Kamal Mouzawak is an internationally known Lebanese food personality. I’ve been many times to his organic farmer’s market, Souk el-Tayeb, the first of its kind in the region (inhaling their fresh zaatar flatbread baked on a saj oven, the best in town). I have savored traditional rural dishes at his eponymous Tawlet restaurant, both in Beirut and in Ammiq (Bekaa Valley). I have gone on interesting day-trips organized by his dynamic crew in the four corners of the country, from the Litani river to the Ehden region up North, to be hosted by the many farmers that Kamal has sought over the years to support.
Kamal, a former Macrobiotic-trained chef and food writer, has been the first one to successfully promote and sell the concept of Lebanese Regional Cuisine; he garnered for twenty of his crew of (mostly) women chefs at his restaurant prestigious recognition in the form of an invitation to cook at the international MAD symposium in Copenhagen. Kamal’s vision- a viable business model based on showcasing regional Lebanese food while sustaining individual farmers did not stop at Lebanese folks. Kamal’s efforts these days have extended to reach the most defenseless ones in Lebanon today: Syrian refugees.
The influx of over one million Syrian refugees in tragic circumstances in Lebanon, a country of barely over four million, is not a small or even manageable problem. Here again, Kamal Mouzawak has risen to the occasion and demonstrated his profound humanity. In conjunction with the United Nations (UNDP) and a local NGO (Caritas), he has put together a program whereby interested refugees would be trained and taught the necessary skills in order to sell their specialties at the market, garnering a clientele and building a small catering business. This pilot program was set-up near Sidon.
When we walked-in, about a dozen women were scurrying about, intently preparing their selected dish, a specialty in their home town or community. The atmosphere was upbeat, warm and convivial. Most of these ladies had a quick smile, were engaging and seemed excited to be there. Kamal, after introducing me, quickly set things in motion, laying out the order of the day. Clearly, we were all there for a mission: Supporting these ladies in their attempt to perfect these dishes, provide constructive criticism to allow them to deliver the best possible product with the highest chance at marketability.
The traditional way of cutting Arabic (pita) bread is in small triangles. The bread is kept in plastic bags, lest it becomes dry.
Traditional kibbeh stuffed with meat, spices and pistachios, cheese turnovers, hearty lentil soups, chickpeas and veggie stews, were just some of the creations of the day. Kamal had planned the dishes to be laid-out within the hour and soon a large table was covered with an array of foods. His laptop open and a notepad nearby signaled that it was time to start noshing. Kamal and I took turns providing commentary with Kamal decisively encouraging or dismissing some of the dishes.
The day ended quickly and I left feeling hopeful, thoughts brimming in my head as to what I personally could contribute to help these wonderful women who had endured so much. As for Kamal, once again, he had won my undying admiration.