Eating Beirut: Q&A With Author Salma Abdelnour

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When writer Salma Abdelnour left Beirut in 1981 at the age of 9, she did so kicking and screaming. Her family resettled in Houston, and though they took many trips back to Lebanon, Abdelnour always felt something was missing from her life. In a way, this homesickness brought her back to her motherland for a year, and in her first book Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, she delves into how she reconnected with her country and the food. I caught up with her at Grey Dog in Soho to chat about her latest scribbles, the rise of Lebanese food in the city, and where you can get it.

In the book you said you felt like an outsider growing up here. Do you think in a way that strife in Beirut in the 1980s made you closer to the country?
I think, in my case, it’s more that my formative years were there. From age 2 to 9, all my experiences, attachments, and everything I knew were there. To pick up and have to start over in an American school, it felt like I was an alien who had just dropped down from Mars. Plus, I had a really thick accent. Though my classmates were really sweet, I carried around this feeling that I was the strange person and not like anyone else.

How did you get over that feeling of strangeness?
That feeling eventually subsided after I continued living out my life. And New York, I really love living in New York. There is a part of me in a parallel life that is playing out who I would be if I were still there. Would I have been free of disorientation and anxiety? Or, is it just a human feeling that we all feel no matter where we grew up. I just needed to sort that out. Do I really belong there and is that where I am truly at home—or, is my life in New York? So, I went back to investigate that.

Did you come to a conclusion?
I came to, I would say, if not a conclusion, but a resolution of this angle that has been in my head and in my life since I was a child. I found a way to make peace with that.

Have you found any solace in Lebanese food in New York?
It’s funny, I have been doing more of that since I came back to New York. I have always wished there was more and better Lebanese food here, and I still do. For instant in London, Paris or Montréal, I have found a lot of really great Lebanese restaurants on all levels. In New York I have always felt that there are not enough Lebanese restaurants I feel excited about. There are a few that I can say are very good and do things well.

What are some of your favorite places?
The place I have always told people to go is Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. There is a place called Karam, which is just very tiny and they do incredible home-style Lebanese dishes. It’s not much to look at and it’s counter service. But they do a dish of the day like stuffed zucchini with garlicky sauce or a lamb kefta, which is a grilled lamb. It’s very fresh and very good.There is also a place called Man’ouChe that does one of my favorite dishes, man’ouche, which I talk a lot about in the book. It’s just flat bread with za’atar [an herb blend with sumac, salt and sesame] and olive oil. Cedars Pastry has Middle Eastern ice cream, which has this stretchy quality to it. There is an ingredient in it called salep that’s derived from the orchid plant. It’s mixed into ice creams in Turkey and in Arab countries and makes a unique texture that is incredibly good. Growing up, that’s the way I always thought ice cream was.

How about restaurants in Manhattan?
I really like going to the take-out version of Naya. You walk in and you feel like you are in this space age tunnel. It’s white and gleaming with shiny surfaces. That atmosphere isn’t quite the ambiance I am used to, but the food is actually excellent. Also, Ilili opened maybe five years ago now and I am happy it seems to be doing well. It’s more of a modernized and imaginative take on Lebanese dishes. The chef will put a spin on things like a duck shawarma with a fig puree and in Lebanon, you won’t really find duck on any menu. He does dishes that don’t have the equivalent in Lebanon. It’s nice to see a Lebanese restaurant succeed on that level. Though, I would like to see more of the cozy vibe. In London and Paris, you get that and I always wonder why New York doesn’t have that type of Lebanese place.

Speaking of London, I remember having a something like a pizza with lamb on it that gets rolled up and is nice and crispy…
Actually, the next place I was going to mention is Bread and Olive, it has a couple tables and is set up mainly for take-out. They get lines out the door every day for lunch. The food is really good and really fresh. Another thing I do sometimes is go to Kalustyan’s. There, in the refrigerators, they have packages of lahmacun. I just keep them in my freezer and if I had a snack craving or want a simple dinner or lunch, I stick them in the toaster oven and they get that crispy crust.

I feel like there has been an influx of Lebanese places opening up, have you noticed anything?
Now that I rattled all those off, it seems that it’s not too bad in the terms of the number of places that do really good Lebanese food. I am not as on top on recent openings since I have been traveling a lot for the book.

Do you think Lebanese food has been gaining popularity?
I think it has in the last, let’s say five years when Naya opened, I think there has been a steady increase. In a way, I would say yes, I think the food has been popular for a long time. Whenever I said I am from Lebanon people always say they love Lebanese food or that they heard it’s so great and want recommendations. It used to be harder to answer because there weren’t many that were great. But more and more places are opening and they are doing a good job.