Tawlet: Beirut’s hidden gem serves up simple, seasonal treats

The restaurant all but shuns the staples of popular Lebanese cuisine, favoring instead the food of the home. (Photo supplied)
Updated 29 July 2018

Tawlet: Beirut’s hidden gem serves up simple, seasonal treats

  • There’s something wonderful about Tawlet, which means ‘table’ in Arabic
  • The restaurant all but shuns the staples of popular Lebanese cuisine, favoring instead the food of the home

BEIRUT: Set back from the main road in an unassuming corner of Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district is Tawlet, the farmers’ kitchen of Souk el Tayeb. If you didn’t know it was there you’d never spot it.

There’s something wonderful about Tawlet, which means ‘table’ in Arabic. Maybe it’s the constantly changing menu and the rotation of cooks, or the championing of small-scale producers and the celebration of culinary traditions. Whatever it is, Tawlet is a rarity.

The restaurant all but shuns the staples of popular Lebanese cuisine, favoring instead the food of the home. Its dishes are regional, seasonal, simple. There are stews and salads, pastries and desserts. All form part of Tawlet’s ever-evolving daily buffets.

The man behind Souk el Tayeb is Kamal Mouzawak, an eccentric, flamboyant, occasionally arrogant but consistently articulate social entrepreneur. He oversees an organization that was formed to host a simple farmers’ market back in 2004, but has since grown to include restaurants such as Tawlet Beirut and Tawlet Ammiq, and a handful of guesthouses that are sprinkled sparingly across the country.

Souk el Tayeb is built around what Mouzawak describes as the “idea of coexistence through sharing food and sharing tables.” As such, a different cook from a different area prepares food from their region at Tawlet every day. They are Muslims and Christians, Lebanese and Syrians, Palestinians and Armenians. As a social enterprise, it is almost beyond reproach, generating profit to support cooks and producers above all else.

The restaurant's bayd bil fokhara. (Photo supplied)

When we visit it is a Saturday afternoon in early June. The restaurant, situated at the far end of a short cul-de-sac, is all but full and there are two rooms, the smallest of which houses the buffet. The day’s menu is written on a large green board that stretches to the ceiling.

A long communal wooden table dominates the main dining area and there are plants and paintings adding splashes of color and contrast. At the far end of the room, behind a bar serving coffee and desserts, is a giant floor-to-ceiling shelving unit. Outside is the small terrace on which we sit, hidden from the sun by the shade from a carob tree.

The day’s chefs are Fadi and Nada, siblings from Dhour El Choueir, and it’s hard to know what to eat first. There’s hummus and tabbouleh, of course, and batata harra (spiced potatoes), plus an array of salads that burst with both color and aroma: freekeh with chard and mushrooms; courgettes with garlic; tomatoes with basil; grilled cauliflower and green beans.

Of the salads, it is the massaee’t batenjeen that I savor the most. A mouthwatering aubergine and tomato dish, it is made richer by the addition of onions, garlic, chickpeas and chilli pepper.

There’s bayd bil fokhara (eggs cooked in a clay dish) and lahme bi ajeen (spiced lamb flatbread). I also encounter kibbeh krass for the first time. It is plumper than the regular restaurant fare and filled with fat, finely chopped mint and onions. Mouzawak, who has been sitting inside throughout most of our meal, warns us not to eat the fat, only the meat, mint and onions, which have been additionally flavored with both sweet and black pepper. It is, like everything else on the menu, delightful.

The kibbeh nayeh. (Photo supplied) 

Much of the success of Tawlet, of course, is down to Mouzawak himself. A perfectionist, a quibbler, a purist, a pedant, he takes pride in detail and is genuinely committed to Lebanon’s food and the land.

“All that I do is out of love of life and respect for life,” he once told me. “If you have this, how are you going to celebrate it? If you love life, you love to eat. If you love to eat, you love food and you respect the ingredient. I’m not trying to create a fancy restaurant or wait for a Michelin star. It’s about celebrating life. It’s about celebrating our traditions.”

Next generation of biotech food heading for grocery stores

Updated 15 November 2018

Next generation of biotech food heading for grocery stores

  • Scientists even hope gene editing eventually could save species from being wiped out by devastating diseases like citrus greening
WASHINGTON: The next generation of biotech food is headed for the grocery aisles, and first up may be salad dressings or granola bars made with soybean oil genetically tweaked to be good for your heart.
By early next year, the first foods from plants or animals that had their DNA “edited” are expected to begin selling. It’s a different technology than today’s controversial “genetically modified” foods, more like faster breeding that promises to boost nutrition, spur crop growth, and make farm animals hardier and fruits and vegetables last longer.
The US National Academy of Sciences has declared gene editing one of the breakthroughs needed to improve food production so the world can feed billions more people amid a changing climate. Yet governments are wrestling with how to regulate this powerful new tool. And after years of confusion and rancor, will shoppers accept gene-edited foods or view them as GMOs in disguise?
“If the consumer sees the benefit, I think they’ll embrace the products and worry less about the technology,” said Dan Voytas, a University of Minnesota professor and chief science officer for Calyxt Inc., which edited soybeans to make the oil heart-healthy.
Researchers are pursuing more ambitious changes: Wheat with triple the usual fiber, or that’s low in gluten. Mushrooms that don’t brown, and better-producing tomatoes. Drought-tolerant corn, and rice that no longer absorbs soil pollution as it grows. Dairy cows that don’t need to undergo painful de-horning, and pigs immune to a dangerous virus that can sweep through herds.
Scientists even hope gene editing eventually could save species from being wiped out by devastating diseases like citrus greening, a so far unstoppable infection that’s destroying Florida’s famed oranges.
First they must find genes that could make a new generation of trees immune.
“If we can go in and edit the gene, change the DNA sequence ever so slightly by one or two letters, potentially we’d have a way to defeat this disease,” said Fred Gmitter, a geneticist at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, as he examined diseased trees in a grove near Fort Meade.
Farmers have long genetically manipulated crops and animals by selectively breeding to get offspring with certain traits. It’s time-consuming and can bring trade-offs. Modern tomatoes, for example, are larger than their pea-sized wild ancestor, but the generations of cross-breeding made them more fragile and altered their nutrients.
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that were mixed with another species’ DNA to introduce a specific trait — meaning they’re “transgenic.” Best known are corn and soybeans mixed with bacterial genes for built-in resistance to pests or weed killers.
Despite international scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to eat, some people remain wary and there is concern they could spur herbicide-resistant weeds.
Now gene-editing tools, with names like CRISPR and TALENs, promise to alter foods more precisely, and at less cost, without necessarily adding foreign DNA. Instead, they act like molecular scissors to alter the letters of an organism’s own genetic alphabet.
The technology can insert new DNA, but most products in development so far switch off a gene, according to University of Missouri professor Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes.
Those new Calyxt soybeans? Voytas’ team inactivated two genes so the beans produce oil with no heart-damaging trans fat and that shares the famed health profile of olive oil without its distinct taste.
The hornless calves? Most dairy Holsteins grow horns that are removed for the safety of farmers and other cows. Recombinetics Inc. swapped part of the gene that makes dairy cows grow horns with the DNA instructions from naturally hornless Angus beef cattle.
“Precision breeding,” is how animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis, explains it. “This isn’t going to replace traditional breeding,” but make it easier to add one more trait.
The Agriculture Department says extra rules aren’t needed for “plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding,” clearing the way for development of about two dozen gene-edited crops so far.
In contrast, the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 proposed tighter, drug-like restrictions on gene-edited animals. It promises guidance sometime next year on exactly how it will proceed.
Because of trade, international regulations are “the most important factor in whether genome editing technologies are commercialized,” USDA’s Paul Spencer told a meeting of agriculture economists.
Europe’s highest court ruled last summer that existing European curbs on the sale of transgenic GMOs should apply to gene-edited foods, too.
But at the World Trade Organization this month, the US joined 12 nations including Australia, Canada, Argentina and Brazil in urging other countries to adopt internationally consistent, science-based rules for gene-edited agriculture.
The biggest concern is what are called off-target edits, unintended changes to DNA that could affect a crop’s nutritional value or an animal’s health, said Jennifer Kuzma of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University.
Scientists are looking for any signs of problems. Take the hornless calves munching in a UC-Davis field. One is female and once it begins producing milk, Van Eenennaam will test how similar that milk’s fat and protein composition is to milk from unaltered cows.
“We’re kind of being overly cautious,” she said, noting that if eating beef from naturally hornless Angus cattle is fine, milk from edited Holsteins should be, too.
But to Kuzma, companies will have to be up-front about how these new foods were made and the evidence that they’re healthy. She wants regulators to decide case-by-case which changes are no big deal, and which might need more scrutiny.
“Most gene-edited plants and animals are probably going to be just fine to eat. But you’re only going to do yourself a disservice in the long run if you hide behind the terminology,” Kuzma said.
Uncertainty about regulatory and consumer reaction is creating some strange bedfellows. An industry-backed group of food makers and farmers asked university researchers and consumer advocates to help craft guidelines for “responsible use” of gene editing in the food supply.
“Clearly this coalition is in existence because of some of the battle scars from the GMO debates, there’s no question about that,” said Greg Jaffe of the food-safety watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, who agreed to join the Center for Food Integrity’s guidelines group. “There’s clearly going to be questions raised about this technology.”
Gene-editing can’t do everything, cautioned Calyxt’s Voytas. There are limitations to how much foods could be changed. Sure, scientists made wheat containing less gluten, but it’s unlikely to ever be totally gluten-free for people who can’t digest that protein, for example — or to make, say, allergy-free peanuts.
Nor is it clear how easily companies will be able to edit different kinds of food, key to their profit.
Despite her concerns about adequate regulation, Kuzma expects about 20 gene-edited crops to hit the US market over five years — and she notes that scientists also are exploring changes to crops, like cassava, that are important in the poorest countries.
“We think it’s going to really revolutionize the industry,” she said.