Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Beirut's Souk el Tayeb

Saturday morning is Souk el Tayeb Day in Beirut. Souk el Tayeb refers to the Lebanese capital’s first farmers’ market, which I finally visited this week.

There’s no one better to show you around this open-air market than my friend Suha Farah, founder and owner of the IF Boutiques in Beirut and New York. Suha has been a regular at Souk el Tayeb since it launched six years ago. She knows everyone there and it’s where she shops whenever she is in Beirut.

Tayeb in Arabic means good -- as in taste and character. The Souk offers fresh, seasonal produce and goods from Lebanese farmers, artisans and producers. It’s a celebration of Lebanon’s culinary traditions and has been introducing organic and environmental awareness.

Kamal Mouzawak and Christine Cudsi founded Souk el Tayeb. Kamal is a gastronomy editor and author of a glossary of gourmet products and dishes published in “A Complete Insider’s Guide to Lebanon” (by Cherine Yazbeck and Carole Corm, Souk el Tayeb Editors, 2008).

The market has developed into an organization now working nationally and internationally to promote and preserve Lebanese foods and culinary traditions, rural heritage and a natural environment.

Souk el Tayeb Day is held at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center (BIEL) parking lot. BIEL was built in the heart of downtown Beirut on reclaimed land. It launched in November 2001 and covers 82,000 square meters of multifunctional areas where exhibition, concert and conference halls and restaurants are positioned on the waterfront.

Market manager Mira Makhlouta was on-site when I visited Souk el Tayeb last Saturday (November 13). She said the market is organized and run by an NGO cooperative that embraces Lebanon's regions, religions and sects.

The Abu Rabih stand with organic produce from Binine in Akkar
To qualify for a Souk el Tayeb spot, you have to be a local farmer, artisan or producer and your stock has to be homemade. The association’s goals go beyond the Saturday market. Among them is to:
- create a “platform” that brings together people of different regions and beliefs;
- support small-scale farmers and producers and introduce environment-friendly practices;
- encourage organic, eco-friendly produce and practices to improve the quality of food, life and health;
- contribute to local community development initiatives;
- raise alertness and promote the experience of green living through public awareness campaigns.

Organic peppers
Participants are charged $25 a table, Ms Makhlouta explained, and farmers and producers who sell organic goods have to be certified “organic” through two companies – namely, IMC and Liban Cert.

While walking around the Souk which opens from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., I saw tables from Bibnine in Akkar; Zawtar in the South; Baabda, Warhanieh, Joun, Ghedras, Debbiyeh, Zalka in Mount Lebanon; Hamra and Mousseitbeh in Beirut; and Wata Sfarta in the North.

Abu Brahim from Rachaya, Jebel el Sheikh
I also caught site of many individual cooks and producers such as Sona Tikidjian with Armenian Cuisine as well as Therese Sarkis, Wahd and Maysoun Nasreddine and Hadi El Solh. Abu Brahim (Hussein Abu Mansour), from Rachaya in Jebel el Sheikh, was in traditional Druze attire and was helped at his stand by his wife and daughters.

Youmna Jazzar Medlej
I was pleasantly surprised to see a table covered with books by my friend Joumana Medlej (aka @cedarseed on Twitter), the comic author, illustrator, graphic designer, writer, globetrotter, photographer, martial artist and blogger. I first noticed Joumana’s “Malaak, Angel of Peace” books and saw the whole table covered with her other publications as well as those she co-authors with her mother, Youmna Jazzar Medlej. I went over to the lady manning the stand to enquire further, as Joumana was on her way back from a trip to Japan, and was delighted to meet Youmna in person. And after much hugs and kisses, I was fortunate to be offered a “Malaak” coffee mug.

Making fresh saj manaeesh
While Suha was busy trying to fill her weekly basket, I was going round and round the marketplace, each time discovering something new to admire, taste or smell. There were green vegetables (some of them very unusual), tomatoes (too expensive now in Beirut), fresh aromatic herbs, pulses, pomegranate kibbeh, freshly squeezed carrot juice, a honey distiller, Lebanese pastries, fruits, olives, traditional pickled vegetables, labneh, manaeesh made on saj and much more. All the farmers are friendly and eager for you to taste their produce.

Everyone seemed to know everyone else at the Souk, whether customers or farmers. It is family friendly and children can wander around safely while their parents shop and chat to friends. Parking is easy and costs LL 3,000 ($2).

Homemade pickled cheese, labneh, cucumbers and vegetables
When Suha finished her shopping, it was all too soon time to leave and head to the beach. But I’ll be back next Saturday. Meantime, you can walk around Souk el Tayeb with me by clicking on the pictures here.