BEIRUT: The dining scene in Beirut can be a bit monotonous – how many more sushi restaurants and hipster burger diners can this city support? So those with curious taste buds should be pleased to hear that a very different sort of eatery has recently popped up in Gemmayzeh, one that only serves food once a month and has a rotating roster of global chefs.
OK, the Migrant Community Center may not sound like the most glamorous place to have dinner, but it sure packs a punch. Aiming to introduce little-known cuisines to both members and the Lebanese public, the MCC is hosting monthly food nights where guests can eat all they want for just LL12,000.
Their most recent night offered a range of Sudanese dishes, including a rich, red chicken stew, a creamy labneh-based tomato sauce, a potato and vegetable salad, a mincemeat similar to Bolognese, and a mouthwateringly fiery tahini and green chili condiment. You will be going back for seconds.
Instead of rice or Lebanese-style flatbread, the meal’s carb accompaniments were two types of doughy breads, one thin and served in strips called kissra and another thick and round like a pancake called gurassa. To top it off, connoisseurs could opt for some aseeda, a wheat-flour porridge dumpling set in the shape of a small bowl.
“I wanted to show people that Sudanese food is different from other types of African food,” said Ikhlas Jomaa, the Sudanese chef for the night. “Of course, at home we have animals and we would normally make absolutely everything by hand from scratch. But here we have to buy some things, such as labneh, ready-made from the store.”
Jomaa is one of the founding members and coordinators of MCC, which just two months ago moved from Nabaa in Burj Hammoud to a larger location around the corner from La Tabkha restaurant and Torino Express bar in the center of Gemmayzeh.
Set up in September 2011 as a space exclusively for migrants working and living in Lebanon, MCC offers members a place to meet other people, hold events and celebrations, learn about their rights, and take classes in topics such as computer literacy, English and Arabic.
“It’s a special place here,” Jomaa said as she showed off pieces of handmade jewelry that she sells on the side.
“If you are alone you can find friends, we are all foreigners here.”
Previously hosted by feminist collective Nasawiya, the food nights have been going on sporadically in some form or another for the past year. It wasn’t until last month that MCC, in its new headquarters, had the space to start hosting them itself, although Nasawiya still helps out with the organizational side of things.
“The people in MCC loved the idea,” said Jina Galj, a Lebanese molecular biologist who volunteers with the center and helped organize the Sudanese food night. “They are always coming and asking for their turn to cook.”
“They are just ordinary people who normally cook for their family, not chefs per se. Once the country is decided, the [MCC] community comes up with the names of two people to do the cooking.”
MCC’s first food night in December, held shortly after their move to Gemmayzeh, featured Ethiopian food made by community member Rahel Abebe-Endale.
Unlike most of the other amateur home cooks who take part, Abebe-Endale has turned her culinary talents into a small business of sorts, which she runs via her modest Facebook page “Ethiopian Catering by Rahel in Beirut.”
For dinner that night, Abebe-Endale prepared staples of Ethiopian cuisine, which typically consists of heavily spiced meat stews and curries served over a spongy, fermented flat bread called enjera.
The menu comprised five dishes: minchet abish, a slightly sweet stew made from ground beef; doro wat, chicken stew with whole hardboiled eggs mixed in; a pea stew called shiro wat; a yellow, turmeric-laden pea puree; and a white crumbly cheese called ayibe.
Although eating at the center is more like a picnic with plastic plates than fine dining, the atmosphere is friendly and informal, providing a rare chance to mingle with people who are otherwise largely marginalized by society.
The event in December drew a packed house to the center’s office-turned-dining hall. Tables had to be rearranged and some guests even had to eat at computer desks.
So far, the chefs have been women, Galj said, but men were very welcome to get involved too.
“It’s a nice opportunity for migrants here to get to know each other,” she said.
“The chefs buy the food and then whatever money we make [on the night] goes straight to them,” she added. “It’s not much obviously, but it’s still a small thank you for their trouble.” – additional reporting by Beckie Strum
The next food night, scheduled for the first week of February, will feature food from Congo. Intrigued? Then check out www.facebook.com/MigrantCommunityCenterLebanon for more information and upcoming events.