You know you’re in for an authentic meal when the chef hails from the village responsible for the recipes. And you know you’re in for an authentic cooking lesson when the teacher is feisty and not afraid to swat your hand.
Enter: Georgina Bayeh, a woman from northern Lebanon willing to share an evening (and a few jabs) with three Oregonians and friend from New York eager to learn the secrets of Lebanese cooking. Like a maestro, she set the tempo for the evening, coaxing notes from her students, leading a pitch-perfect performance. By the end of the night, we reveled in a feast of traditional kebbeh batata, moutabbal, goat-meat kebbeh, and tabbouleh and wore the smiles of proud chefs.
Ted especially. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At the recommendation of our hostess, Jodi, we’d been led to a beautiful spot: TawLet Souk el Tayeb – an open kitchen in Beirut serving meals, hosting cooking lessons taught by local village cooks and chefs, celebrating wholesome, authentic, traditional foods from surrounding regions. Though we found ourselves breathing hot city air in a taxi 6813.5 miles from home, we stepped out minutes later and entered an oasis of calm with cool light and colorful produce, and it felt like a fresh breeze had blown straight from foodie heaven in Southeast Portland.
“‘TawLet’ Souk el Tayeb is an open kitchen where every day a different producer/cook prepares typical food from his/her region. EACH day, a different cook, a different producer, a different meal, a different story!”
Fresh ingredients, aprons and caps awaited us. No sooner had we suited up than Georgina began to conduct her kitchen orchestra with a lovely accent and a sly smile.
First came the staccato pops of piercing eggplants, then the lingering low note as we laid fleshy purple fruits to rest over open blue flame.
The silver bowls flashed. Out came the salt and seven spice. And the goat meat.
“No,” she said, interrupting us as we tried gently kneading seasonings into the pink flesh.
She curled her fingers into a fist and punched hard, slamming the meat against the bottom of the bowl. There were no pretenses of proper kitchen etiquette. There was kebbeh to be made, and no need to be polite.
When the pounding ceased, the spreading began, this time in a new ring of metal. The rhythm carried on, steadfast and confident. The knife came out and the grooves were drawn. Ingredients submitted completely.
By the time the olive oil was settling into score lines and the pan tucked away in the oven, the kitchen was ready for a little reprieve.
No notes were provide, no cheat-sheet recipes to refer to later. Blank paper and pens were on the table, next to glasses of arak. The message: make yourself at home, learn what you wish, enjoy yourself.
I couldn’t resist the arak…or the note taking.
The kitchen tempo returned again to speed as Georgina issued orders and we began to prepare tabbouleh. Swirl the parsley in salt water. Mince the mint. Chop the tomatoes. No, more of a dice, rather.
As we turned to our knives and cutting boards, Georgina hovered over us, correcting as she could, doting as she liked. Turns out the male of the group was the chosen one of the evening. Ted rose above the rest of us as soloist, completely teacher’s pet.
In our defense: the student knives were a bit dull, and Ted stole the show with his cut-up act. He charmed the chef, zinging jokes and jabs back as fast as she could dole out instructions.
“Pure talent for mastering the humble tomato,” her smile said. The rest of us rolled our eyes and laughed, calling sing-song taunts out to Mr. Flair with the Kitchen Knife.
We mixed the perfectly chopped/diced tomatoes with the greens, added the lemon, salt, and seven spice to taste, and set the bowl aside. Rest notes in the kitchen.
On to the moutabbal, made from now-shriveled eggplants rescued from flame, peeled, and rinsed in cold water. We mashed them with salt and splashes of lemon juice, adding a generous pour of tahini and ending with a flourish of herbs.
Then out came the boiled potatoes, casually washed and tossed in water during an earlier prelude. We took turns milling the tender tubers into mush, adding onions, salt, mint, seven spice and parsley, and again beat the mixture into submission.
Kebbeh batata spread on a plate, scored, and soaked in olive oil.
In a crescendo, the goat-meat kebbeh came forth from the oven, hot and crisp, cut into wedges. The bowl of tabbouleh re-appeared, and the moutabbal slid in for the final note.
The camera shutters became the applause, and Georgina graciously took a bow.
Off came the hats and aprons. Out came the plates and bottles of 961.
Dinner well-earned, we ate until satisfied and capped off the meal with fresh cherries from a nearby village. Georgina gave me her email address; I’ll send her a link to this page and hope she gets a smile, knowing her pupils in the kitchen managed to learn a thing or two.
Like a live performance in a grand hall, we’ll never again hear the exact tune of that night, but I managed to record a few notes and can’t wait to try playing the sheet music at home…
If you ever happen to find yourself in Beirut, hungry for true flavors of Lebanon or itching get back in the kitchen, you now know the place:
“Beirut, sector 79, Naher Street #12 (Jisr el Hadid) Chalhoub building, #22 – ground floor.”
Monday to Friday – Producers Buffet from 1-4pm
Saturday – Souk Brunch from 12-4pm
Once monthly – Special guest chef, food writer, or foodie
Cooking Lessons Monday – Thursday, 4pm (by reservation only)
Children’s Lessons Fridays, 4pm (by reservation only)
Too, (I love this!) Tawlet is available for private functions/dinners and their “i cook” formula – where you’re the cook, and they’re there to help with shopping, preparing, and serving.
If you’re looking for something similar in Portland, Oregon – I’ve got two personal recommendations for you:
Fantastic hands-on classes and community meals shared with a similar ethos:
609 SE Ankeny, Portland, OR 97214
Delicious Lebanese food best eaten family-style:
8005 Southeast Stark Street, Portland, OR 97215
Monday through Saturday, 11am-9pm
Thanks to Georgina for a wonderful night, and thanks to Tawlet for setting a great example of celebrating local food in Beirut! As a note – this post is not sponsored – it’s 100% pure love. Tawlet is excellent. Abby’s Table is fantastic. And Ya Hala will undoubtedly see our faces with a week of our return home to Portland. In fact, it’s not too far from Portland International Airport.