I first met Sawsan at Souk el Tayeb’s Saturday morning market in Beirut Souks. She and her husband Riyadhh pulled me into to their market table with a gorgeous display of homemade mouneh - traditionally preserved pickles, jams, cheeses and yogurt. Then they offered samples of baked and fried sweets. The lure of sweets will always pull me in.
“Mouneh is not only the tradition of making food but a way of life.”
In her book Day of Honey, my friend Annia Ciezaldo describes the importance of mouneh as Lebanese culinary art to store fresh fruits and veggies from the garden and wilderness that can survive the winter and hard times. The word mouneh not only refers to the tradition of making the food, she explains, but encompasses an entire way of life in which families and communities gather to jar these foods over coffee, tea, and village gossip. It’s a medium to exchange tales of life and love. In the end, each family can leave with batches of jams, lebneh, pickles and more that the collective hands of their community created.
Visually dazzled at her variety of lebneh packed in olive oil, I spent time taking it all in. Since arriving in Lebanon, this particular preparation of lebneh has quickly become my new favorite addition to salads and sauteed greens when cooking for myself. Some were coated with za’atar or black seeds or sumac. Some were rolled into small marbles and others into lemon shaped balls like kebbeh.
I finally burst out in excitement in my broken Egyptian Arabic - “Ana aiza an amal kidda!” (I want to make this). She giggled. My particular command of Arabic I’ve learned is quite charming to the locals and a currency unto itself.
“Yella, Ta’ali,” Sawsan smiled, inviting me to join her the following Thursday. She offered me a hug and more sweets as we parted ways.
Thursday morning I set out with my driver from Beirut to Aley, Sawsan’s village in the mountains about a half hour outside of the city. Her husband Riyadhh came to fetch me in his rugged Land Rover when the roads became too complicated.
She hugged me when we arrived and first things first, before we got into rolling the lebneh, she asked, if was I hungry. Did I want coffee? Grapeleaves? Yes please, I smiled.
Sawsan and Riyadhh did not speak much English. Throughout the day we would communicate in basic heartfelt basic expressions of Egyptian and Lebanese Arabic dialects, smiles, and offerings of food.
“This process of drying the lebneh allowed it to be solid enough to weather all seasons of the year and war if need be…”
As Sawsan prepared coffee, I noticed she already visually laid out the process of rolling out the lebneh into mouneh. In wide baskets lined with muslin, some lebneh was separated into thick chunks for the first stage, drying for about one day. In phase two the lebneh was rolled into balls drying still another day.
This allowed the lebneh to be solid enough to keep its form in the olive oil and evolve into the hardy mouneh that can weather all seasons of the year, and war if need be. The Lebanese I’ve learned are always prepared. Always have a Plan B in case comforts of state and home evaporate into madness.
She showed me her collection of mouneh, including freshly prepared apricot jam that she’ll only prepare once per year when the the fruit is in season, and preserved hard cheese decoratively preserved in in olive oil with hot peppers and rosemary.
After coffee we got into rolling the lebneh into little balls and stuffing green oilves with lebneh. The practice preparing of mouneh, like rolling grapeleaves, or any of those small delicately prepared fare, can be intensely meditative. Or the perfect vehicle for storytelling.
We chatted about our families and nieces and grandsons. I told them about my past lives. An idealist working on the Iraq War. My days as some man’s wife. A drunkard, I told them. A ne’er-do-well I picked up in college. I escaped kid free. We high fived. Freedom is sweet and delivered me here I smiled.
Sawsan and Riyadhh’s son Anwar came home from his shift of duty in the army as we wrapped up making mouneh. It was finally time to kick back into family time.
As Sawsan prepared Yerbe Matte, a popular South American drink that caught on in the mountains, Anwar changed out of uniform. He gave me the tour of the balconies with dozens of chirping little birds and bundles of thyme drying for to prepare their family’s own special blend of za’atar.
We relaxed over more of Sawsan’s mouneh: pickled asparagus and olives and leaves of wild sido mido harvested from the backyard stuffed with rice, and saj with fresh jam and hard cheese.
The rest of the family rolled in. Nabil, Sawsan and Riyadh’s youngest son, with his wife Nour and two young boys join over the late afternoon snacks.
“When we discovered we both had the same last name. They decided I was family and couldn;t leave.”
They served beer Mexican style, pouring locally brewed Maza beer over a freshly squeezed lemon juice and sea salt rim on the glass.
The family insisted on feeding me by hand. “Dahlia, open your mouth!” they would order with glee. I would oblige. They would squeal in delight as they fed me olives and simple saj sandwiches.
When we discovered both of us share the last name Shaaban, well, it was a done deal. They decided I was family and I couldn’t leave.
They insisted I join them for an evening barbeque and bonfire in the mountains and spend the night. We’ll have meat and cheers, slang for libations of arak poured over ice..
I was grateful for the hospitality and the offer and explained I needed to get back to Beirut for the Souk al Akl market that evening. My hosts at Souk el Tayeb expected me to be there. This conversation would continue for the next 2 hours.
It was 6 in the evening and time for me to head home. I wanted to take a group photo with the family before I called a cab.
Of course they agreed. And they had just the place for it. Just five minutes away on the way to where the cab would meet me. And it offered a scenic view of the Lebanese countryside.
We all squeezed into the Land Rover, three generations of the Lebanese Shaaban tribe and me, the satellite Egyptian-American member, and all their supplies for Thursday night grilling.
We pull up the mountainside and all funnel out. Immediately Anwar and his mom begin to set up the campfire and grilling pit. Snacks of chips and homemade hummus and lebneh and mouneh were laid out on a blanket. That group photo… not even on the radar. Hospitality, hoodwinked.
“Dahlia, sit!” They ordered. They poured me arak. “Cheers!”
“Open your mouth!” They fed me chips and hummus.
Sawsan and Nour assembled skewers of marinated meats and chicken and veggies and Anwar grilled.
When cup was empty and they poured more arak. “Cheers!”
“Dahlia! Open your mouth!” They fed me saj sandwiches of freshly grilled meat off the skewers and garlic sauce. I truly haven’t had shish tawouk so delicious. Charred and tender and juicy.
More arak was poured. “Dahlia…” Sawsan winked, “Cheers!”
I was getting full and the hour was getting late. And I had a night market, and more eating to get to. I couldn’t disappoint the folks in Beirut. At the very least I had to show up. I started asking about my cab.
They looked hurt. Ok… Another 15 minutes I agreed. They smiled.
They agreed to take a break from shish tawouk and cheers for a group photo before the son went down. Sawsan’s grandson Daniel was fascinated with my selfie stick tripod.
The feeding continued. “Dahlia OPEN YOUR MOUTH!!!” The meats and mouneh would not stop coming.
My stomach couldn’t handle anymore. I couldn’t breathe.
“CHEERS!!!” Sawsan. This cycle would continue for the next hour.
I finally negotiated getting a cab, with apologies and regrets. Anwar and Riyadhh drove me to meet my driver.
I did end up making it to Souk al Akl in downtown Beirut. And as the vendors I have met throughout the week insisted on offering their fare, I had to apologize. There was simply no more room in my belly.
Sawsan and her family got there first, and made sure of it. Tribal provisions perhaps.