Soul food, Levant style

Thumbing through From ‘Akkar to ‘Amel, Lebanon’s Slow Food Trail, one is reminded of just how estranged young moderns are from the land that we should even need a field guide to explain the relationship between food, geography and season, which would once have dictated what is and is not available for us to eat.

Perhaps this is why Dr. Rami Zurayk and Sami Abdul Rahman’s new field guide, out this week, feels so relevant, especially in a time when disruptive forces of globalization and conflict threaten to rub out traditional food production and the livelihoods that depend on it.

Slow Food is an international movement which aims to combat fast food and to preserve traditional plants and techniques of food production. From ‘Akkar to ‘Amel maps the Lebanon Slow Food Trail from Beirut up the coast towards Tripoli, then heads down through the fertile Beqaa valley, scaling Mount Lebanon and the Chouf before finally descending into the narrow southern tip bordering Palestine. Each chapter is dedicated to a village, its history, traditional crop or food, and rituals of harvest and production.

Each food is also accompanied by a short profile of a local producer and often heartwarming stories of how, with a little help, they were able to gain access to a wider market and create a sustainable, environmentally friendly business that preserves traditional food culture while providing income to rural areas. The producers' addresses and phone numbers are even included in the back for those who prefer a personal tutorial on, say, Araq, Zahleh's pride and Lebanon's libation of choice.

It makes for a fascinating gustatory tour, even for those who know the country and its food inside out. The description of making dibs el-inab, grape molasses, takes the reader to Kfarnabrakh village in the Chouf, where, “one really feels that life is slower, calmer and more peaceful,” and takes us through the processes of production. “The juice is filtered,” it tells us, “and moved to large pots for boiling. At this stage, it is called ain el deek – the eye of the rooster – because it is very clear.” In the chapter on darfieh cheese – goat’s cheese fermented in a goatskin – we learn that only Lebanese mountain goatskins can be used for the process. French goatskins, apparently, allow liquid to be released too quickly.

Part guidebook, part development report, and part textbook, From ‘Akkar to ‘Amel does not indulge in the meandering banality that mars some travel writing. Pastoral charm is not described; it is measured- in rainfall, elevation and percentage of arable land. Likewise, the recipes are detailed and sourced with a meticulousness that lends the text a sense of purpose bordering on urgency. Food has always been strongly linked to national identity, so it is natural that its preservation has become a form of resistance. In light of the debate currently raging between Lebanon and Israel over the right to hummus, establishing a paper trail for zaatar seems more critical than it once did.

While "Slow Food" has become somewhat of a buzzword among trendy urban gourmands, the possibility of creating a rural tourism industry based on this idea has remained largely unexplored until now.

Beautifully photographed and easy to navigate, From ‘Akkar to ‘Amel fills a niche for activism-tourism that will likely appeal to visitors and locals alike. it represents a new approach to tourism in Lebanon, one that is active and consciously community oriented.

This is no surprise, given that the book is in many ways an extension of Dr. Zurayk’s work touring war-ravaged southern Lebanon in a trailer-turned-"Mobile Livelihood Center", he told NOW Lebanon recently.

Dr. Zurayk, an agriculture engineer by training and a professor at the American University of Beirut, began the project Land and People in 2006 with the aim of helping people of rural Lebanon rebuild after the war. Soon one trailer turned to three, and 20 families became 600, which, he boasts, is more than many larger, better funded organizations work with.

The book is a way of archiving the knowledge accumulated over the past two years so as to make it accessible to ecotourists, foodies, academics, activists, and anyone who values the unique over the generic and relishes the diversity of traditional foods made from the fruits of the land.

Dr. Zurayk is emphatic, however, that the guide was not written out of nostalgia for a lost time, but rather a need to engage with the reality of modern rural development. The book itself, written in English with funding from at least six different international donor organizations, is tangible proof that globalization has its upside. Apathy, Dr. Zurayk maintains, not modernity, is the enemy of culture.