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Lebanese culture served on a plate

By Catriona Davies, for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Souk El Tayeb is the only farmers' market in Lebanon
  • Its restaurant Tawlet Souk el Tayeb has different cooks every night
  • Souk el Tayed founder: Food is an important expression of Lebanese history and culture
  • An exhibition of posters shows the traditions of Lebanese food culture

(CNN) -- Diners at the Tawlet Souk el Tayeb restaurant in Beirut never know quite what to expect.

Their food is cooked by someone different every day, usually a woman preparing local specialties of her own village.

Tawlet Souk el Tayeb, which has been open for two years, uses only food from the Lebanon's only farmers' market, run by the same organization.

The cooks, almost all amateur women from villages all around the country, work on rotation, with new cooks starting all the time.

The emphasis on rustic home cooking is a long way from Beirut's reputation for chic nightlife, but reflects the country's obsession with food.

Popular Lebanese dishes
Bzourat: A selection of salty nuts, such as almonds, pistachios and cashew nuts, that are put on tables as an appetizer or with beer
Meghleh: Cinnamon-spiced rice pudding, usually served to celebrate a birth
Sneyniyya: Pudding made from grains of wheat which, when soaked in rose-and-orange-blossom water, resemble little teeth. The addition of sugar and nuts makes this a popular pudding. It is made when a baby's first tooth appears.
Tabbouleh: A salad made of bulgur wheat, tomato, cucumber, and parsley
Fattoush: A bread salad made from toasted or fried pita with vegetables.
Labneh: Strained yogurt

Kamal Mouzawak, founder of both the restaurant and farmers' market said: "Food and food culture is very important in Lebanon as an expression of history and tradition."

He said nothing defined Lebanese culture more than tabbouleh, the salad of bulgur wheat and parsley.

That tradition and obsession is celebrated in an exhibition by graphic artist Maya Zankoul which recently opened in Tawlet Souk el Tayeb.

Zankoul, 25, said: "Every occasion or celebration has a particular traditional food attached to it. It's the best part of our culture.

"The posters are all different shapes, sizes and colors, just like meze."

The pictures include one chronicling the seven steps of a Lebanese lunch, the final step being into bed to sleep off all the food.

Another shows typical dishes served at celebrations of various life-stages, from a birth, the appearance of a baby's first tooth to graduation.

Zankoul said: "I asked my grandmother and mother about their typical traditions and recipes.

"I noticed patterns and table traditions in Lebanese culture and made fun of the names of dishes, because some are really weird."

Zankoul had already fallen in love with Tawlet Souk el Tayeb before Mouzawak asked her to create pictures for the exhibition.

She said: "A lot of restaurants in Lebanon are similar and copy each other. It's good that this is something different, but still typically Lebanese. It's doing its own thing.

"I love drawing and I love food, so to combine them is perfect. Most of my work is more political or personal, it's the first time I've done anything like this."

For Mouzawak, 42, a former food and travel writer, cuisine -- and farmers' markets in particular -- are a way to get to a nation's heart.

Food is very important in Lebanon as an expression of history and tradition.
--Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Souk El Tayeb
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"If you want to get to know a country, the best thing to do is visit a farmers' market," he said.

However, it was as a rural development project, rather than as a celebration of food, that he started Souk el Tayeb in 2004.

He said: "It was to support producers and farmers, and to find common ground of land and production between people with political differences after the civil war.

"It started as a weekly farmers' market and evolved into many different projects, from education in schools to exchange programs around the world.

"In 2007 we added regional food festivals. Each year we have five to seven local festivals in different villages celebrating local specialties."

Around a third of the roughly 100 producers at the farmers' market are certified organic and many others are part way through the process of converting to organic.

This is significant in a country where organic food is still a niche interest.

The condition is that those selling on the market must have grown or prepared the food themselves.

"The income goes straight to the producer, not to the middle man, and the consumer has direct contact with the producer," said Mouzawak. "This is important for the consumer to understand where their food has come from and for the producers to get feedback."

Lebanon's 2006 war with Israel had a serious impact on its farmers, according to the Association for Lebanese Organic Agriculture, which said that most organic farms were concentrated in the south of the country, which was most heavily affected.

Mouzawak said: "We carried on through the 2006 war. We moved out of Beirut and went to a mountain resort. It was our positive resistance by carrying on what we were doing."