When I first considered how appropriate would be to write a post about an episode of a TV show, I figured it would be out of place, as I usually write about Restaurants and their Chefs, markets, and a recipe once in a while. However, when I first saw (I’ve probably seen it a dozen times now) a No Reservations episode in which Anthony Bourdain visits Lebanon (for the second time, after his first visit was abruptly interrupted due to a military conflict), I felt a special connection. After all, Anthony Bourdain has been an inspiration, first through his books and now his TV show, to share my culinary experiences through this Blog. The words “I write, I travel, I eat” have become almost a lifestyle for me. On the other hand, the importance of food in the Lebanese culture, which I inherited from my Lebanese parents and enjoy every time I visit Lebanon (or a good Lebanese restaurant, for that matter), has influenced my taste and appreciation for the culinary world. After thinking about this, writing a post about Anthony’s visit to Lebanon is not only appropriate, it’s almost a pending duty, and a debt I needed to pay to him and to my Lebanese heritage.
The show starts with a short recap of 2006 visit, which was interrupted after Hezbollah militants captured a couple of Israeli soldiers; you probably know the rest of the story. Technically, if Anthony wanted to experience the real Lebanese culture, this has been part of the recent history of the country and a frequent episode for the Lebanese, for the last 35 years. But as a society, the Lebanese always get back on their feet as soon as possible, and life goes on. Anthony also describes how diverse the Lebanese population is, different religions, languages and cultures living together in such a small territory gives Lebanon a special character. The chic, the modern, the cosmopolitan, lives together with the traditions and a radically opposite culture of more conservative Muslims and, sadly, the Hezbollah.
One of the things I like the most about No Reservations is that they always go together with a local, an insider who knows where to go and what to do. The first visit starts with Joe Kodeih, a play writer and director who accompanies Anthony (or the other way around) to Le Chef, one of the a very casual restaurants in Beirut that serves traditional home-style Lebanese dishes. After a drink of Arak, a classic start for any meal, a parade of dishes start to pass through the table; baked lamb kibbe, Hummus with pine nuts and ground beef, babaghanush. All this while Joe tells Anthony what has happened during the four years since his last visit. Then Anthony joins journalist Ramsay Short, and talk about everything Lebanese sitting in front of the beach, drinking a couple of Almazas, the “national” beer of Lebanon. This is a very common scene that needs to be experienced in any visit to the country. The stories about Lebanon’s rebirth continue while they stroll around Souk el Tayeb (means something like “Market of the Tasty”), a weekly market created by Kamal Mouzawak where farmers and traditional cooks meet every Saturday to offer their products. Anthony and the crew simply do what needs to be done in markets: walk around and taste everything! I was impressed by the variety of breads, which are great with chesses or Labne. If that wasn’t enough, they then go to a restaurant organized also by Souk el Tayeb, where home cooks serve traditional meals that include the almost extinct chopped raw liver, with raw beef and fat; which are eaten for breakfast or brunch with pita bread and spices like cinnamon and black pepper. It’s not a surprise that this dish is not very popular among younger generations anymore, but believe me, I’ve tried it and it’s way better than it sounds.
One of the cuisines that have an important role in the TV show, and in Lebanese culture, is the Armenian, who have a big community in Lebanon and have influenced positively the country’s gastronomy. Actually, one of my favorite meals there is a place called Mano in the Bourj Hammoud area, that serves the best Bastorma and Sojuk Shawarma. In the show, Anthony goes to a place called Onno, a small unpretentious Armenian restaurant that looks just exquisite and that is already in my “must eat” list for my next visit. At Onno, they were served Borgul stew, baked lentil kibbe, hummus, pastries filled with meat, fried kibbe, pigeons, bone marrow and liver (this time cooked). Everything looks just fantastic! Then, like many trips in the show, there is the bar scene followed by a late-night snack. In Gemayze, the heart of Beirut’s nightlife, full of bars and restaurants, they stop at Frank Wurst for “meat in tubular shape”, better known as hot dogs. However, the real deal for Lebanese is to have Shawarma or Falafel as a snack either before or after the party. The best place for Falafel is Sahyoun, a place (or should I say a couple of places?) that according to locals, serves the best Falafel in the city, and they are probably right, believe me…
The show continues with a visit to Baalbek and a stop to eat the famous Sfiha, baked pastries filled with spiced lamb and fat, very popular in the Bekka region, where most wineries are located. Of course, a stop in one of these wineries and a drink of Arak is a must. The trip and the show end like any visit to Lebanon should end, with a big meal with friends and family, sharing a number of dishes in a casual atmosphere. The Lebanese culture is about sharing a table with a lot of food, with no time constraints and enjoying the pleasure that this small but rich land has to offer. I believe that this episode portrays accurately the protagonist role that food has within the Lebanese culture, and the importance of fresh and good ingredients. I am glad that this is promoted positively, because Lebanon and the Lebanese have gone through very hard times but are successfully thriving thanks to their determination and love for their traditions. I am already looping forward to my next trip to Lebanon!