BEIRUT: Many Lebanese speak two or three languages and have been educated or worked abroad in far flung places. But for all the cosmopolitan credentials of the country, the culinary landscape can feel decidedly provincial.
If you’re looking for Chinese, there’s no “great little place in Chinatown.” Mexican places serve up salsa that could be described as “extra mild” and Indian restaurants similarly temper their menus for Mediterranean palates.
But there are a handful of cafes that are run by and cater to some of the country’s migrant workers, many of whom hail from countries with outstanding culinary reputations.
Taking advantage of this largely untapped source of deliciousness, the restaurant Tawlet, which is usually known for showcasing the diversity of Lebanese cuisine by hosting cooks from around the country, took it one step further, holding the first of a series of lunches prepared by cooks who have come to Lebanon as domestic workers.
“In collaboration with the Migrant Workers Task Force, the idea was to introduce the food of the different countries of the women who are part of the country’s fabric,” explained Sarah Farahat, Tawlet’s resident artist who was inspired to start the lunch series.
Sambusas (the Ethiopian cousin of samosas), misir wot (spicy lentils), shiro (powdered chickpeas) and a buffet of other favorites were prepared by Rahel Zegeye, a native of Addis Ababa who has been in Lebanon for 12 years.
“I love Ethiopian food and I tried Rahel’s at Souk al-Tayeb on May Day [when migrant workers prepared dishes] and I was very pleasantly surprised,” Farahat explained. “It’s the best Ethiopian food I’ve had.”
For those who were lucky enough to be trying Ethiopian dishes for the first time at Tawlet, there was a plate lined with injera (a flat bread that doubles as a utensil) piled with scoops of different stews and vegetable dishes, serving as an example of how to approach the buffet.
The spongy bread is usually made from a small grain called teff and takes two or three days to make, according to Zegeye. It is the cornerstone of any Ethiopian meal, but she’s had to make some adjustments to make it here in Lebanon, using wheat flour after searching fruitlessly for teff. “Nobody can find it,” she explained.
Zegeye also had to compromise when it came to gomen, an Ethiopian green. But almost everything else, including her favorite dish, doro wat (chicken and hard-boiled eggs), is how she learned from her mother, who taught Zegeye how to cook and shared with her a love of food.
This authenticity extended to the spice, which was not overwhelming but had a welcome kick.
“I was afraid at first, but everyone likes it,” she said, explaining that she wasn’t sure how it would be received by the Lebanese who packed the restaurant. “There were even two boys, maybe 10 years old, who wanted the spicy stew.”
For those who wanted it even hotter, Zegeye recommended adding some sliced green chilies.
“Eat a few of those with sauce as an appetizer and you will eat so much,” she added.
The preparation for the lunch was extensive, however, Zegeye has had experience in putting together such events since she began a catering business last year.
“Rahel is really lucky to have a more flexible boss. To get the time off to have three meetings with the staffs and chef, and the planning ... this is almost impossible for a lot of people unless they have sympathetic bosses,” Farahat said.
Zegeye wasn’t always so lucky, spending six years working for employers whose treatment often left her in tears. The experience motivated her to work to change the sponsorship system and attitudes that allow domestic workers to be abused and even killed with impunity.
Now active in the Migrant Workers Task Force, Zegeye has also found time to write a script for a short film she is working to have made.
She is frustrated by the pace of change and eager for a day when migrant workers won’t have to be lucky to be treated with dignity.
“Why, ‘Slowly, slowly?’ We are humans, not animals.”
For catering information, visit the "Ethiopian Catering by Rahel in Beirut" Facebook page.