Eating my way through Lebanon helped me process my grief

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      I had been avoiding Lebanon out of fear that the grief would overtake me.

      Last time I visited the country was with my dad, who was Lebanese. Since his death in 2017, I’d been scared to go back.

      But this past summer I ventured to Beirut to complete a 12-week internship as part of my graduate studies program at UBC. I finally felt ready to reconnect with my roots.

      This time around, I stayed in a neighbourhood I was unfamiliar with—without my father to translate or guide me around town. The first couple of days were hard, and I debated packing up and heading home. But honouring the memory of my dad kept me grounded.

      Since his passing, food has been the binder that kept me connected to my heritage. Cooking and eating Lebanese food was a form of therapy that allowed me to hold space for my grief on my own terms.

      In Beirut, I was determined to try every single food establishment that was recommended to me—whether it was Lebanese cuisine or not. (It proved fruitful: some of the best burgers and hot wings I’ve ever had were in Lebanon.)

      As the weeks went on, I gained the confidence to venture outside of Beirut.

      Through a tour guide, I explored the mountains of Hammana, picked cherries, visited Saint Charbel, and had dinner at a popular Italian restaurant in the village. 

      Then I got bolder: I rented a tiny black car and took to the Lebanese roads for the first time. It was quite controversial—my officemates and family tried to convince me not to drive on the chaotic roads, where the rules were vastly different from back home, but that just made me want to do it even more.

      I travelled 45 minutes south of Beirut to the village of Barouk, where I had a breakfast so unreal it felt like the ones in TV commercials. Bayad ma’a Qawarma (eggs with preserved meat) is a traditional food mostly eaten in Lebanese villages. Using freshly-baked pita bread to scoop up the eggs and meat fat with my morning akweh (the Arabic word for coffee) as I admired the mountainous terrain of Chouf, I was reminded how much my dad enjoyed the simplicities in life: a coffee and a cigarette every morning, a piece of cake after dinner every night. He taught me to enjoy the little things.

      I drove south to the beaches in Tyre, where I was introduced to a family friend named Samer (known to be a Tyre connoisseur). He took me to Mahfouz, a breakfast and lunch restaurant famous for its meat sandwiches. Eating so much meat and grease so early in the morning felt wrong at first, but the energy and sustenance it gave me for a whole day spent drinking arak (a traditional anise-flavoured liqueur made from grapes) helped it make sense.

      Keeping cool on the beach in Tyre.
      Photo by Karla Jubaily.

      I travelled north to Tripoli with my Lebanese friend Camille, where we explored the city’s old souks (markets)—and where I was somehow coerced into buying four carpets, with absolutely no idea how I would get them back to Vancouver. Camille, a native Arabic speaker, also played the role of my translator; he was, unfortunately for my wallet, no good at haggling. I kept on thinking that if my dad was there, he would have haggled a great deal. A man of many talents, he always had to have the last word.

      The wonderful thing about befriending fellow foodies is that they’re always down to try new things—and they also become completely feral when it comes to ordering. Camille and I ventured into the beautiful mountains of Ehden, where we tried kibbeh Zghertewiyeh: a specialty of the city of Zgharta. This dish is a ball made of fine bulgur and extra-lean ground veal, shaped using a bowl—but as my friend Anthony, who is from Zgharta, says: “It is an art. My grandmother was the only one in the family who could shape it by hand.” The ball is then stuffed with ground beef, fat rendered from cow kidneys, onion, and Arabic seven spice. In restaurants, it is cooked on a barbecue, but traditionally it is baked in a community stone oven situated in downtown Zgharta and Ehden. The combination of the rendered fat with the beef filling and veal from the shell created mouthwatering, rich flavours. I felt warm and comforted.

      Kibbeh Zghertewiyeh: a specialty of the city of Zgharta.
      Photo by Karla Jubaily.

      At my aunt’s house in Beirut, we gathered for the Islamic holiday of Eid, where we feasted on a wonderful spread of traditional Lebanese and Beiruti food. Dishes like kibbeh bil sanieh (a combination of ground beef, fine bulgur, and spices, baked to perfection), sayadieh (a Beiruti fish dish that uses seven types of lemon), kibbeh nayyeh (raw meat combined with bulgur—kind of like a tartare), muttabal (my personal favourite: a dip made of smoked eggplant, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil), fattoush (a classic salad with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radish, then seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, and sumac, and topped with crispy fried pita), and warak enab (a savoury and sour dish of grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables).

      But the most special dish on the table that day, it turned out, was the most mundane. Laban wa khyar (yogurt with cucumbers) was something my dad would always eat when I was growing up. Savoury and creamy, it’s brimming with flavours of garlic, mint, and lemon. Among all the complex dishes served, this was the one I most strongly tied to the memory of my father. It was a delicious reminder that he is always with me—some way, somehow.

      Karla Jubaily is the Vancouver-based host of the podcast Cooking Up Culture, which explores how our childhood memories of family meals forge connections, preserve traditions, and mould our identities.