The food. Oh, Holy Mother of God, do Lebanese make the best food, that takes the longest time to prepare, the greatest care to decorate, and the most hours in the gym to shed after it settles to round those curves on our belly dancing-designed bodies. That goes for males and females. I love it when Lebanese men are not embarrassed to dance and sway to Arabic tunes, thinking they look quite masculine when they really don’t. I miss Dabkeh dancing, the Sardana or Syrtos of the Middle East, with bodies kept straight, hands clasped together and drums beating at a deafening pitch.
Green almonds in the Spring, crunchy and dipped in salt, the fuzz tickling the palate, washed down with chilled Almaza beer. I miss being invited to the South, where the Shia’ families make the best frakeh, a dish of meat beaten on a stone, mixed with spiced wheat, a feast if eaten especially at the Sabbah family home in Nabatieh. I miss Kibbeh, meat with cracked wheat and spices, made the traditional way in the stone mortar in Ehden near the water sources, Kibbeh eaten raw with fresh mint and olive oil with a swig of very strong icy Arak (aniseed grappa) with every bite. I miss green fava beans and peas in the spring, also with the mandatory beer, and green salty chickpea bunches in the summer, sold by sweaty kids on the sides of the roads in the villages of the North. I miss fresh green wild oregano picked by red-faced village women and sold by the apron-full, to be served with olive oil, lemon and chopped onions.
The best meals we had in the Bekaa valley were in Zahleh, where the Narjilahs’ deafening bubbles mixed with the rushing water of the river berdaouni and where some of the best Lebanese mezzes in the world are served. Going to the wineries in the Bekaa to taste the full-bodied red wines in the Chateau de Kefraya after a long hot day walking in the ruins of Baalbeck, the Roman city of the sun, where grapes and poppies are etched on the ancient columns telling tales of delirious worship practices. In Baalbeck, staying in ancient Hotel Palmyra opposite the ruins and waking up to a cacophony of church bells and mosque calls to prayers to sit at a breakfast table in the old garden with ample servings of Ambreez (sour hard yogurt), thyme pies, kishk (dried mix of yogurt and milled wheat), and eggs fried in olive oil. Lunch in Baalbeck is the mandatory delicious sfiha-their famous and unequaled meat pies, made with love and care by someone’s mother in the city, and served with chilled goat’s yogurt. Going further North, Tripoli offers its own thin version of the meat pies, and the Arabic sweets in varieties, colors and shapes that are a feast to the eye before making their way to the hips. Where I come from is the Koura plain where olive trees, old oaks and ancient churches mix. We claim to have the best olive oil in the country, and olives of every shape and color dot our tables at the beginning and end of every meal. Stuffed grape leaves, cooked beans, fresh snow with molasses are some of the dishes of my childhood that I never have except when I go back.
I also miss the sweet smell of incense burnt in our churches, always reminding me of home. I remember kneeling in front of the priest with other children to hear him read the passage of the bible he had chosen for the day, but in reality waiting to be given the holy bread dipped in sweet wine that was our prize for good behavior during the long Greek Orthodox mass.
Food is a feature of a nation that can supposedly be reproduced. Only it isn’t the same even if you get the right ingredients. You have to be back with your friends, to engage in good natured gossip, and talk about which politician is hated most on that day over beer and fresh round sweet cucumbers called me’teh. You can’t do that in Geneva or New York. Not quite.