If It Feels Like Home, It Must Be Tawlet Saida
I still vividly remember my first encounter with Tawlet. It was 2011, and I’d been in Lebanon for nearly a month when my friend Sarah K., who at the time was working with now-defunct group-buying site GoNabit, told me about an amazing deal on the site. “Women from the community are brought in to cook traditional dishes from their villages, and this way, you're treated to the real tastes of Lebanese rural cuisine.”
Interesting, I thought to myself. It was true inasmuch that any run-of-the-mill Lebanese restaurant won’t serve you typical home-cooking; the food spread is unequivocally mezza and mashewe (grills). But here was a restaurant that was employing homemakers to both showcase their unique dishes and, in so doing, preserve the authenticity of their respective regions.
I nabbed a pair of vouchers, and Dad and I went to the Mar Mikhael eatery. We were mind-blown. The dining space is admittedly crowded, so you’re bound to rub elbows with your neighbors, purposefully promoting conversation and community. We tucked in to a small table by the window, and to our side was a woman visiting from India, totally swooning over the food. In fact, all around us, we noticed expats and embassy employees convivially chatting over rustic dishes – here were folks who wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to genuine Lebanese cooking.
That day, we had the rare honor of meeting Kamal Mouzawak, the founder and visionary beyond not only Tawlet, as we quickly learned, but Souk el Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmer’s market. We sipped on homemade Arak as Kamal described his noble endeavor, which was not merely enlightening foreigners as to our rich spread and history of food, but to provide productive channels through which rural villagers could put their culinary skills to the test and charm diners. In fact, it is they who hospitably serve you at the buffet lineup.
|The "producers" at Tawlet Saida|
Over the years, I came to be a tacit champion of Tawlet, and I don’t mean by simply dining there. But yes, we did grace the Mar Mikhael stronghold every time my parents were in town.
We even trekked up to Ammiq in the Bekaa to explore the Tawlet outlet there, a veritable bastion of eco-friendliness with its high environmental performance rating, a thermal envelope, naturally-assisted cooling, solar water heating, and 80% less energy consumption than a conventional construction.
In 2014, I authored a five-year anniversary commemorative to Tawlet on Beirut.com, praising its objective to set aside fractured communities’ differences—religious and otherwise—by uniting around a mutual respect for food, land, and agricultural traditions.
In 2016, the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development solicited my input on the work of Kamal as a Lebanese chef, food activist, and founder of Lebanon's organic food movement, Souk el Tayeb, and the associated producer's kitchen Tawlet. Kamal went on to be selected as a Prince Claus Laureate and was honored at a ceremony in Amsterdam.
Last Sunday, we came full circle on our visit to the latest of the Tawlet locations in Saida. Perched above the fisherman’s market just across from the port at the edge of the old souks, this space captures the essence of Kamal’s vision to staff exclusively locals, both producers and servers, and to gather people around dishes from the region.
|Tawlet is fully staffed by local artisans|
The lavish spread featured as mains chicken shawarma baked in the oven with herbed potato spears; “fattet lsenet,” or a dish layering fried pita chips, boiled chickpeas, cow’s tongue, and yogurt; “siyaddieh” with turmeric-tinged rice and grouper fish; and “fassolia,” or bean stew. Mezza revolved around tabbouleh, fattouch, hummus, fish tajen, rolled up “lahm baajin” or meat pies with tangy pomegranate molasses, and – my favorite – "jrisheh" flatbread boasting a trio of toppings: cheese and sesame seeds, zaatar, and bruschetta.
|Baked chicken shawarma with herbed potato spears|
|Can you stomach cow's tongue stew?|
|Broad beans stew, or "fassolia"|
|Lahm baajin meat pies wrapped into rolls|
Jrisheh, formed from cracked wheat and flavored with aniseed, is both supple and textured with seeds. If you like more complex breads, you’re going to love this!
|"Jrisheh" flatbread is soft and flavored with aniseed|
Dessert, too, was a lesson in the local sweet palate: a fluffy, light-as-air "sfouf," or sponge cake borrowing its yellow hue from turmeric; "maamoul madd," or semolina cookies sandwiching date paste or crushed pistachio; “az7a,” or nubs of carob molasses with black sesame seeds and zaatar; coconut macaroons; a goldenrod paste hybridizing sfouf and tahineh, or sesame seed oil; and a baked pan evocative of "knefeh" but far gooier and heart-warming.
|Local sweets, including "sfouf" sponge cake tinted with turmeric|
|"Azha" nibbles formed from carob molasses and black sesame seeds|
|Warm molten cheese, flour, semolina...this is knefeh's lighter cousin!|
There’s also a selection of seasonal fruit, like persimmon, apples, bananas, and pomegranate, but it’s hard to give them the time of day when you’re flanked by never-before-seen novelties!
We washed it all down with lemonade and coffee – note that this outlet of Tawlet does not serve Arak, in a nod to the customs of the local community. Manager Zaher and server Arouba doted on us in what I can only describe as local hospitality. Plates were changed and requests filled in a matter of seconds.
During our visit, Tawlet throbbed with life. We arrived around noon, before lunch service when you can order brunch items like scrambled eggs or foul mdammas à la carte. We watched the producers sway rhythmically around the kitchen, bringing to life a feast of tastes and flavors for guests to gorge on. And we made small-talk with Zaher, who as it turns out has friends in common with my husband’s parents – the Lebanese “small world” connection.
On our way down from the dining space, we peeked into the Tawlet shop lined with "mouneh" (pantry) items and snatched up a bag of zaatar zahra, the sun-dried format before it has been ground into a fine powder. We browsed the ancient souks where shops and residences still sit proudly, and we bought tahineh.
Nothing like being a tourist in your own country. I’ve urged you before to discover Lebanon through the earnest eyes of a visitor, because all too often we get lost in the dust of quotidian life. Tawlet executes that charge to a T, reminding us of the beauty nestled among us and forcing us to abdicate our relentless, rapacious schedules, even if for only a few hours, and go home.
|Baby Stephen enjoyed "riz w laban," or vermicelli rice with plain yogurt|
Tawlet Saida opens Tuesday through Sunday from 10 AM to 4 PM. Breakfast is served until 1 PM. The Sunday lunch buffet is priced at LBP 50,000 (USD 33).
Saida Old Souks across from the port
+961 7 733 899
+961 81 707 240