Sunday, May 6, 2012

Kibbeh nayyeh in Beirut

Invigorating and exasperating, vibrant and serene, beautiful and dilapidated – Beirut is all things to all people. Though plagued by strife, it refuses to be beaten. It has emerged from a troubled past as a cosmopolitan crucible of cultures, and from its street life to its nightlife, Beirut’s impulses and passions are as raw as can be – just like the city’s favorite meat dish, kibbeh nayyeh.

Built on a promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean, Beirut is ever the show-off. But as difficult as it might be to imagine today’s vivacious capital playing second fiddle to a neighboring town, it was once deemed less important than the Phoenician trading ports of Sidon and Byblos. It wasn’t until the Romans began using Beirut as a military base and commercial hub that it really began to blossom. The ruins of Roman bathhouses can still be seen in the central area, today a buoyant shopping and entertainment district, which itself sprang out of a more recent set of ruins left behind by the devastating 15-year civil war.
Bullet-peppered buildings and army checkpoints serve as a reminder of the city’s struggles, but years of conflict and political instability have taught the people to seize life and live it with gusto. This natural energy and joie de vivre can be felt on any trip to Beirut, from the daily human tide that flows up and down its sweeping Corniche to the frenetic cafés and bars that line Gemmayze’s vivid Rue Gourard. Amble along Hamra Street, and the street food of sizzling shawarma grilled meats and falafel will be hard to resist. But leave room for lunch, which in Beirut is long, leisurely, and all about meze. Guaranteed to be among the array of dishes is kibbeh nayyeh, one of Lebanon’s most famous delicacies. It’s raw lamb, pulverized with cracked bulgur wheat and chopped onion until mousse-soft, often whipped into swirly shapes and served drizzled with olive oil and garnished with fresh mint. Its creamy texture and rich flavor goes perfectly with green olives, pickled chili peppers, and zesty tabbouleh (parsley and bulgur salad).

Like so many Levantine dishes, it may well have its roots in ancient Syria. Some villages, like Ehden in northern Lebanon – considered by some to be the capital of kibbeh nayyeh – have claimed it as their own.
But for centuries, wherever there were sheep and goats in Lebanon, kibbeh nayyeh would be pounded in stone mortars called jurns, the sound resonating through the village. The beauty of finding kibbeh nayyeh in Beirut lies in discovering regional variations – one recipe might have coarse bulgur, while another might use more olive oil. But as any master of kibbeh nayyeh preparation will tell you, the secret ultimately lies in the freshness, quality, and leanness of the meat.

With an almost diplike texture, creamy kibbeh nayyeh should be scooped up with Lebanese flatbread

The stunning new Mohammed al-Amin mosque is modeled on the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul

Beirut’s Farmers’ Market
Souk El Tayeb (, which meets every Saturday on a site near the Exhibition Center, is Lebanon’s first weekly farmers’ market; it brings together over 100 producers and artisans. Founded by Kamal Mouzawak, the souk showcases the seasonal produce of farmers from all over Lebanon, but it’s more than just a market. As well as aiming to preserve Lebanon’s natural heritage, it also seeks to promote coexistence, social interaction, and an environmentally friendly lifestyle. Tawlet ( is the organization’s cooperative kitchen, which offers the creations of a different regional cook each day. In addition, the team holds regular Food & Feast festivals across Lebanon, from the fruit-growing villages of Mount Lebanon to the herb-growers of the south.
Three Days in Beirut
Lebanon is small and geographically diverse, so it’s possible to swim in the morning, ski in the afternoon, and go clubbing in the city at night. With a few days to explore, you can revel in Beirut’s infectious energy, enjoy the resorts of Mount Lebanon, and recover at the beach clubs around the capital.
DAY ONE : After a morning stroll along the Corniche, have an espresso in a Hamra café among the students from the American University. Head east to the beautiful Mohammed al-Amin mosque on the site of the Green Line that divided Beirut during the civil war. Then check out the cafés and bars in the Christian neighborhoods of Achrefiyeh and Gemmayze.
DAY TWO : Drive or take a taxi to the Jeita Grotto to see the impressive stalactites and stalagmites in the subterranean caverns. Then head on to the slopes of Faraya Mzaar, where the après-ski culture is every bit as lively as the skiing.
DAY THREE : If the weather’s fine, kick back at one of Beirut’s beach clubs.
AUB Beach has a wonderful ambience, while the St. George Yacht Motor Club is where the beautiful people go to hang out.
From Rafic Hariri International Airport it’s just a 10-minute taxi ride downtown; if you dislike haggling, choose a marked, registered white cab.
Port View Hotel (inexpensive) in the Mar Mikhael area is within walking distance of the bars and restaurants of Gemmayze. www.portviewhotel.
Marble Tower (moderate) is a comfortable and recently renovated hotel in the lively Hamra district.
Le Gray (expensive) is a modern luxury hotel in the revamped Central district.
I Rue Banque du Liban, Hamra; +961 1 343 073

Best Places to Eat Kibbeh Nayyeh

Abdel Wahab

A bastion of tradition in one of Beirut’s most fashionable districts, Abdel Wahab is a sure bet for authentic kibbeh nayyeh in a charming setting. Occupying an attractive Ottoman house in a Monot side street, the dining area is an enclosed courtyard, which is suitably untainted by 21st-century trappings. The waiters are used to serving vast meze spreads, which they deliver with speed and efficiency.
From the olives and pickled vegetables to hummus and tabbouleh, the dishes begin arriving thick and fast. Abdel Wahab has a reputation for using only the best butchers, some of whom are from the famous meat markets of Sabra, so the kibbeh nayyeh here is one of the freshest in the city. Beautifully presented in pink swirls, it has a richness that will flood your palate with flavor, and a texture as smooth as paste. Those of a sterner constitution might enjoy sauda nayyeh, or raw lamb’s liver and fat cubes, served with little mounds of pepper and ground spices for dipping. Meze is all about contrasts, so have a mix of hot and cold dishes, from barbecued chicken livers to stuffed vine leaves. When a long meze lunch in the mountains is just out of reach, Abdel Wahab is the next best thing.
El Inglizi Street, Monot, Achrefiyeh, Beirut; open noon–midnight daily; +961 1 200 550/1
Also in Beirut
You’ll find a refreshingly contemporary take on Lebanese cuisine in Babel (+961 70 425 777; moderate), a breathtaking new restaurant on the Dbayeh Highway on the outskirts of town.
The cavernous dining room is high and wide, built of huge blocks of sandstone. It’s like dining at a palace in ancient Baalbek, but the kibbeh nayyeh has a thoroughly modern twist – served in individual, bite-size portions, rolled and dotted with black sesame seeds like sushi.
Also in Lebanon
Twenty minutes’ drive from Beirut is the mountain retreat of Brummana, where Kasr Fakhreddine (; expensive) has sweeping valley views of the Chouf Mountains and great kibbeh nayyeh.
For a distinctly northern Lebanese version of the dish, Le Mortier (+961 3870 507; inexpensive) in the town of Ehden near Tripoli has a beautiful setting and kibbeh in all of its wondrous forms, both raw and cooked.
Around the World
There are more people of Lebanese extraction living outside Lebanon than within. Brazil has one of the largest migrant communities, and São Paulo’s Almanara (www.almanara.; inexpensive) has been preparing and serving authentic meze, including kibbeh nayyeh, since the 1950s.

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