Shopping this week during a pandemic has been a little surreal for everyone and a little confronting for me and those like me that fled a war.
This article from The New York Times in 1982 outlines what my family experienced in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Food shortages that I thought my family would never see again having escaped to a first world peaceful country like Australia. But I walked through the supermarket this week and was met with aisles and aisles of empty shelves.
Many of the foods from my childhood were made from non-perishable items, almost everything came from a tin or packet. These are foods that to this day bring me the greatest comfort, foods that are still eaten commonly around Lebanese communities - not out of necessity but out of warm regard of their memory.
Many of the foods from my childhood were made from non-perishable items, almost everything came from a tin or packet.
My most beloved dish is a creamy béchamel pasta named nouilles (pronounced noy) - if you Google it - be sure to add the word “Lebanese” or you’ll never find anything resembling my childhood favourite. White sauce made on powdered milk with flour and oil, pasta, tinned meat if there was no shredded chicken, and canned cheese. Sometimes tinned mushrooms (champignons), corn or peas. Topped with more cheese and baked till the top was crisp and the inside gooey, it was a nutritious alternative to mac’n’cheese.
Our staples were of course traditional dishes filled with legumes and grains. Lima beans in red sauce, kidney beans on rice, and mjadra, a very simple peasant dish known across the Middle East containing only lentils, rice and onion. But that onion fried in a little oil till deliciously golden, added to a pot of softened lentils with a cup of rice made the best filling meal.
The importance of tomatoes in war time eating cannot be overlooked, full of antioxidants and vitamins they grow easily anywhere, on balconies or in gardens. Tomatoes are one of those foods where fresh isn’t always best, so when tomato season is over you turn to preserved tomatoes, passatas, pastes and tins. Meals like burghul w’banadoora, a perfect mix of cracked wheat with tinned tomatoes and a touch of cumin, eaten with some sliced onions and Lebanese bread.
Many Middle Eastern dairy products are white preserved cheeses which makes them perfect for pastries. Pastries are a staple in any Middle Eastern diet, little rounds of dough filled with delicious cheese like “baladi” (meaning country style), akkawi or majdoul, which are large halloumi like braids soaked in brine. If you didn’t have an oven, as most often we didn’t when we had to flee to the countryside during shelling - you used a traditional wood fired saj. It’s essentially a drum with a domed lid, like an upside down wok, to cook the pastry. A zaatar and olive oil manouche is one of the greatest comforts for any Middle Eastern expat wanting a little slice of home, or anyone yearning for their grandma’s kitchen.
Armed with very little food, flour, water, and one tiny saucepan all the Aunties, Tetas (grandmothers) and Mamas sat around telling stories and baking bread in the one tiny pan to feed the thirty or so people that gathered with us.
Once my extended family had to flee to the mountains above Beirut during a period of heavy conflict, but it has become a cherished memory for my family. Armed with very little food, flour, water, and one tiny saucepan all the Aunties, Tetas (grandmothers) and Mamas sat around telling stories and baking bread in the one tiny pan to feed the 30 or so people that gathered with us. The men went out and foraged, returning with a basket of pears from a discovered tree. Full bellies and sleeping like sardines created a joyful memory for those of us too young to understand what was happening.
You wouldn’t think pizza would be available in war time but surprisingly it was easily made and a huge hit. Flour, tomato paste, tinned ham, olives and onions. Covered in a local cheese like kashkaval, which is akin to a very aged cheddar and had a long shelf life, it melts and stretches like the best of pizza toppings.
When you head into a Middle Eastern supermarket next take a minute to look around and note the foods of my childhood: powdered milk, preserves and pickles like olives, cucumbers, eggplants and peppers.
These are the flavours of my childhood that I cherish now, tastes that bring me comfort, when I’m missing home I make a Lebanese bread roll with cream cheese from a glass jar with a cup of tea. I am happy to share the knowledge that even in times of fear and uncertainty you can eat well and enjoy the comfort and love in sharing food.
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