A Taste of the Levant: Lebanon

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Asia, Lebanon, West

Fattoush at T-Marbouta in Hamra, Beirut

From the balmy Mediterranean Sea to the snow-covered mountains of Lebanon, the magnificent Roman ruins in Baalbek to the spectacular rock city of Petra, and the scorching heat of Jordanian desert to that of the political climate in Jerusalem – figuratively speaking – the natural and cultural landscape in the Levant is as intriguing as it is diverse. Comprising what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, the Levant is probably among the most highly-contested pieces of land anywhere on the planet, thanks to its convoluted history – a result of the mixing of religious conservatism, tribalism, colonialism, right-wing nationalism and contemporary geopolitical agendas. However, as contentious as relations among these nations can be, when you peel away the outer layers of communal identities that often come to the forefront of any political issues, arguments and strife in this part of the world, you’ll understand that these peoples have far more things in common. And as neighbors who inhabit the same corner of the Middle East, food is one of the things the Levantines share.

My first experience trying traditional Levantine dishes was at a Lebanese bistro in Hong Kong around four years ago, and then at another Lebanese restaurant in Melbourne in October 2017. Despite the small size of Lebanon, its food does travel well, thanks to the Lebanese diaspora in all corners of the world – partially the result of mass migration following the long civil war that engulfed their homeland from 1975 to 1990. At the end of March 2019, I finally got the chance to visit the Middle East, and in spite of the hassles I had to deal with as an Indonesian to secure a visa, I chose Lebanon as my very first destination in this region. Going to Oman, Qatar, Jordan or Iran would have been a lot easier for me as I don’t need to apply for a visa in advance to visit those countries.

After checking in to our hotel in Beirut’s Sodeco neighborhood, the first thing James and I did was finding a place to have lunch. Located just half a kilometer away from where we stayed, Al Falamanki – a beautiful restaurant with a homey village feel – was our choice. Still feeling tired after the long flights from Jakarta (including a stopover in Doha), we ordered quite a lot of dishes that could probably feed three to four people. But that was just our excuse. We had eggplant with pomegranate molasses; tabbouleh (a Levantine salad made from finely chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion and bulgur then seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper); labneh (a thicker version of Greek yogurt, made from cow’s milk); fried kibbeh (made from bulgur, minced onions, ground meat and spices) in yogurt with coriander, garlic and pine nuts; as well as some other dishes I can’t remember.

On another day in the Lebanese capital, we met Mahmoud, James’s friend from his days in Salamanca, Spain. It was him who helped me with the invitation letter, one of many documents I had to present to the Lebanese embassy in Jakarta to get a visa. Mahmoud and his Argentine wife Vani met us for dinner in Hamra, a district in the western part of Beirut filled with restaurants, cafes, shops and hotels. At first, they took us to T-Marbouta, a trendy place that was unfortunately packed to the brim when we got there. But the good thing about going out with locals is that they know their city well, so James and I followed them to Mezyan, another restaurant that was just down the street. They ordered all these different Lebanese delicacies, some new to us, others familiar but with a twist. The beetroot hummus fell into the latter category, and James and I agree that it was among the best dishes we tried in Lebanon. It was so smooth, creamy and well-balanced. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of the food as I was distracted by our hosts’ sweetness and playfulness toward each other, which was very fun and heartwarming to watch. The next day, James and I were on our own exploring Beirut, and we decided to try our luck with getting a table at T-Marbouta, which we did. At this point, it became more and more clear to me how Lebanese cuisine emphasizes the freshness of vegetables and herbs, with that kick of tanginess in the overall flavor of a dish which varies from one restaurant to the other.

The dishes we tried at Al Falamanki in Sodeco, Beirut

Dolma (stuffed grape leaves) at T-Marbouta

A modern interpretation of kibbeh mloukiyeh

T-Marbouta’s fatteh

To delve deeper into the culinary scene of the Lebanese capital, we joined a full-day walking tour focusing on Beirut’s food heritage. Founded by Bethany Kehdy, a cookbook author and an expert on Lebanese cuisine, the tour started in front of a breakfast joint called Barbar in a part of Hamra. This neighborhood seemed to be the stronghold of the Amal Movement, the largest Shia political party in Lebanon, given the plethora of the party’s flags strewn across the buildings and over the streets. James and I were the first to arrive, then followed by a Brit, an Aussie, and Bethany herself.

“This is not our first stop in this food tour,” Bethany said to us, to my disappointment because while waiting for them to arrive, I was salivating over all the different kinds of bread that were being made at Barbar. We soon started walking eastward to a quiet neighborhood called Zokak el-Blat. Our first destination? A small bakery called Ichkanian specializing in Armenian lahmadjun or lahm bi ‘ajin/lahmeh bi ajjine in the Lebanese dialect of Arabic. Bethany ordered the standard meat and vegetables lahmadjun as well as the meat and pomegranate version for us, and the baker in a fast and precise movement prepared our flatbread in no time. A staff member then folded them in half, rolled them, and wrapped each of them in a paper, and we were good to go. Outside the bakery, I took a bite of my first-ever lahmadjun, and I was blown away. While the standard one was really good, for me the star was the other one with pomegranate molasses which gave this traditional snack a satisfyingly sweet and slightly tangy flavor.

As we continued walking, Bethany explained the story of some derelict buildings that we saw along the way. During the Lebanese civil war, the belligerents fought over Beirut’s skyscrapers as taking control of them was seen as giving them an upper hand over the others. She also recalled the days when she and her family had to move to a village high up on the slopes of the Mount Lebanon range to escape the brutality of the war.

It was mostly cloudy throughout the day, and barely a few blocks away from Ickhanian bakery, what began as a drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. Although we were supposed to do the tour on foot, Bethany decided to hail an Uber to get us to our next destination so that we wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day soaking in wet clothes. Soon, we arrived at a row of falafel joints on Damascus Street. Bethany went inside one of them and bought some falafels, but then she took us to nearby Falafel Aboulziz to have the ones she bought earlier and see how they compared to what Aboulziz makes. Falafel is usually made from either chickpeas, fava beans, or both, and is usually served in pita bread. But what makes Aboulziz’s special was that his were made mostly from chickpeas – some places use more fava beans as they are cheaper. After finishing mine, I looked out and just across the street was an abandoned building riddled with bullet and shrapnel holes, another reminder of the devastation the 15-year civil war had brought upon the city and its people.

We then moved to another place a few minutes’ walk southeast of the falafel joint and arrived at a dessert place in Sodeco, not too far from our hotel. As we entered the premises, heaps after heaps of baklava in different sizes and shapes welcomed us. This very much reminded me of my trip to Istanbul back in 2013 when I tried the very sweet pastry for the first time. Bethany ordered some for takeout, then led us across the street to Sodeco Square, a development project that turned a derelict patch along the former Green Line (a no-man’s land that separated Beirut’s east and west during the civil war) into an upscale commercial and residential complex. We enjoyed the sweet (but not overly so) baklava with Lebanese-style cardamom coffee.

The sun had come out again by the time we strolled into the predominantly Christian district of Achrafieh. It was here that Bethany led us to a small, nondescript joint which turned out to be one of the most celebrated ice cream parlors in Beirut. Widely known as Hanna Mitri, and named after the father of the current owner who opened the business in 1949, this place has never shut its doors, even during the civil war. Each of us was handed out a pile of ice creams and sorbets with different colors, textures and flavors, from pistachio and caramelized almond to rose water, apricot, strawberry and lemon. And it was clear that I wasn’t the only one enjoying this refreshing dessert so much as the others in the group seemed to also be savoring the complexity of all those layers that tickled and pleased our taste buds.

Lahmadjun at Ichkanian

Frying falafel at Aboulziz

Freshly-fried falafel balls

A baklava heaven in Sodeco

Our first dessert

Lebanese coffee

Waiting patiently for our ice cream at Hanna Mitri

Layers of sweet goodness

The Armenian lady at her small joint

Chopping meat and fat into small pieces

Let the hairdryer do the action

The end result

Saj, an unleavened flatbread widely available in the Levant

After this brief stop, Bethany ushered us into a nearby shop selling artisanal olive products – from olive oil to olive jam, pickled olives, as well as olive oil soap – then to a local restaurant to have shawarma, probably among the most well-known Middle Eastern dishes in the world. At the end of the tour, Bethany would take us to the Armenian quarter in Bourj Hammoud further east. But on our way there, we stopped at a small diner on Armenia Street that was manned by an elderly Armenian woman who, as Bethany said to us earlier, “cooks her food using a hairdryer.” We were the only customers when we went inside her modest place, and as soon as Bethany placed our order, the action began. She started by chopping some meat as well as sheep’s tail fat into small cubes. Then they were all neatly fitted onto metal skewers, placed over hot charcoal, and … blown with something from a compartment that was plugged into an electric socket. It was the hairdryer! As much as the cooking process was fun to watch, the end result itself was a delicious dish where the tender and succulent meat went well with the grilled tomato and other ingredients.

From this place, we kept walking east, crossing the Beirut River to arrive at the heart of the Armenian community in the Lebanese capital. The significant number of ethnic Armenians in Beirut (and in many parts of Lebanon) can be attributed to Armenia’s turbulent history under the Ottoman rule which pushed many Armenians to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere across the globe, including in then French-controlled Lebanon. Generations after this exodus, Armenian culture is now very much an integral part of modern Lebanon, with the former’s food now deeply embedded into the Lebanese culinary scene. At a restaurant on a narrow alley in Bourj Hammoud, the five of us were joined by a group of Americans – mostly from Oregon – led by Bethany’s brother, Eli, who had just finished guiding a day-trip outside Beirut. Over a long table we all sat down together and shared our experiences while the staff in the kitchen were busy preparing our dinner. Then, one by one, delectable-looking Armenian dishes arrived at our table. From manti (Armenian dumplings), soubereg (cheese in filo pastry), and many more dishes whose names I can barely remember. One thing I noticed from all the things I ate that night was the fact that they were generally more spicy and bolder in taste than other foods we had tried so far in Lebanon. This dinner alone has propelled Armenia high up the ever-expanding list of countries I want to visit in the future.

My culinary exploration in Lebanon was a success. I don’t recall ever trying anything that didn’t taste good throughout our week-long stay in the country, from Beirut to the snow-covered village of Al Arz and the historic city of Baalbek. In the Lebanese capital we were lucky to have locals to bring us to places that serve good Lebanese food, and we also made the right decision of joining the culinary tour with Bethany. But even when we were on our own, we always came across places that did decent food. From the outside, Zaatar W Zeit seemed to be just another fast food restaurant chain. But at their branch in Sodeco, we quickly found out that it’s simply not comparable to McDonald’s or KFC. On our first visit, we ordered all kinds of dishes, so much so the waitress had to stop us and said that it would be too much for the two of us. So we followed her advice and dropped a few of our initial choices. Only after our manousheh (or manakish in plural) came did we realize what she meant with ordering too much food. Liberally sprinkled with za’atar (a dried herb or spice mixture widely used in Levantine cooking), the flatbread was as delicious as it was filling. On our second visit, we tried another kind of manousheh, this time with za’atar and Akkawi cheese (a type of cheese originating in the city of Akko, or Acre, in modern-day Israel). It was equally good, if not better, than the first. Lebanese za’atar was so good we didn’t mind having it in just about everything we ate in Lebanon. However, Bethany told us that the za’atar from Jordan is actually better, which really intrigued us and became part of the reason we decided to travel to the latter six months later. Impulsive? Maybe. Did we regret it? Absolutely not, for we learned that Jordanian food could well be among the world’s most underrated cuisines. That’s for the next story.

Zaatar W Zeit’s manousheh with za’atar and Akkawi cheese

Kafta at Zaatar W Zeit

With all the delicious dishes they serve, I really wish Zaatar W Zeit opens a branch in Indonesia

Bread and pastries from a local bakery near our hotel in Beirut

Pizza with sujuk (dried spiced sausage)

Flatbread with kishk (bulgur fermented with milk and yogurt) in Bsharri

Baalbek’s version of sfiha (Lebanese open-faced meat pie)

Sheep’s tongue with mint and pickled green chilies in Baalbek

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

43 thoughts on “A Taste of the Levant: Lebanon”

  1. Ahhh you’ve got me craving food from Jordan now! I was in Aqaba this time last year, enjoying beautiful food by the sea. How things have changed in a year! Your post has me salivating for Hashem in Amman…. Gosh their hummus was the best!

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I was choosing the photos for my next post on Jordanian food, I kept thinking how good everything was. Hashem was the first place I went to in Amman, and I remember being a little perplexed finding out how things worked. But fortunately in the end the food was good.

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      • Hahah yes we had no idea what or how to order. We just asked for enough food for two of us to try…. Got sooooo much we took a lot of back to the hotel to snack on later!

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  2. This all looks yummy! Reminds me of much of the food we ate in Turkey. In fact, lamachun was a favorite there– although I’ve never seen it rolled up before, it was always served open face, like a pizza.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also tried lahmacun in Istanbul, but for some reason I didn’t like it. Maybe I went to the wrong place, because from what I read it looks like most people really like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This post brought back memories of my regular visits to a tiny Lebanese restaurant in South Brisbane where the chef even bottled their own olives that tasted like heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Our fondest memories of food often come from small restaurants like this, where the owners are so passionate for what they’re doing and the components of the food are produced slowly and in small quantity.

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  4. The stuffed leaves are probably the one and only thing I don’t remember fondly. Maybe it’s because I completely, shamelessly pigged out on them and basically overdosed on ‘em. Whereas I have fond memories of Barbar over in Hamra. London has remarkably shitty kebab and shwarma, that place was a godsend. Really jealous about your Armenian finds, we either didn’t look enough or didn’t persevere enough… but we discovered Medovik, the Russian honey cake, there and even I who don’t like sweets had to admit it delicious!

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    • I really wonder why we didn’t grab a snack or two at Barbar before starting the walking tour. If you get the chance to return to Beirut (after Covid-19 and when Lebanon’s economy has rebounded), head to Bourj Hammoud. That’s where you’ll find a lot of Armenian dishes. As an Indonesian, I really appreciate the fact that Armenians also play around with spices in their food. I had to google medovik just now, and it looks like something I would love.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow… you’re making me hungry not just for the food but to travel. Both you and James write so well. I appreciate all the work that went into writing this entry. Thank you.

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    • Writing this post really made me miss traveling, exploring new countries and trying local delicacies. Thank you, Matt! These days I don’t write as often as I did a year ago. On one hand, it gives me more time to do other things. But on the other hand, I do miss writing and sharing my travel experiences.

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  6. It’s a good thing I just had breakfast, Bama! I love Lebanese cuisine – something that is quite prolific in the UAE. I buy my za’ater mix and labneh from a small pop-up Lebanese stand, which is the best I’ve ever tasted. Luckily I have a good amount of za’ater stocked up, as I have no idea when they will be able to do business the way they used to, because of the pandemic. I love food tours, as they give one a quick in-depth insight into a country’s cuisine.

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    • Oh I also bought a lot of za’atar from my latest trip to the Middle East last October, and I still have some today. I must admit, when I first started traveling, I wasn’t too adventurous with foreign food. I would try some, but most of the time I chose something that didn’t look or sound too weird. Luckily now that has changed, and I’m forever grateful since food really is a window to other cultures.

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      • I completely agree that food is a wonderful window into other cultures. I’m not an adventurous eater at all, and on top of that is a vegetarian. That is why I love Lebanese food so much, as there is an excellent variety of vegetarian fair. Glad you stocked up on some za’atar.

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  7. The pictures of the Lebanese food look delicious, my favorite ones are the ones with the Lebanese ice cream, I’ve never seen ice cream served like that, it looks so good!

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    • That ice cream did taste as good as it looks! I loved how he layered up those different notes and colors — it started with refreshing rose water, then the sweetness of all those different fruits, and toward the end, more intense and rich flavors.

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    • What are your favorite Middle Eastern dishes? Maybe they can give me an inspiration of where to go once this pandemic is over. 🙂 Thanks Victoria!

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  8. Great description and wonderful photos. I’m really regretting that missed trip to the Levant in March. I still have hopes of making it some time in the next two years.

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    • At least you’re safe. And from other people’s experiences, it sounds like traveling just before countries began closing their borders due to the pandemic was somewhat eerie and surreal. Hopefully, these crazy times end soon, so we can travel again.

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  9. Lebanese food might be one of my all-time favorites. Growing up, international cuisine was not nearly as pervasive as it is now (especially in the provincial part of the country I lived in), but my parents used to take us to a Lebanese place as a special treat, and we all adored the “exotic” food.

    I can’t help but think about the terrible explosion that rocked Beirut yesterday and how sad that is for them amid all their other difficulties lately. 😦

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    • I remember having a lot of vegetables in Lebanon, which made me feel really healthy throughout my stay in the country. I think my mom would also love the dishes there — except for the raw meat, I guess.

      Just before I started working yesterday, I read about the news and I was completely shocked and deeply saddened by what happened to a city which from my trip last year was such a fascinating place. This couldn’t be a more terrible time for something like this to happen. Then I looked up my post on Beirut and thought that most of the buildings I took photos of must have been damaged now. I really hope Beirut and Lebanon can come out of this catastrophe.

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  10. Membaca postingan ini setelah kejadian ledakan di pelabuhan di Beirut kemaren.. Fakta bahwa pengelola bisnis kuliner yang dirangkum di sini bisa jadi terkena imbas ledakan kemaren terasa cukup menyedihkan (beberapa mungkin ada yang lokasinya agak jauh dari Port ya? Tapi tetap terpengaruh sih pastinya). Seolah-olah Lebanon masih butuh cobaan tambahan selain krisis ekonomi dan politik yang tiada henti.

    Ngomong-ngomong kayanya tipikal makanan di Timur Tengah rada-rada mirip ya, paduan daging, herbs, sayur segar, dan roti tepung/gandum. Dari sekian menu yang dicoba ini, menurut mas Bama mana yang paling distinct rasanya? Yang paling ga mirip dari tipikal makanan Timur tengah gitu.

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    • Betul banget. Jantung saya kayak copot pas baca berita kemarin, dan ditambah video-video yang diambil warga Beirut yang menunjukkan detik-detik gelombang kejut ledakan itu menghantam kaca-kaca dan bangunan-bangunan seantero kota. Di foto-foto yang saya lihat dari media luar negeri, banyak sekali jalan-jalan dan sudut-sudut Beirut yang saya kenali karena bulan Maret tahun kemarin kebetulan saya mengeksplor daerah-daerah itu. Sedih sekali melihat kenyataan bahwa banyak bangunan yang hancur dan tidak sedikit nyawa yang melayang.

      Kalau di Indonesia, makanan Timur Tengah yang lebih familier dengan lidah kita mungkin sejenis nasi kebuli, dan nasi-nasian lainnya dengan daging ya. Kalau di Lebanon paling mencolok itu banyak sayuran sih. Saya berasa sehat banget setiap hari makan sayur segar di sana. Ada beberapa makanan Lebanon yang unik, misalnya daging domba mentah yang dicincang halus dan dicampur herbs. Yang unik lagi dan sepertinya khas Lebanon ya itu, makanan komunitas Armenia di Lebanon. Saya penasaran sih membandingkan gimana beda/persamaannya dibanding makanan Armenia di negara asalnya.

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      • Beneran serem sih, terutama gelombang kejutnya itu. Yang ngerekam dari jarak cukup jauh aja masih kebanting. Pertama kali liat video-video rekamannya kepikiran jangan-jangan nuklir atau semacamnya, semoga engga.

        Pasti ngerasa gimana gitu ya, ngeliat lokasi-lokasi yang pernah didatangi (apalagi baru tahun lalu) tahu-tahu terkena tragedi begini. Semoga ga kejadian yang aneh-aneh lagi sih, soalnya habis ledakan di Beirut ini langsung ada kebakaran besar banget juga di Ajman UAE. Semoga ga berhubungan.

        Menarik juga, di negara yang relatif ‘kurang subur’ gitu tanahnya (dibanding Indonesia setidaknya) ternyata sayurannya segar-segar. Penasaran juga sama teknologi pertaniannya, bisa jadi mengadopsi kecanggihan teknologi pangan dan pertanian Israel juga ya.

        Saya belum kebayang gimana rasanya daging domba mentah, tapi mestinya herbsnya cukup banyak komposisinya biar dagingnya ga terlalu kerasa mentah ya.

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      • Yang saya baca dari berita, sebagian orang di Beirut lebih bisa “memaklumi” ledakan-ledakan pas dulu Lebanon masih masa perang saudara. Kalau ledakan kali ini bener-bener disebabkan faktor kelalaian dan tidak berfungsinya sistem kontrol di sana dengan baik, jadi orang-orang lebih marah.

        Wah kalau sampai mengadopsi teknologi dari Israel saya kurang tahu juga, dan sepertinya unlikely sih karena Israel ini musuh bebuyutannya Lebanon. Tapi bisa juga sih teknologi ini masuk ke Lebanon melalui negara ketiga. Entahlah. Yang pasti, waktu saya ke desa-desa dan kota-kota di luar Beirut, memang terlihat negara ini cukup subur dan banyak sungai mengalir.

        Daging domba mentah yang saya coba sih gak ada bau domba, bau amis, atau bau-bauan gak enak sama sekali sih. Mungkin selain dari herbs, kualitas dagingnya juga gak sembarangan.

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      • “… sebagian orang di Beirut lebih bisa “memaklumi” ledakan-ledakan..”

        Ironis sekali ya sebenernya kondisi begitu. Semoga ini beneran murni kelalaian teknis sih, jadi penanggungjawabnya bisa ditindak dengan lebih tegas. Kalau ada bumbu-bumbu politik dan militernya lagi makin nelangsa itu penduduk Beirut.

        Berarti ga tandus-tandus amat juga ya kondisi alamnya. Kirain kering kerontang banget gitu.

        Kirain amis ya, soalnya kan mentah. Keren juga berarti teknik masaknya. Mungkin mirip sama kita waktu masak daging kambing ya. Ada yang jago ngolahnya jadi ga bau sama sekali. Kalau yang ga biasa masaknya kan daging kambingnya cenderung berbau.

        Thanks infonya, Mas.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Semoga sih. Dan menurut saya karena rakyat Lebanon sudah sangat gak percaya dengan pemerintahnya sendiri, ada baiknya penyelidikan kasus ledakan ini melibatkan lembaga-lembaga independen internasional juga.

        Lebanon memang tanahnya gak seperti bayangan banyak orang tentang Timur Tengah sih. Subur, hijau, dan di daerah pegunungannya bersalju!

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      • Semoga ga ada penolakan bantuan asing dari pemerintah dalam negerinya ya. Kemaren baca berita, evakuasi yang dibantu tim dari spanyol dan belanda harus ditunda cukup lama karena otoritas di beirut katanya ga mengijinkan anjing pelacak menaiki kendaraan yang sama. Ada-ada aja, hehe.

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      • Ya begitulah di sana. Selama seminggu saya di sana, hampir setiap orang cerita betapa korupnya pemerintah mereka, dan betapa mereka benci kelompok elit politikus di sana.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh now to do this food your now. Food is such a huge part of the experience of new places and cultures. It’s so amazing how peop,e have evolved such distinct cuisines over time. (On a side note, I am wondering how many disposable gloves enter the ocean everyday from restaurants)…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, and I regret for not realizing this in my early years of traveling. When I went to Cambodia in 2011, for example, I didn’t try as many Khmer food as I would now if I get the chance to go back there.

      As for the plastic waste contaminating our oceans, I think due to Covid-19 (as many people use disposable face masks) things are getting worse now.

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  12. Bama like Lexie I read through your posts and couldn’t help but think of what may have happened to these places and people. Do you have any idea? The food looks extraordinary. What a gift that you visited when you did.

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    • Our friend’s apartment in western part of Beirut, about 3 kilometers away from the explosion, was partially damaged — the glass window of his living room was shattered. I can only imagine how much worse the situation must be for those who live closer to the blast. I also remember vividly some of the places we went to in areas of Beirut which according to the photos I’ve seen are now completely destroyed.

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    • Maybe I should have warned people not to read this post on an empty stomach. 🙂 My friend lives in western Beirut, and today I learned that the now destroyed silo at the city’s port actually prevented even more severe damage to this part of the Lebanese capital.

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