In Beirut, a humble farmer’s market offers a powerful story of hope and perseverance amid the turmoil and corruption of modern Lebanon.
By Richard Collett
‘Beirut. The food’s delicious, the people are awesome. It’s a party town. And everything wrong with the world is there. Hopefully, you will come back smarter about the world.’Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown.
Everything changed on 4th August 2020. At 17.45 pm, Lebanese time, Beirut was shaken to its very core when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port. A mushroom cloud of smoke rocketed into the sky, the blast shattered windows and ripped through buildings, and in an instant, hundreds were left dead and thousands more were seriously injured.
A blanket of thick red dust hung over the capital in the days after the Beirut Port Explosion. The shockwaves, which measured 3.3 on the Richter scale, were felt as far as Turkey and Egypt, while researchers would later call the blast “one of the largest non-nuclear” explosions in history. Beirut’s foundations teetered, as some 300,000 residents were forced from their homes.
The 4th of August is a day that Christin Codsi remembers well. A Beirut local, she’s the manager of Souk el Tayeb, a farmer’s market, restaurant and social enterprise located in Mar Mikhael, less than a mile from the epicenter of the explosion. “The roof was blown off the market,” Codsi told me. “And after the blast, there was so much damage, everywhere.”
The Lebanese capital, and Souk el Tayeb along with it, was devastated. Ravaged for decades by civil wars, conflict and invasions, the effects of the explosion were made deadlier by the endemic corruption, poverty, and massive hyperinflation that pervaded Lebanon. For Codsi, this was yet one more challenge that now needed to be overcome. Almost immediately, she rallied her team, and the next day they were cooking emergency meals for Beirut’s hungry and homeless citizens. Now, in a city torn asunder, Souk el Tayeb, and Lebanon’s rich culinary traditions, continue to provide a glimmer of hope amid the turmoil.
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Souk el Tayeb: The Beirut Farmer’s Market
You’ll find Souk el Tayeb on Armenia Street in Mar Mikhael, a Beirut district where electric wires hang low over the streets and blown-out windows remain boarded up some, two, almost three years after the Beirut Port Explosion. Memorials to those killed (Human Rights Watch puts the death toll at 218) are left outside damaged apartments and the crumbling grain silos that bore the brunt of the blast by the harbour can be seen from balconies, but the bars are once again loud with the sound of drinking on a Friday afternoon.
The roof of Souk el Tayeb has been repaired, but vivid photographs inside the large warehouse – where a farmer’s market, attracting the freshest produce from the countryside farms, is held every Saturday – show the damage caused by the blast. On weekdays, the market’s kitchens cook up large batches of meals to be distributed free of charge to Beirut’s most vulnerable citizens, while on the floor above, “lady chefs” from across Lebanon prepare homecooked meals for Tawlet, a “farmer’s kitchen” that draws in locals looking for a taste of home and curious tourists hungry for traditional cooking.
Codsi explained how Souk el Tayeb (which means ‘farmer’s market’ in Arabic), was founded in 2004 by her business partner Kamal Mouzawak, a former professor of tourism who wanted nothing more than to bring the tastes of the countryside to the city.
“We are the generation of war,” said Codsi, when we met in the restaurant above Souk el Tayeb. Through the tall glass windows, I could see production lines below preparing the day’s emergency food packages for distribution in Mar Mikhael. “We didn’t know our country well. But when Kamal started travelling around Lebanon, he discovered all these wonderful people and places, and he discovered farmers growing these amazing vegetables. He said, why not create a place in Beirut where these people can sell all this great stuff from the villages?”
The farm-to-fork concept was simple, but Mouzawak’s vision went beyond this; he wanted to create a space that provided Lebanese farmers with an outlet for their produce, an outlet that created economic opportunities in the city and gave impetus to stay in Lebanon, rather than migrate abroad. So, every Saturday, Mouzawak – who was later joined by Codsi – began hosting a small farmer’s market in Beirut.
The location changed weekly, and the stall holders set up shop wherever Mouzawak could find space in Downtown Beirut. From the start, the only products and produce sold were to be freshly harvested or cooked, and grown and prepared here in Lebanon.
The city’s urban residents took to the fresh vegetables, spices, honey, oils, and preserves with relish, and soon the farmers were also cooking fresh Lebanese foods like Man’ouche (a type of large flatbread, covered in spices like Sumac) to feed hungry shoppers on the day. Souk el Tayeb’s popularity grew by word of mouth, but in Lebanon, running a farmer’s market is never easy.
In the 2000s, Lebanon was emerging from the ravages of a brutal Civil War, fought between the nation’s many religious, political and ethnic groups from 1975 to 1990, that had left an estimated 120,000 people dead. In 2006, an Israeli invasion halted any sense of recovery, while extremist factions like Hezbollah vied for control of a weak government divided along religious grounds between Druze, Christian Maronites, and Sunni and Shia Muslims. With a disgruntled populace constantly on the verge of revolution, Beirut was a turbulent place to live, let alone run a business.
“The problem with Downtown Beirut in the 2000s is that there were constant protests,” Codsi explained. “There were burning tyres and tear gas everywhere. It was tough. But we knew the farmers would lose their income if we couldn’t run the market. We needed a safe space, where there were no burning tyres!”
Tawlet: The Famer’s Table
‘With the food I cook, I’m trying to protect my heritage and culture. This generation in Beirut, they only know burgers, escalope, and fries!’Zeinab Kashmar, Chef at Tawlet.
Codsi and Mouzawak persevered, and in its earliest days, the farmer’s market helped bridge the divide between fractured communities. It didn’t matter which religion you followed, which language you spoke, or what side you’d been on in the Civil War. All that mattered was the quality of your food. And at a time when many Lebanese were leaving a country devoid of jobs and blighted by corruption, Souk el Tayeb provided economic incentives that encouraged farmers to stay and work their land, rather than letting it turn to wasteland.
Souk el Tayeb’s goal has always been to help others to help themselves, and in 2009, they expanded with the opening of the first branch of ‘Tawlet’ – which means ‘Table’ in Arabic – a kitchen and restaurant staffed exclusively by female chefs. The first location was in Mar Mikhael, where the farmer’s market is now also held every week. Over a decade later, the kitchen is always busy with a daily, changing menu of Lebanese dishes.
“We wanted to provide opportunities for women from the countryside,” explained Codsi as she introduced me to Zeinab Kashmar, who was preparing that day’s lunch menu. As we talked and Kashmar cooked, a queue of hungry diners formed in the restaurant. “They are not professionals. Whatever she cooks for us today, it’s what she’d cook if she invited you into her home.”
Kashmar has been cooking in Tawlet for 14 years. Before this, she was a market stall holder at Souk el Tayeb, where her South Lebanese dishes drew the attention of Mouzawak. “I learned how to cook at home from my mother and grandmother,” she told me, as she added the finishing touches to her Qofte, a meatball dish that’s one of her specialties. “With the food I cook, I’m trying to protect my heritage and culture. This generation in Beirut, they only know burgers, escalope, and fries! They don’t know the spices, they don’t know these dishes, so this is a way to preserve our culinary heritage.”
Kashmar’s menu is up on the wall. Today she’s serving the Qofte I’d seen her cooking, alongside Malfouf, a softly cooked cabbage that’s stuffed with fennel, Tabouleh, a ubiquitous Lebanese salad, spicy potato wedges, and Moutabel, a smoky eggplant dish. She’s also serving dishes you’d never typically see in Beirut, like Kibbet Nayeh, a raw meat dish from the south, Kibbet Hileh – a meat-free dish – Freekeh, a type of grain, and seasonal delights like rice cooked with green almonds
“It’s more unusual food,” Codsi added. “The cuisine is so varied for such a small country. Take raw meat for example. Zeinab, who is from the south, prepares it with spices and mutton. In the north, they prepare it in slices, with no spices and just a pinch of salt. A north and south chef will fight over this!”
But here at Tawlet, different chefs from different cities, towns, and villages across Lebanon have the opportunity to showcase their traditional culinary techniques and recipes. Each day of the week, there’s a different chef. On Monday, a Christian Maronite from Qadisha might be in the kitchen, on Tuesdays, an Armenian from Beirut, then on Wednesday, a Sunni Muslim from Saida. This not only helps to retain Lebanon’s culinary diversity but once again shows how food can bring divisive peoples together at the Tawlet.
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An emergency kitchen
The success of Souk el Tayeb and Tawlet allowed for money to be invested back into the enterprise, providing the funds necessary to support disadvantaged groups in Beirut.
“For us, charity is not in our vision,” Codsi explained as we dug into the Kibbet Hileh. “We help by creating jobs, by creating something sustainable. The Tawlet restaurants were a way to help women, and the farmer’s market was a way to help farmers. Then, during the Syrian Refugee Crisis, we helped Syrian women who were in a vulnerable position. We trained them to cook, so they could make something of themselves.”
After the Port Explosion, Souk el Tayeb’s ethos was tested to the limit. Despite the roof being in pieces, a large part of the farmer’s market was turned into an emergency kitchen. The kitchen equipment was installed by an NGO, who asked Codsi if their chefs could prepare large batches of emergency food to be sent out across Beirut in the wake of the disaster. “We said yes, that’s what we do,” she added. “And we brought in all the staff and just started cooking. It was very spontaneous.”
During the days after the blast, the emergency kitchen was working at capacity and preparing anywhere from 1000 to 2000 meals daily. Since then, demand has dropped, and the kitchen has limited distribution to the Mar Mikhael district, where Codsi estimates around 70 percent of the population is elderly and often unsupported.
Two years on and Chef Mario Toumba is still supervising the preparation of 675 meals a day in the emergency kitchen at Souk el Tayeb, where lentils, rice, and chicken curry are being cooked up in large pots. He’s been a professional chef for 19 years, but his restaurant was destroyed during the explosion. Given the horrific hyperinflation that’s destroyed the value of the Lebanese Lira since the country’s financial crisis began in August 2019, Toumba couldn’t afford to rebuild. He said he was lucky that Souk el Tayeb had a job for him.
A social enterprise in Beirut
‘We have to be patient. We have to stand, and not fall, as we always do.’Christin Codsi.
From a farmer’s market held amid protests and tear gas, Souk el Tayeb has evolved into a social enterprise that’s somehow survived invasions, hyperinflation, Covid-19 and the Beirut Port Explosion. The Tawlet arm of the operation has provided new opportunities for local women and refugees to earn money while showcasing their cooking skills, and Codsi explained how a new generation of younger farmers is now taking over the market stalls from their parents, rather than leaving to find work abroad.
Codsi made it clear that she doesn’t want to run an emergency kitchen – which is predominantly funded by donations – forever. “We need to turn this into a production kitchen,” she said. “Where we can make products and make it sustainable. We can’t rely endlessly on the assistance of charities.”
Lebanon seems to jump from one crisis to the next, and but for the stoicism of people like Codsi and Mouzawak, it’s difficult to see how the country wouldn’t have collapsed further. Even now, hyperinflation is out of control, and the Tawlet restaurant is constantly updating its prices every day to deal with the constant devaluation of the Lira.
“We need to change. We have to change,” said Codsi matter-of-factly as we finished up a dessert of Kunefe, a sweet, cheesy dessert that’s found everywhere in the Middle East. “But people keep voting for the same people. Then it becomes the Lebanese people who are themselves the problem. We become too used to overcoming challenges that we shouldn’t have to.”
But there is hope, and Souk el Tayeb is leading the way. Mouzawak was away in France during my visit to Beirut, for example, setting up a branch of Tawlet in Paris he hopes can send profits to Lebanon while raising the profile of Lebanese cooking abroad. There are now 7 Tawlet locations across Lebanon, while travellers can book into a ‘Beit‘, or guesthouse, where they can live and cook in the countryside. Right now, most of their customers are Lebanese or expatriates, but Codsi is also seeing a steady return of tourists to Lebanon despite the never-ending crises.
The farmer’s market is busier than ever, and the next day – Saturday – I’m gorging on falafel, buying bottles of chili oil and stocking up on local spices like Sumac and Zatar to take home with me. The emergency kitchen has been turned over to the stall holders and farmers for the day, and they’re cooking up Man’ouche and baking bread for the shoppers. The fact that the market is even still held, yet alone the fact it’s bursting with people, is a testament to hard work and perseverance. Codsi whispers that maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign that life in Lebanon can one day return to normal.
“I don’t think there will be a radical change. I’m just hoping we have a little bit of change,” she told me. “We have to be patient. We have to stand, and not fall, as we always do.”
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How to visit Souk el Tayeb in Beirut
Souk el Tayeb is the name of the farmer’s market that’s held every Saturday (from 9.00 am until 2.30 pm) on Armenia Street in Mar Mikhael. The market is located within the wider Souk el Tayeb ‘headquarters’, where Tawlet and the emergency kitchen operate. On Saturdays, the market is packed with stallholders selling everything from falafel wraps to fresh fruit smoothies, and it’s a great place for breakfast, brunch or lunch (or all three!).
The original Mar Mikhael Tawlet is located on the same premises as the farmer’s market. It’s open Monday to Saturday, from 9.00 am until 5.00 pm. The menu changes daily, depending on who’s doing the cooking. Prices have been fluctuating massively, but expect to pay around $13 USD for all you can eat. There’s also a permanent shop in the Tawlet restaurant in Mar Mikhael that sells many farm products, too.
You can find Souk el Tayeb at the following location in Mar Mikhael, Beirut:
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