Palestinian dish,” Oum Ali, who was born to a Palestinian mother and a Lebanese father, explains. The influence of both her parents’ heritage is apparent in her cooking.
Open only for lunch during the week, Tawlet, which means "table" in Arabic, has been ranked one of the top 10 restaurants of 2016 by Monocle, the global affairs and lifestyle magazine founded by Tyler Brûlé.
'Women are rarely chefs'
A female chef is a rarity in Lebanon, since the overall participation in the labour force is still in favour of men.
According to data by the UN's International Labour Organisation, the female participation rate in Lebanon's workforce aged 15 and above stood at only 23 percent in 2017. Working in a kitchen is considered to be particularly uninviting: hours are long and stress levels can run high during service.
"It's like everywhere in the world. Women are rarely chefs, just like they are rarely at the head of a company,” Kamal Mouzawak, owner of Tawlet, says. “But a trend has been developing in the past 10 years in Europe and America, and Lebanon is catching up.”
Oum Ali had not planned on becoming a chef at 39 years old. A housewife at the time, she had never gone to school, but her husband’s income was not enough to feed their family.
“There is no work for farmers like my husband,” she says, “so I started cooking for people in my village, and joined Tawlet in 2004.”
While her husband was not on board at first, he came around when the family started reaping the benefits of her employment. The couple was able to build a new house and send their four children to school.
“I’ve come to love cooking. Before, I just did it to feed my family. Now, I plan ahead,” she says.
The only man in the kitchen, Fadi Ayoub, is busy boiling beef tongue for tomorrow’s brunch. “More and more Lebanese women have been joining the workforce since the 1990s, especially due to the worsening economic situation,” Ayoub says.
A little further down the road, another restaurant is thriving thanks to its female chefs.
The restaurant Mayrig, which means grandmother in Armenian, strives to recreate homemade dishes. Their specialty is Lebanese-Armenian food, which is very different from Armenian cuisine.
“The Armenians in Lebanon use more cumin, ginger, red pepper paste and lemon juice. In Armenia, our food is blander,” points out Inna Asryan, an Armenian national who is undergoing training at Mayrig’s kitchen and will be managing its new branch in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, later this year.
According to the restaurant’s owner Aline Kamakian, a Lebanese of Armenian descent, the disparity in the flavour is owed to the fact that the majority of Armenians living in Lebanon today come from the Mediterranean area of modern-day Turkey. In 1915, Armenians fled a massacre by Ottoman forces, which Armenians and more than 20 nations recognise as genocide.
Food as art
Like Oum Ali, 58-year-old Nora Sarafian, also a Lebanese of Armenian origin, who is the head chef at Mayrig’s kitchen - comprised of five women and two men - was not planning on becoming a professional chef. Things changed in 2006 when Kamakian was looking for extra help in the kitchen.
Sarafian worked as a school teacher and then stayed home for eight years while dedicating herself to motherhood.
One of her favourite dishes is itch, which is made from boiled cracked wheat with onion, tomato paste, pepper paste, green pepper and parsley. “It’s our version of the Lebanese tabbouleh,” a popular parsley salad, she says.
According to Barbara Massaad, a food consultant who has written several cookbooks on local cuisine, Lebanon is slowly opening up to the idea that women can be chefs.
“It’s not in our culture. Lebanese women go to university then get married,” she explains. “Being a chef, even for a man, is not considered prestigious. People want their sons to become doctors or lawyers. But Lebanon is following a worldwide trend: cooking is now considered to be more of an art.”
Lara Ariss, 33, still remembers how her friends reacted when she left her job in advertising to go to culinary school in London in 2010. She explains that she was driven by her passion for cooking and her disenchantment with the corporate world.
“People would ask me, why are you becoming a cook? In Arabic, we say ‘tabakha.' It sounds like you’re an old lady in a kitchen,” she explains, sitting in her kitchen in Beirut, from where she caters to private events for up to 250 people.
In 2016, Ariss published a cookbook titled Levantine Harvest, which includes simplified recipes of traditional dishes, sometimes with a special twist. “You must understand, in Lebanon, traditional food is not considered to be cool. People associate it with their grandmother’s cooking. And it’s time-consuming.”
Still, Ariss kept some of these traditional dishes on her menu; such as stuffed vine leaves or kibbeh, a meat dish made of cracked wheat (bulgur) and ground meat.
Ariss tries to keep preparation time for everything she makes to under an hour. This includes even her signature dish sayadieh, adapted from her grandmother’s recipe who lived in Saida, in the south of Lebanon. The specialty is sea bass topped with fried almonds and pine nuts, served with saffron rice and tarator sauce, which is a mixture of tahini (sesame paste), garlic and lemon.
“My grandmother didn’t caramelise the onions like they do in Beirut; that would take an extra half hour,” says Ariss.
For dessert, she makes mohalabieh, a local custard flavoured with mastic, a tree resin typically used in Levantine sweets. “Mohalabieh is normally infused with rose or orange water, but I use lavender to lure people into giving it a shot.”
Ariss doesn’t let the competitive culinary environment in Lebanon intimidate her. “Everybody has an opinion on food, and everybody's mother is the best cook,” she says, “It's important to keep recipes as simple as possible to attract the new generation.”