Written by William Dobson
Kamal Mouzawak is a Lebanese food visionary. In a country which has, so often, been torn apart through sectarian divide, he is passionate about bringing the nation together and sees food as the perfect platform to achieve this goal. While in the West, farmers’ markets may be ‘in vogue’, Kamal was the first person to introduce such a concept to Lebanon when he launched Souk el-Tayeb in 2004, just before the 30th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Mostly organic, it gives small producers from the most remote villages the chance to sell their wares and gives them the opportunity to grow into sustainable businesses. Simultaneously, it is also helping to preserve the food culture of this beguiling country. Since then, he has also set up Tawlet, a kitchen cooperative serving buffet-style food, with a different regional cuisine showcased each day, as well as a host of other worthwhile projects. His tireless strive to unite the people of Lebanon has seen him be given numerous awards, including been named an Ashoka Arab World Fellow, an Arab World Social Innovator by Synergos and, more recently, he was one of the speakers at this year’s TEDxObserver conference. Here, he speaks to us about his passion for Lebanese food, his many different projects and what the future holds for Lebanon and its cuisine.
SUGAR STREET REVIEW: What does Lebanese food mean to you?
KAMAL MOUZAWAK: Authentic, traditional food, Lebanese or not, is the best expression of a land, a climate, people, their history and traditions. Lebanese food is as diverse and colorful as the geography (coastal plains, mountains, and inland), the climate, the agriculture and the food production. It is an expression too of the varied origins and religions of the people.
SSR: You famously said ‘food is the greatest expression of our traditions.’ Please can you elaborate on this.
KM: Tradition is not a book one reads. It is expressed in many ways – costume, dance, architecture, music … all of these forms are lost or diluted, but not food! It is what people carry with them the longest and the furthest. Only 5 million Lebanese live in Lebanon but over 15 million live around the world, who did not take with them their langage or costume, but their kebbeh and tabouleh. The same goes for the Italian pizza and pasta, Japanese sushi and noodles…
SSR: What inspired you to start Souk El Tayeb and Tawlet?
KM: I wanted to support small scale farmers and producers and to look for a common ground between people who used, for years and centuries, to fight because of their differences, rather than looking at their similarities. The sure thing that we share is the land, and so the product of the land, the agriculture, and what we do of it in terms of cuisine and food production.
SSR:What do you feel you have achieved thus far with the project?
KM: Ghandi said “be the change you want to see.” I always repeat this in my head.
SSR:And what do you want to achieve in the future?
KM: All souk el tayeb’s projects have been an “organic evolution” … go on, face situations, and look for solutions for every problem. Not much about planning five or 10 years goals, but following the stream and trying to make the best of it. From a farmers market in 2004, Souk El Tayeb evolved to regional food activities (2007), a farmers shop, educational activities and Tawlet, the farmers kitchen in 2009, and the newborn (May 2012) of Tawlet Ammiq in the bekaa.
SSR: What can you tell us about this new project, Tawlet Ammiq?
KM: It will be an eco-restaurant … modern “green” architecture, facing a breathtaking view, filled with furniture and objects from recycled materials … and men and women of Ammiq and the region, serving us the best of their land and their kitchen. Tawlet Ammiq will serve typical dishes and products of Ammiq and the region – in buffet lunches on weekends, a la carte service on week days, as well as a collection of all winemakers of the Bekaa (and Lebanon), and a collection of araks …
SSR:Do you see food as a potentially uniting force in Lebanon?
KM: I do … there is a very distinct regional cuisine in Lebanon, but few religious differences in terms of food (aside from pork and alcohol consumption for some). Christians and Muslims from the same city or region would eat the same and, indeed, would even use the same dishes or desserts for their respective feasts … hrisseh (wheat and meat porridge) is served for the Shi’ite’s Ashoura and for the Christian’s Virgin Mary Feast. Same for ma’amoul (semolina pastries filled with dates, walnuts or pistachio). But a Christian from Tripoli (north coast) and another from the northern mountains of Becharreh have very different cuisine and culinary traditions … it is about the land, the geography and the traditions.
SSR:You’ve been described as a ‘culinary activist.’ Is this something you’d agree with?
KM: I love the word activist – it means active, productive and I definitely think that this is what we should be doing … what is our contribution to life ? From birth to death, what do we bring to this world ? I quite like this title …
SSR:What impact has the Civil War and general unrest in the country had on the food culture of Lebanon?
KM: When priorities are rather to get killed or not by a bomb or a sniper, everything gets diluted after that. So why save a heritage, a tradition, an old building, nature … or an old recipe or quality products ? In survival mode, one just does the bare minimum to survive.
SSR:There’s clearly been an a surge of popularity with regards to international food in Beirut. Certainly in the three years between my last two visits I noticed a huge number of sushi joints had opened up. Is there a danger that people are going to lose touch with the traditional food?
KM: They have already lost a lot … but from the other side too, there has been a “born-again” interest in Lebanese food and traditions and you see many new restaurants celebrating “Lebanese with a twist.”