A memoir and a recipe
I left Beirut with my two small children in tow in June of 1973 after three years in the growing turmoil of a city that would not admit to being at war. Three years earlier, the chaos of Lebanon had seemed supportable, a bit dangerous perhaps but only for those who got in its way. We had a bright and spacious flat by the manara, the lighthouse. On an evening early on, when I was enjoying an after-dinner coffee with the children’s father on our terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, I remarked on the fireworks I could hear exploding all over town. There had been elections that day in the Lebanese Parliament, and the winning party was celebrating. “How delightful,” I said.
“Those are not fire-works,” said my husband, who had experienced revolution as a child in Bolivia, “those are fire-arms. We will now go inside and close all the shutters.” Which we did.
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But life was not always so dramatic. There were long, sweet times, evenings with friends around tables laden with unimaginably delicious foods and wines, opulent receptions in high-ceilinged marble halls dating back to the Ottoman Empire, simple picnics in the mountains, treks to ancient ruins (“ah, it’s only Roman,” we said, tossing back pottery sherds picked up along a cobble beach), skiing the slopes at Faraya and the Cedars then lunching the same day al fresco at a seaside tavern, talking and listening, arguing, discoursing, everything from politics to art to history to idle gossip, and learning so much about a part of the world that was utterly unfamiliar to me at first but that I came to love with a passion.
Every other day I shopped in the Souk al-Franj, the historic fruit and flower markets of downtown Beirut. I’d carry salad greens home for lunch (fatttoush or tabbouli), then have provender for the next two days delivered to my door that afternoon in tall woven baskets that were emptied on the kitchen counters. The fish was almost live, so fresh, from the Mediterranean, the meats were local, mostly lamb and chicken, the flatbreads were often still warm, the wine came from historic French vineyards in the Bekaa valley, and the cheeses? Well, I didn’t pay much attention to the cheeses but the yogurt was tangy and thick. I often felt like the hostess of an unofficial club for visiting journalists, academics, politicians, never knowing quite how many might be at the table for lunch or dinner. Hospitality, I learned, is the key to Arab culture, no matter where you are. We lived in an abundance that was staggering at times, far from the refugee camps on the outskirts of town where second and third generations were living, stateless since 1948 and often in unrelieved poverty.
I did not leave Beirut with regrets, however. The children’s father had decamped to Asia months earlier, sent to run the Hongkong bureau of the news magazine that employed him. I stayed on in Beirut, hoping to finish preliminary work for a doctorate in ancient history at the American University (AUB), still incomplete to this day. But the Palestinians, in the refugee camps and outside, were stirring, skirmishes and street fighting increased, and by April of that year, the children’s schools had closed. I came home from the AUB library one lunchtime to find my seven-year-old leaning over the balcony of our flat: “Mummy,” she called down to me, “I don’t want to go back to school this afternoon.”
“That’s fine, dear,” I said, “but why?”
“Because the bus driver made us all get down on the floor of the bus so people wouldn’t shoot us.”
So okay, my darling, you don’t have to go back to school.
And she did not. From that moment on.
After that it got worse for a while. Together with two friends, I escaped to a house we had rented on the north coast of Cyprus and that was a lark, three mothers, seven children, and one de facto uncle, a friend who had broken his ankle and huddled in the garden like an ancient Brit, calling out for more wine, more tea, and please send someone down to Kyrenia to get today’s Herald Tribune. When we went back to Beirut it was calmer but very clearly not a place to live, as I had intended, as the sole resident parent of two very small children.
And so we left. We took a boat from Beirut to Venice, a cruise ship actually, with an Italian crew and a German passenger list except for ourselves and one other American family, missionaries to Africa on their way home. The Germans had costume balls every night, with paper costumes supplied by the cruise line. Overweight German men sweated in paper hula skirts with paper leis around their sloping shoulders, twitching as they danced to the music of the ship’s orchestra. But the Italians in the dining room were agreeable and, like all Italians, doted on the children. “Where are you going?” they asked. “To Teverina,” I said. “Ah, Teverina! Che bella!” But of course they were all from south of Naples and had no idea what I was talking about, a tiny hamlet in the hills between Tuscany and Umbria where we were headed for the summer.
After Beirut, the ship called at various ports where the passengers got off and squeezed into vans that took us to the local sights. And thus I was able to touch down on many places I had been studying intently, the Minoan ruins at Knossos on the island of Crete; Agamemnon’s kingdom, Mycenae rich in gold; and finally dazzling Dubrovnik sparkling on its hillside, a fitting prolegomena to Venice herself.
But I missed Beirut and I have missed it ever since. When people ask where, of all the places I’ve lived in the world, I most want to go back, I always answer, “To Beirut. In 1972.” To a world that has almost disappeared.
I can’t recreate that world in any way except in the kitchen, at the table, sharing with friends and family, even with strangers, as the Lebanese are so quick to do, practicing Arab hospitality as much as I can with Covid looming. At this time of the year, when the grapevines in my gardens, in Maine and in Tuscany, are flourishing with tender green leaves, I recreate Beirut with one of my favorite dishes from the mezze table, stuffed grape leaves (vine leaves for my UK friends).
These are not the stuffed grape leaves that you find in cheap deli counters, tipped from a can, limp and tasting metallic and acidic. These are what generations of Lebanese cooks have made, almost always in quantity (because why make just 20, when it’s almost as easy to make 60 or even 80 at once?), almost always as part of the mezze table. And not just Lebanese—stuffed grape leaves are ubiquitous in the Eastern Mediterranean, from the Balkans down through Greece, across into Turkey, then Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt. They even show up in Ukraine and Romania, although often as stuffed cabbage or chard leaves, and in that guise they go all the way up through Eastern Europe where, as stuffed cabbage holishkas, they are considered a specifically Jewish dish. And they go by many names, most of which get traced back to sarma, or yaprak, or dolmades in Greece. I suspect, given the breadth of its influence, that the Ottoman kitchen is the origin of all this, although I am opening myself up to stones hurled from many irate traditional-food defenders, all the way from Azerbaijan to Albania and back again.
But for me, waraq enab will always and forever be Lebanese, and especially from the mountain regions in the north where I learned to make stuffed grape leaves from two experts, the sisters Leila Maalouf and Youmna Ghoraieb. I met them when I went back to Beirut, some 25 years after leaving, with my Sara who was by then both old enough and young enough to remember the excitement of our last months there. I don’t recall how we met, but Leila and Youmna’s story was immediately compelling as they told of establishing a sort of home-grown company called Mymoune. (Moune is the Lebanese word for a storeroom or pantry where the staples are kept that will see the family through the winter, the pickles, jams, dried beans and grains, the jars of olive oil, plus the root vegetables and the fruits that keep people going through the lean months of the year.) Cut off as they were from the rest of the country, the villagers were facing hard times indeed until Youmna and Leila, whose roots were in the village, created a market for all those hand-made traditional products. You can find out more about them at their website: www.mymoune.com.
I’m writing now in mid-July when the grape vines in my Maine garden show promising little green clusters and it’s time for the leaves, so abundant this year, to be pruned back so sunlight can reach the burgeoning grapes. Then, as I do every year at this time, I settle in for a two-day session of making stuffed grape leaves.
Of course the process could all take place in one day, even in one intensely focused morning, but I like to take my time, mixing the stuffing (ground lamb or mutton and rice, plus aromatics and fresh herbs, onions, a little chopped tomato) and setting it aside to drain; harvesting the grape leaves (just the right size to fit the palm of my hand); cutting off the stems, rinsing the leaves and letting them dry. Next day, the supple leaves are softened in a colander, boiling water poured over them to change their color from a deep summer green to pale khaki and render them pliant enough to wrap around the filling. And then the most satisfying part: taking a spoonful of that by now well-drained filling, placing it at the bottom of the leaf where the stem begins and rolling it gently toward the tip.
Some might find this laborious but I find it, like so many kitchen tasks (shelling peas for instance, as I mentioned last week), restorative, meditative, a time to let memory carry me back to kitchens I’ve known, in the mountains of Lebanon (Ain el Qabou), in bustling modern cities like Beirut and Istanbul, in old-fashioned traditional towns like Aleppo, as it once was, and Nablus in the Occupied West Bank, wherever women gather in groups of two or three or more to tend to a seasonal task that’s laborious on the one hand and on the other provides a welcome moment for gossip, for relishing each other’s company, poking fun at men, sharing worries over children’s futures, as women have done in the kitchen for the last 10,000 years or so.
The Middle Eastern kitchen is a home kitchen, domesticated, tied to a specific locale, its agriculture and its products, and for that reason it’s mostly a women’s kitchen although men have always played a part as critics or as professional cooks, especially in the palaces of the ruling classes. But mostly it’s women’s hands, women’s tastes, women’s instincts for techniques and combinations that are at the heart of it all.
And that’s why it’s somewhat puzzling to see the immense expansion recently of this style of cuisine, its products and processes, into American (and to a certain extent European) restaurant kitchens that, these days at least, have such a huge impact on how Americans cook and eat. This is largely the influence of Israeli chefs (Yotam Ottolenghi is the numero uno) who have adopted Arab foods and foodways with gusto and brought them to their American clientele. Cookbooks and food writers follow suit, happily churning out recipes and instructions for za’atar, shawarma, fattoush and even raw-lamb kibbe nayeh. And for stuffed grape leaves too. At the same time, of course, once exotic ingredients have become easier to find, things like pomegranate syrup, cracked wheat bulgur or burghul and smoked-wheat freekeh, Turkish fermented red pepper flakes, and strained yogurt (often called Greek yogurt), all of which, if not exactly familiar, are no longer unobtainable in well-stocked American supermarkets.
So here, at last, is the recipe:
Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves
This should be enough for four but people get greedy around stuffed grape leaves so be prepared to lose them all in one fell swoop.
For 40 fresh, unsprayed grape leaves, you will need:
For the stuffing:
¾ cup rice (short-grain preferred, although long-grain can be used)
2 cups minced fresh green herbs, a combination of flat-leaf parsley, mint, and either dill or cilantro, not both
2 medium ripe tomatoes, seeded, juiced and diced (about 1 ½ cups)
1 medium yellow onion minced (about 1 cup)
¾ to 1 pound lean ground lamb or mixed lamb and beef
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon Turkish red pepper (aka Aleppo pepper)
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon pomegranate syrup (aka pomegranate molasses)
For the dish itself:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Either: 2 large tomatoes and 1 large yellow onion, sliced ¼ to ½-inch thick
Or: several extra grape leaves
Set the rice to soak in cool water for at least 20 minutes, while you chop, mince, and combine the other ingredients. After soaking, rinse the rice until the water comes out clear.
While the rice is soaking, combine the remaining stuffing ingredients in a bowl, kneading with your hands to mix well. Add the rinsed and drained rice and mix again to make a thorough amalgam. Now transfer the stuffing mix to a colander set over a bowl to drain while you prepare the grape leaves, but DO NOT DISCARD THE LIQUID THAT COMES OUT. You’ll use it later to cook the grape leaves.
Rinse the grape leaves in cool running water to get rid of any garden dust. Nip off any stems right where they meet the leaf itself. Then arrange the leaves in a colander in the kitchen sink. This works best if you do the grape leaves in two or three batches.
Bring a kettle of water to a boil and pour the boiling water all over the grape leaves in the colander. They will turn from bright green to a sort of muddy khaki color but that’s okay. This softens them just enough so you can manipulate them. Drain thoroughly and dry a little with paper towels—otherwise you’ll make a mess as you stuff them.
When the filling mixture is thoroughly drained, transfer it to a small bowl next to a working counter or a bread board. Take a grape leaf and spread it out on the board, shiny side down, rough underside facing up, with the point of the leaf facing away from you.
Take about a tablespoon of the filling, more or less depending on the size of the leaf, and squeeze it gently to get rid of any excess liquid. Set it on the base of the leaf, just above where the stem was.
Now fold the 2 bottom sections of the leaf over the little mound of filling, fold in the sides, and roll the filling in its leaf enclosure away from you toward the tip of the leaf. Your aim is to create a firm but not tight package, keeping in mind that the rice will swell somewhat as it cooks. Set the rolled leaf, top side down, aside and proceed with the next ones.
When all the leaves have been rolled and the filling used up, take a deep, heavy kettle (I use my old Creuset stew pot), add olive oil to the bottom and line the bottom completely with the tomato and onion slices. You may also line it with extra grape leaves. Either way, the point is to keep the grape rolls from sticking to the bottom. Now line the grape leaves up on top, always keeping the point of the leaf, the last section of the roll, tucked under. They should nestle right next to each other but not crowd, again keeping in mind that they will expand with the rice as they cook. You may need to do two or more layers but that’s okay
When you’ve settled all the grape leaves in the kettle, pour the juice that drained from the filling mixture over the whole thing. Add the juice of another lemon and top off with boiling water just to come about halfway up the tops of the topmost layers. They don’t need to be totally submerged. Set a plate upside down on the topmost layer to keep the leaves in their places. Set the kettle over medium-low heat and bring to a simmer. Simmer quietly for about 30 minutes. Don’t let it boil vigorously—use a flame tamer if you have one to keep the heat very gentle.
At the end of 30 minutes, they should be done. If you’re nervous, extract one and cut it open. Otherwise, just remove from the heat and let them sit in their liquid for 10 or 15 minutes, until you can easily remove them to a serving dish.
Serve them hot, or at room temp, or cold from the refrigerator. Dress them with Greek yogurt mixed with fresh chopped garlic, dill, or mint.
Lagniappe: I am thoroughly enjoying, with considerable nostalgia, a new book from a Lebanese friend, Barbara Abdeni Massaad. Forever Beirut, with Barbara’s gorgeous photos, is available from Interlink Books, Northampton, MA.
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