Its always disconcerting when you get off the airplane to be greeted by airport security asking your name. I'd just arrived in Beirut for the first time and was slightly concerned my trip was going to be spent in a jail cell when I realised my hotel had arranged for a personal escort to arrivals. Wondering which Hollywood celebrity I'd been mistaken for I enjoyed the moment as the immigration queue parted like the Red Sea and an incredible trip began...

To the uninitiated (or in fact those initiated by CNN) you'd be forgiven for thinking that Beirut was a rather troubled city, though anyone who reads the likes of Tatler and GQ will know it as an emerging force in the world of all things epicurean. Inspired by a love of Lebanese food I decided a 4 day trip was in order to carry out a gustatory reconnaissance mission and the starting point was traditional cuisine.

For an authentic insight into a country's cuisine a great place to start is the local farmer's market and the Souk el Tayeb in Beirut doesn't disappoint. I was fortunate enough to meet the organiser of the market Kamal Mouzawak and quickly realised that this market goes way beyond a simple amalgam of local produce. For Kamal the market is practically a socio-political statement that people from myriad different religious, political and idealistic backgrounds can be united through a common love of all things edible. Each week all sorts of lively characters travel from the four small corners of Lebanon to sell their wares and the sense of community around the stalls as old friends ran into each other was tangible. But let's talk food...

Lebanon has been a cultural melting pot for a long time owing in no small part to occupation by the Ottoman Turks and then later the French. Enlisting the help of Chef Malek from the prestigious Phoenicia hotel (it's amazing what doors ASW can open) my Lebanese food vocabulary (if not my pronunciation) quickly grew as we ploughed our way through the incredible mezze in the market. Battata Harra, Fatayer, Saj...you name it I ate it, such that by the time it came to cooking lunch I wasn't sure I could take much more. But in the name of ASW I did.

The thing I love about Lebanese people is the totally matter-of-fact way in which they explain to you that their cuisine is the best in the Middle East as if the point is not even up for discussion. Chef Malek is more accustomed to catering for the hundreds of people that walk through the doors of his restaurant Mosaic but he took time out to show me some of the basics.

This week we're going to cover a couple of simple dishes that many of you will be familiar with though not necessarily know how to make: Kibbeh and Fattoush. In my next installment of World Kitchen we're going to the opposite end of the scale as I check out one of Beirut's top chefs and we take an entirely modern look at local cusine. Yalla !

 
 

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