Lebanese rediscover local flavours as crisis hits food imports

by Timour Azhari | @timourazhari | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 9 August 2021 12:36 GMT

A general view of Yara Nader's family land in northern Akkar. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Yara Nader

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A scarcity of food imports due to the country’s economic crisis is fostering more sustainable alternatives in Lebanon

* From chocolate to quinoa, imports plunge during crisis

* Gastronomic entrepreneurs plug gap with local goods

* Culinary tradition, sustainability guide new enterprises

By Timour Azhari

BEIRUT, Aug 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tanya Nasr grew up with the taste of her grandmother's tangy pomegranate molasses but had never made it herself until Lebanon's economic crisis and COVID-19 took her back to her home village in the mountains.

As street protests and economic uncertainty set back her work as a film producer, Nasr, 35, got to thinking how a sudden shortage of imported food could be plugged with the local products she remembers from childhood.

"I went from my personal film production business to the production of traditional things from the land. You have to go this way when the country is stalled and you can't buy anything," she said by phone from the northern Koura district.

Holed up in the kitchen of her family's restaurant, Nasr has stepped up production of orange and rose blossom preserves, olive oil and Zaatar - a popular spice mix, and revamped recipes like pepper-almond jam to appeal to modern palates.

She is already starting to export.

Nasr's culinary experiments reflect a crisis-driven gastronomic shift away from the cities and imported goods towards local businesses focused on limiting waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Until Lebanon's economy went into meltdown in mid-2019, most food was shipped in from abroad – from the meat for sumptuous mixed-grills to the chickpeas for its world-famous hummus.

But purchases of foreign-made goods crashed more than 40% in 2020 from a year earlier, according to government data, as the crisis depleted foreign currency reserves.

Imports of fruit, dairy goods, eggs and honey fell by half; chocolate shipments slumped by two-thirds.

In their place, some local, sustainable alternatives have emerged as growing numbers of Lebanese ditch the widely held belief that foreign-made is best.

"People were always more interested in Beirut and the cities, but then overnight the direction changed, the priorities changed, and people found themselves back in their villages," said Anthony Rahayel, a Lebanese food blogger.

Since the crisis set in, Rahayel said he had seen long abandoned agricultural terraces being cultivated.

"So instead of eating Nutella, you now eat jam, instead of quinoa, you eat freekeh (local cracked wheat), which wasn't seen as sexy enough before," he said.

'PEOPLE STILL NEED TO EAT'

Yara Nader, 30, left her catering job when the business fell apart due to the economic crisis and the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, returning to her family's village in the remote northern Akkar region.

Months later, she launched her own line of Mouneh preserves such as Zaatar in pesto form, and cheeses with garlic, walnuts and spices.

"I thought about leaving the country but then I looked at the land and knew that we had the know-how. I thought, it's all right here. It's possible, even in this difficult situation," said Nader, who is relaunching her brand under the name Valley N.

Like Nasr, she has already started to sell to buyers abroad, securing a vital source of hard currency.

Lebanon's agriculture sector remains heavily dependent on imported inputs, from seeds to fertilizers and pesticides, but some entrepreneurs are trying to change that.

Khawla Seif runs TinwZeytoun, a sustainable plant nursery that promotes the use of native seeds well-adapted to Lebanon's climate conditions, meaning they require less care.

"What I'm doing is being independent from the external market - no pesticides, fertilizers or foreign seeds. The response has been massively positive in terms of money saved and the quality of the product," she said.

'VILLAGE MODUS OPERANDI'

But though well-received by customers, most such initiatives are small-scale and need support from authorities to overcome a series of obstacles.

"Local producers continue to face multiple challenges," including rolling power cuts and liquidity and cash flow problems tied to the depreciation of the country's currency, the Economy Ministry said.

Kanj Hamade, an agricultural economist, said such ventures largely target middle- to high-income consumers and are not enough to tackle Lebanon's growing food security issues.

"People need to eat wheat products, potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers and we've seen very little investment in this common agriculture, even though it supports most of the population and employs low-income and vulnerable groups," he said.

Still, some people hope increasing the availability of sustainable options will foster interest in culinary traditions in a country with a reputation for lavish spreads at the dinner table.

"What else are we supposed to do?" said Sari Majdalani, head chef at the upscale Ammoula restaurant which opened in June in the capital, Beirut, with the aim of reviving "old traditions and the village modus operandi".

The restaurant lies less than a kilometre from the epicentre of a massive explosion that devastated parts of the city a year ago, and Majdalani said she hoped it would "bring some light to a very dark street".

So instead of tuna steak or lobster, Ammoula serves up a selection of preserved local sardines on toasted sourdough.

Ammoula's signature dish of stuffed lamb intestines served on tender braised tongue. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sari Majdalani

Those who might have opted for tenderloin in the past can dig in to stuffed lamb's intestines served on tender braised tongue.

"There's a clear zero waste philosophy," Majdalani said.

"We use as much as possible of the animal and the produce because everything is so expensive, and you never know what to expect or when your next meal might come."

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(Reporting by Timour Azhari @timourazhari; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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