I grew up eating, then cooking, Lebanese food made from my grandmother’s recipes. I have never been to Lebanon, probably will never go to Lebanon now, and still, if you ask me what my heritage is, I will tell you I am Lebanese. If you are what you eat, that’s what I am. That is the power of food.
I cherish the worn, food-stained cookbook that the ladies at my grandmothers Syrian Orthodox church produced in the 1960s – half (the American half) the most god-awful jello salads and condensed soup casseroles you can imagine and the other half sublime Lebanese food. Flaky spinach sfeehas. Cinnamon-scented stuffed koosa. Baked kibbe (and kibbe nayeh) – I can still see the huge metal meat grinder cranking out spaghetti strands of raw ground lamb to be hand mixed with borgul wheat and onion. Lemony hummus and smoky baba ganouj. Mujudra topped with crispy fried onions. I loved it all then and I love it now.
The power of food, indeed. Food ties us to our cultural and ethnic identities like nothing else. Being in Arabic countries this week, breathing the air, eating the food, even riding the damned camels, has felt like coming home. It isn’t Lebanon, but it brings me close.
Several nights ago we did the tourist thing. Drove out into the desert and climbed huge dunes, heard echoes of Ozymandias in my head as I gazed at vast expanses of windswept sand. I can see why the desert holds sway over people the way the sea does over me. It has the same humbling, holy effect.
I held falcons with thick gloves to blunt their talons.
Rode camels, trotted out to give the visitors a thrill that turned out to be remarkably thrilling. I even belly-danced (I know, I know, but at least I was fully clothed.)
It was all super fun, but the funnest part was dinner grilled under the stars, eaten in a tent by candlelight.
The aromas, the smoke, the flavors, the whole experience felt like a barely remembered dream.
Maybe there is something to genetic memory after all. Or maybe there is just something to having an overactive imagination. I don’t care. I loved it all (except the camel stew.)
The next night we found Al Nooforah, a Lebanese restaurant at the ground floor of the Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai. It was terrific. Probably a little upscale for most of my ancestors, but really outstanding.
We ordered fresh bread, pickles and minty labne and hummus with lamb, fragrant eggplant and potato stew, refreshing tabouleh (really good but not as good as Jerry’s!)
Grilled haloumi with lemon, lentils and rice with fried onions.
An old favorite, spicy muhummara, and a new one, chard with fried onions.
A plate full of honey saturated sweets and thick bitter coffee. It was heaven.
We boarded our ship on Tuesday and for the most part it serves pretty standard though great quality continental-type food with a sushi bar and a Thomas Keller grill thrown in. Today is a sea day though and we are having an Arabian Market dinner in one of the dining rooms. I have moderately high hopes.
In the meantime, I am planning lunches like a woman obsessed. I have a horrible cold that kept me from touring Abu Dhabi yesterday, but it didn’t keep me from Byblos Sur Mer. Honestly, it was maybe one of the best Lebanese meals I have had, and I was tasting impaired with a stuffy nose.
A lot of the standards but also a few fabulous surprises — grilled baby squid on braised chicory with a tangle of fried onions, labne filled with olives and sundried tomatoes, stuffed grape leaves with pomegranate seeds scattered over them like jewels, truly stupendous moutabal, fried potatoes with chiles, cilantro and lemon, and a rose -cented baklava and halava ice cream desert.
Tomorrow we stop in Muscat and after a morning tour I have booked lunch at Bait al Luban, an Omani restaurant. Omani cuisine looks different from the the food of the Levant I have been obsessed with. More Indian influence, curries and pakoras and something called “eggplant cloud” that has my name on it. I am excited to see what it’s like. If I can haul myself out of this sick bed to try it, I will report back.