TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The demographically diverse Mina, the harbor town just five kilometers from downtown Tripoli, is distinguished by its nautical charms, guileless diversions and simple indulgences.
Some defining features of the area include the verdant islands off the coast – four of which have been declared natural reserves where fish are bred in their natural habitat – the town’s old lighthouse and its breezy four kilometer seashore, which is almost always teeming with people who’ve come from far and wide to take advantage of the fresh air.
Rambunctious children play along the corniche on weekends as their parents stroll vigilantly by, youths whizz past on bicycles and elderly men sit impassively on plastic chairs. Food stands are a permanent fixture along the corniche and Mina’s winding alleyways, where tantalizing aromas mingle with the salty sea air. In many ways, Mina’s street food is like the marina city itself, ostensibly simple to prepare, impervious to culinary trends and laden with a rich history.
RAW SCALLOPS In the early morning hours, Jamal Khaja and his son Mohammad can be seen unloading piles and piles of freshly fished scallop shells, which they hammer open and clean immediately so they can be ready for the morning rush of customers along the corniche.
Fishermen dive several meters to pluck the shells, which can be mistaken for rocks, along the sea floor. By 10 a.m., Jamal and Mohammad have a giant bowl overflowing with raw scallops ready to be sold. They decorate the stand with halved lemons and empty fan-shaped shells, their fluted patterns glistening under the sun.
“We have to sell out all the scallops from the morning the same day,” Jamal says, “because they’re only appetizing for one day.”
For customers, the scallops are doused with lemon juice, cumin and salt with chopped carrots on the side and sold for LL3,000 a plate. Mohammad, however, prefers to eat them straight out of the shell after he cracks them open by the sidewalk.
Scallops have become a popular street food in Mina after the demise of “tutiya,” another type of mollusk with a spiky outer shell. Due to over-fishing, they are no longer available in abundance Local vendors fear the same fate awaits scallops as well.
“Gradually it will disappear,” says Abu Wassif, another vendor. “Best to enjoy them while we still can.”
STUFFED TRIPE In Mina’s fish market is Ibrahim Bandour’s famed fast food eatery, serving an assortment of stuffed beef tripe and intestines. Founded by his father Abdul-Nasser nearly 40 years ago, the restaurant is one of few that still sells the delicacy.
Bandour says most restaurant owners are discouraged by the arduous preparation steps necessaryto make the dish. But the Bandours have forged strong relations with local butchers over the years, some of whom have pledged to cater tripe to them exclusively. The questionable-looking parts are displayed in a glass case outside their shop.
To prepare stuffed tripe, the stomach of the cow has to be cleaned and the fat trimmed off. It is then boiled and bleached, which gives tripe its characteristic white color. Beef tripe is made from the first three chambers of the stomach; the Bandours prefer the rumen, which is the first chamber and has a flat and smooth texture.
The broth in which the stomach and intestines are cooked is set aside to accompany the main dish. Once softened, the tripe is stuffed with rice, minced meat, onions and almonds and cooked thoroughly. It is then cut open and arranged with an assortment of dried mint, cumin, paprika and salt. Customers can eat the rice with fresh bread or dipped in broth.
The Bandours also have stuffed beef intestine, tongue and brain on the menu, each requiring its own specialized preparation method and costing between LL5,000 and LL8,000 per plate.
“Our business is open during the winter months,” Bandour says. “It’s too heavy to consume in the summer.”
KAAK FROM 80 YEARS Not far from the Bandours’ restaurant is Abu Nazih’s kaak bakery, which has been making the specialty bread for 83 years. One of Mina’s charms is that its vendors are capable of relaying how the preparation of near-staple items, such as kaak, has changed over the years.
“Everything has changed, it’s not the same as it used to be,” the elderly Abu Nazih says of how kaak used to be made. “Yeast was natural back then, we used water soaked with chickpeas as a base. Now there are artificial yeasts.”
The difference is in the taste, he says: “It’s changed a great deal, it used to be fresher.”
But Abu Nazih has stayed true to the older methods. His oven, for instance, is still fired by wood, which he collects and piles next to it. Street vendors come by in the morning to buy his kaak, which they spread with cream cheese for customers along the corniche, who stop to take a breather from the day.