SIN AL-FIL, Lebanon: Bartenders in sombreros serving all-you-can-drink margaritas and tequila shots; a six-man semblanza mariachi pairing the piercing sound of a trumpet with soothing guitarron; and avocados the size of a child’s head. These were just a few of the things on offer when the Hilton Habtoor transformed its top-floor banquet hall, Le Ciel, into a tribute to Mexico Tuesday. The evening kicked off Mexican Cultural Week, which will continue until March 14. Aiming to be as authentic as possible, the Habtoor in Sin al-Fil teamed up with the Mexican Embassy in Lebanon, with which it has shared a close relationship for nearly a decade.
“We’ve been talking about doing this for a while,” said Casper Wigen, Hilton’s marketing and communications manager. “We wanted to do it in May for Cinco de Mayo, but this is more of an American-Mexican holiday, so we decided to do it before May.”
The buffet and entertainment are part of a series of culturally themed events that the hotel plans to hold during the year. The next one will be a partnership with the Italian Embassy, and will take place at the Habtoor’s Italian restaurant, Venezia. For the 2014 World Cup, the hotel is planning a more raucous event in July, a Samba-themed party in honor of Brazil.
An enormous proportion of the Lebanese diaspora lives in Latin American countries, with between 250,000 to 500,000 of them living in Mexico. The most famous among them include Carlos Slim Helu, a Lebanese-Mexican business tycoon who is regularly ranked in the top three richest people in the world.
The estimated number of Mexican citizens living in Lebanon is between 500 and 700, Wigen said. That means it is challenging to find local experts on Mexican cultural heritage and makes an authentic cultural week all the more unique.
The organizers tracked down a specialty furniture shop in Jounieh that imports its traditional Mesoamerican home decor from Mexico. Prints and paintings of Frida Kahlo and rustic pinewood dressers decorate the banquet hall and buffet area, on display to attract buyers looking to take home their own piece of Mexico.
The obvious centerpiece of the event is food, and to make it as authentic as possible, the Habtoor brought in Mexican Chef Fernando Gomez, head of El Mexicano Restaurant in Faraya.
Two dozen serving trays make up the open buffet of typical mesoamerican fare: shrimp and mango ceviche, stuffed peppers, black beans and rice, empanadas, fajitas, marinated pork ribs, chorizo sausage and a daunting amount of guacamole.
To wash it all down, the organizers have also included open drinks in the $60 dinner package: tequila in gold, silver and coffee varieties, a punch bowl of margaritas and of course wine and beer. For dessert: meringue-topped tres leches cakes and flan, a caramel-drizzled egg custard.
The food was given the stamp of approval by the evening’s most discerning critic, Mexico’s Ambassador to Lebanon Jaime Garcia Amaral. “In a country so far from Mexico, it’s quite authentic,” he told The Daily Star.
Garcia Amaral is a native of Guadalajara, a metropolis in the northwestern part of the country. He’s new to Lebanon, having only been appointed ambassador around seven months ago, and so far he’s enjoying the mountains and archeological sites like Baalbek, he said. Both countries have a rich ancient history that survives in the form of ruins.
“In Mexico, you have a very, very old story and old civilizations. It’s a very rich culture,” he said.
One of the people keeping that culture alive was Simao Hermandez, who traveled from Mexico to join the mariachi band composed of three Mexicans, two Spaniards and an Italian.
The quality of a mariachi band is all in the authenticity of its repertoire, Hermandez said. “There are many who wear the mariachi costume and then play international music. But it’s very important to play the traditional music of Mexico.”