Jade George

The Local Tongue’s managing editor, Jade George, spends her waking hours bringing the best of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean culture to the forefront. While George’s most visible role might have been that of Middle East academy chair for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, her passion is in simple food and in celebrating the effort of the people in the entire supply chain. George is co-founder of The Carton which started off as a food culture magazine based in her native city of Beirut – boldly dedicating entire issues to tahini or shawarma – and expanded to bringing this food culture to life in physical spaces in Lebanon and Greece. Lebanon is undergoing one of the toughest economic and political incidents of its entire history, including a currency devaluation, a revolution against governmental corruption and a tragic blast that took place on August 4 [2020] said to be the third largest explosion in human history. But the stories of the people of this country are ones worth telling and their generosity of spirit is worth celebrating.

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An Introduction To Beirut Through Its People

It’s ironic coming from a seven-year academy chair for The World’s 50 Best to say that their city does not really have a fine-dining scene isn’t it? But everything about Beirut is ironic. When eating in Beirut, the less fancy the better. It’s all about the small, independent restaurants. Those with a consistent effort and the longest breath. The places run by young fellows who aren’t scared to take risks, the little holes-in-the-wall that have been there for generations and maintain a certain level of quality, day in and day out. Those are the places I like to talk about.

“We Love Our City Like A Mother Loves Her Child”

I don’t like saying what I’m about to say as it can easily be misunderstood. There’s no excuse for breaking people nor is there glory in rising up from exploitation. But some side effects are simply true about the Lebanese people and it’s alright to say them sometimes: Where there’s brokenness there’s art in the very act of living. Creative expression is very tangible in Beirut. We place huge importance on having a good time; on friendships; drinking and dining together; and on music. We take things with a great sense of humour. We love our city like a mother loves her child. This may be our only certainty. Monday night in Beirut feels like another Saturday night – there are no rules. Our parents’ generation lived the Civil War and saw the city get destroyed over the course of 15 years. I don’t like to compare tragedies, but the blast of August 4 [2020] had us witness the destruction of our city in a span of a second. Literally, you closed your eyes, and if you were lucky enough to open them, it was to the sight of your world completely gone. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, spots you’ve built all your memories around ceased to exist. Something just died, in a way. We’re still trying to understand what that something was, and we find ourselves holding on to anything that remains.

Lebanese Breakfast Culture

You need a big breakfast to start a day in this mad city. A bakery is called “furn” in Lebanon whether it’s where you buy flatbread or manaeesh (plural of manousheh). Manousheh is the quintessential Lebanese breakfast on the go. It’s our version of a savoury pastry. Toppings are endless and include akkawi (white brine cheese named after the city of Akka); a spinach and onion mix; a meat mix with tomatoes and onions; and keshek which is a fermented yoghurt with bulgur dried into a powdery consistency. It’s often mixed with chilli paste and sesame or crushed walnuts. Keshek is versatile. When it’s not that, it’s a beige-coloured soup that looks utterly hideous but is one of the best things you can ever have in winter. You fry some ground meat, onions and whole garlic, the base of most Lebanese stews which we refer to as “aliyyeh”, and top it with the powdered keshek and some water. I’m used to having it for brunch at home, with flatbread on the side, and prepare it the way my grandmother did. Like a lot of Mediterranean countries, our diet relies heavily on acidity to balance out our meals. Labneh (strained yoghurt) is on every breakfast table. We douse it with extra virgin olive oil and have it with an array of white cheese, fresh vegetables, herbs and some olives that would likely be a gift from someone’s grove.

Lebanese Breakfast Culture, Continued

You can’t say “Lebanese breakfast” without it including ful [medames], hummus and fatteh. “Ful” is the Arabic word for “fava beans” and is, in this dish, roughly mashed with a lemon-garlic-oil sauce and tossed with diced tomatoes, onions and coriander. Fatteh is a concoction of boiled chickpeas, garlicky yoghurt (sometimes with tahini) and croutons. When I say “hummus” in this context, I am not referring to the Lebanese dip. “Hummus” is the Arabic word for “chickpeas”. Although all of these dishes can be made at home, we always prefer to let the connoisseurs do it. For me they’re ElSoussi and Le Professeur. Each fawwal (ful-maker) has their own recipe. Other personal favourites with chickpeas that these tiny holes-in-the-wall specialise in include msabbaha and balila. Msabbaha is mixed with a tahini-based sauce, whereas balila comes in an ultra-garlicky mix of olive oil and lemon juice.

Favourite Café in the World

Kalei Coffee Co is the perfect destination for an all-day breakfast menu. Who doesn’t want an egg burger at night, or some eggs soft-boiled the Palestinian way in a bowl of yoghurt with preserved lemons? The coffee at Kalei is, hands down, the best in the country and some of the best I’ve had in the world. If you’re all about light-to-medium roasts and ethically sourced beans, then this is your spot. You can choose from a wide range of espresso-based drinks, or go for a single-origin pour-overs, Lebanese ibrik, or Kalei’s espresso lemonade with a dash of orange blossom water which people buy by the gallon. The rotating cakes and vegan cookies are alone worth a visit. With two locations in the city, Kalei has become very popular because of its community-centric mindset, its ample outdoor seating surrounded by trees and its friendly staff. It’s value for your money despite the current hyperinflation and currency devaluation. Aside from the coffee beans, ingredients are pretty much local, even in the cocktails. They feature Lebanese gins and unusual arak-based [arak is anise-distilled liquor] concoctions like A Walk in Damour: a cocktail made with fresh cucumber juice and fennel-infused arak. The dishes present ingredients that are unfamiliar to the younger generation of locals. The ambariz sandwich with heirloom tomatoes and makdous (pickled eggplant stuffed with walnuts and chilli pepper) revives a type of cottage cheese [ambariz] fermented in terracotta jars that is very rare to find these days. Sourcing it involves a long drive to a trusted maker in the Chouf mountains. Serving such rare, traditional products on sourdough bread is a good example of Kalei’s approach to food. The eggs with awarma on sourdough toast is another example. Awarma, a sort of lamb confit, is something you only find at your grandmother’s house. Avo-toast also makes an appearance on the menu when avocados are in season.

Beirut-Style Lahmacun

Some bakeries specialise in lahmacun, called “lahm bi ajjine” in Lebanon, which literally translates to “meat in dough”. Armenian bakeries are the best for this. Ichkhanian Bakery makes a pomegranate molasses version and an Armenian version that’s a lot spicier. Always pair it with laban ayran (a salty yoghurt drink) to help put out the fire.

Favourite Armenian Restaurant

I was born in Beirut. Our Civil War wrapped up in 1990 and what followed was a really slow rebuilding of the city. There aren’t restaurants that I’ve frequented from that young an age. One restaurant I’ve been going to for a while though is in the Armenian neighbourhood: Bourj Hammoud. Named after its late owner, Varouj is five-table restaurant in the centre of an unofficial Little Armenian. It’s a very charming, no-fuss kind of restaurant that I was introduced to 15 years ago by painter Paul Guiragossian’s family. I’ve enjoyed going there very much since. There’s a large Armenian diaspora in Lebanon. Some fled during the Armenian genocide, others found refuge in Syria at the time, and when the war broke out they fled again, this time to Lebanon. Most of them came from Aleppo and brought their food culture with them. Varouj is my go-to not only for Armenian food but also for offal. Offal is tricky to make and Varouj’s son, who took over when his father passed, does it very well. Everything is really fresh, and the menu is the butcher’s best of the day. I’ll order anything from fried brains and sheep tongue to testicles: all of that deliciously particular stuff. I especially love the way they prepare the chicken liver. It’s super peppery with a nice balance of acidity. They dice it up really small and add a lot of spice to it. The owner is always behind the counter doing the cooking, but will step out to give you a grilling if he finds something left on your plate. Really, he gets pissed off. His late father used to do the same thing. It’s very rare that I manage to get him to crack a smile. It’s just him and a slightly friendlier waiter who will recite to you the daily specials as soon as you’re seated. You’re supposed to just nod when you hear something you want.

Battle of the Shawarmas

Shawarma (spit-roasted meat) is such a strong part of our food culture that I’ve dedicated a whole issue of The Carton to it. For chicken shawarma loaded with toum (garlic paste), crispy barbecued chicken and crunchy cucumber pickles, I go to Restaurant Joseph, a street food joint in the Sin El Fil suburb. For lamb shawarma, I go to Jabbour Restaurant in the Dora suburb. After wrapping it in Lebanese flatbread, the shawarmanji (shawarma master) slaps the sandwich on the grill to give it extra crunch and smokiness, right before he loads the tip with a dollop of tarator (tahini mix) and crowns it with an extra chunk of meat.

Homestyle Mezze

Meze is not really home-style food. It’s what we eat on Sundays or when we’re really lazy and want to go out for a meal. I like Tallet Nasr in Naas in the Bekfaya region. When I’m up for the drive, I head there for the meze and the grilled and raw meats: they’re standard Lebanese restaurant options, but Tallet Nasr does them exceptionally. The hummus and fattoush are probably the best in the country. Fattoush is our version of a country salad, made with herbs, tomatoes and greens, with croutons, sumac, olive oil and pomegranate molasses.

Celebrating The Diversity of Arak

There are a few bars that I frequent. I head to underground theatre Metro Al Madina for a drink and when I want to enjoy some of the best local music gigs. Torino Express is our version of a dive bar that has stood the test of time in Beirut. It was the first bar on Gouraud Street in the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood. Then there’s Anise, a small, dim bar with very knowledgeable staff. It is known for its classic cocktails but also for its extensive selection of arak: Lebanese moonshine sourced from different villages across the country.

A Local Musician’s Side Hustle

Brazzaville is a bar with generous outdoor seating. The kitchen is supplied by Pascal Semerdjian, the drummer of local band Postcards. When he’s not in a recording studio or touring the globe, Pascal is curing meat and fermenting all sorts of stuff: beer, bread, pickles, you name it. His deli operation is called Blackcap Atelier. He also does pop-ups at Souk El Tayeb (farmers market on Saturday) where he sells delicious sandwiches. Think pastrami and vegan burgers done right. The menu at Brazzaville is relatively small, but is well thought out and seasonal. The staff are the friendliest in town and there’s great synergy between them and the bar run by veteran bartenders Rani and Pico.

An Internationally Acclaimed Bar Rises Again

Electric Bing Sutt was one of the World’s 50 Best Bars in its first year of operation. Co-founding bartender Jad Ballout started it with his ex-partner Lin. He’s Lebanese, she’s Chinese, and you can say that they’ve kind of created a bar that looks like the two of them: The bar team made spot-on cocktails inspired by local ingredients and the food had a bit of an Asian twist. I say it in the past tense because the bar was severely hit by the blast, but the team’s journey continues in a new bar called Dead End Paradise, a Tiki bar even closer to ground zero of the blast.

The Carton Shop

When The Carton was strictly a print magazine, we hit the crossroad between creating a digital version of it and doing something completely different. The core of the project was always to make room for an alternative cultural discourse using food as a primary tool. We decided that the road to that was through allowing for more human interaction. So we began creating physical spaces for people to interact with us and each other. The first was The Carton Shop, which opened on the premise of Kalei’s coffee roastery on Rue 54 in the Mar Mikhael district. It serves as a brick-and-mortar for the magazine and other things we produced ourselves, including small-batch arak and prints. The Carton and Kalei share foundational values and we continued our growth together to launch another space inside Kalei’s second roastery in Ras Beirut. This space became a pop-up for incredibly cool projects that had been hit by the blast and struggled in the economic crisis. Both spaces are wonderful to visit. Kalei finds old Lebanese houses and refurbishes them while preserving as much of the original traits as possible. One is a 1950s house in Mar Mikhael and the other is a 19th century house in Ras Beirut. Both boast hidden gardens, which is refreshing considering public spaces are practically non-existent in Beirut. Though short-lived, we started a guesthouse project (The Carton Townhouse) right on top of Kalei Ras Beirut that was beautiful while it lasted. We’re currently working on bringing it back to life in a different location.

Wines Of Mount Lebanon

Lebanon has three popular winemaking regions: the Bekaa Valley, Batroun in Northern Lebanon and Bhamdoun in Mount Lebanon. In Bhamdoun, I love visiting Iris Domain. Winemaker Sarmad Salibi is a ball of good vibes and makes a certified organic wine in the village of Btalloun, a short drive from Beirut. He comes from a completely different background but loves wine so he started making it in his family-owned land. Together with his life partner, he recently opened a small seasonal winery restaurant to feed his visitors and give them a well-rounded experience in the vineyards and winery: it’s one of the most beautiful experiences you can have in the country.

Wines Of The Batroun Mountains

You can have another beautiful eno-gastronomic experience at Sept Winery, this time in the village of Nehla in the Batroun mountains. It’s the brainchild of winemaker Maher Harb who also started everything from scratch on his family’s land. His own vineyards in Nehla (namely Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) yield small quantities, so he mostly experiments with a variety of grapes from different wine-growing regions, creating minimal intervention blends and mono-cépages. He refers to his wines as “vins de lieu” to emphasise that they are terroir wines. I like to see his experimentation with indigenous varieties such as the merwah and obeideh. You need to book ahead for a visit – make sure to ask for the lunch. Harb does the cooking himself using whatever he can forage and find around the village. It’s a lovely terroir up there with a picturesque setup.

Wines Of The Bekaa Valley

Vertical 33 started off as a passion project by medical doctor Eid Azar and is now a full-fledged winemaking operation in the village of Remtanieh in the Bekaa Valley. It has a wine tasting room facing Torino Express. Dr. Azar makes single-varietal wines and works around Lebanon’s microclimates to produce high-altitude wines (up to 1600m). I recently tried their obeideh and carignan, both were unique.

Power To The People

Though the Lebanese manousheh is often referred to by visitors as “the Lebanese pizza”, I don’t really agree with it, because pizza is pizza. There’s a pizzeria that opened after the blast called Pizzeria Da Marco. It’s a takeout place on a slippery slope in Mar Mikhael with only two tables outside. Marco only opens on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when he’s not at his full-time job. He makes a pretty delicious, long-fermented Neapolitan pizza. Pizza Margherita is always my first choice.

A Real Taste of Lebanese Home Cooking

For real Lebanese home-cooking, I go to Tawlet, where I’ve been going for more than 10 years. Founder Kamal Mouzawak started off with Souk El Tayeb, a biweekly food market, and expanded to different gastro-touristic projects including Tawlet, a daily canteen that invites a different cook every day to prepare food from their region of the country. The food is always good and is the kind of food we eat at home. Although the country is small, how people cook differs from north to south, valley to coast. The new location in the city is attached to a massive warehouse that also contains a corner dedicated to locally-sourced products and a roofed version of the market. Don’t leave Beirut without some zaatar mix, keshek, arak, orange blossom water and liquid hand soap from. The market is more frequent now and cool pop-ups and family-friendly events are often organised like print fair, Souk El Kotob.

Pantry Goods For A Cause

Kanz is a project by Beit El Baraka that produces and sells artisanal products from Lebanon. It was launched to help sustain Beit El Baraka’s social work beyond donations alone and to help promote regional food culture. I cannot stress enough on how great these products are – and you’d be supporting a good cause when buying them. Chef Youssef Akiki is one of the chefs helping out with the recipes. He used to work at French fine-dining restaurant Burgundy in Beirut, but has finally ventured out to build his own little restaurant in his hometown of Hrajel. Brut opens in the summer only. You will dine in the middle of nature and enjoy a refined meal in set menus inspired by local ingredients. The last time I was there, I was served dishes like raw kibbe (Lebanese raw meat dish) with arak sorbet, shanklish (fermented cheese with onions, tomatoes and herbs) tarts and spaghetti made with local saffron.

A Uniquely Lebanese Experience

I encourage staying in different guesthouses when visiting Lebanon. It’s the best way to explore the country and to discover the generosity of its people. I’ve eaten some of the best regional food in guesthouses where the proprietors have carefully tailored the experience. Choose wisely though. I recommend Beit DoumaLa Maison des Sources, Beit Trad and Beit El Batroun and .

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