I am just back from Beirut where I saw my beautiful mother and of course every time I visit her, I ask her to cook something delicious for me. This time I was modest in my request and asked for mujaddara, a simple lentils, onions and rice dish that is a staple of Lebanese Christians during Lent and once also a staple on spring cleaning days when the lady of the house put the lentils to cook while she and her maid/s beat the dust out of the carpets before putting them away, washed the floors and generally did a deep clean everywhere preparing the house for the summer months. I still remember the beating of the carpets although I don’t remember the mujaddara — mujaddara is the mushy version, almost like a dip while mudardarah is the dry version, a little like risotto although not at all wet — on those days! Anyhow, my mother now whizzes the lentils, rice and onions with a hand blender but in the old days she cooked them down to a mush over a low heat. And my mother being a totally wonderful woman, she obliged my whim and prepared mujaddara for me and as you see from the picture of the ingredients above it couldn’t be more frugal as a dish.
I can’t remember when my mother moved to Balluneh. I wasn’t happy because I loved our huge appartment in Beirut in a 1920’s building but it had been squatted during the civil war and even though my mother had gotten rid of the squatters (who were neighbours), she no longer felt safe there. So, she bought in Balluneh, away from the chaos of Beirut and close to her brother. I didn’t like the place at first but I do now, for all kinds of reasons including Qal’at el-Rumiyeh in neighbouring Qley’at where they rear their own lambs to serve the best nayeh ever — the only better nayeh is up north in places like Ehden where they make it with goat meat. They also have the most amazing view as you can see from the picture above. And whenever I visit, my mother knows that lunch at Rumiyeh is the first thing I want to do. It was no different this time except that we were joined by my sister and her husband, a rare couple who are still mad about each other nearly 40 years, 3 children and 2 grandchildren later!
Most people don’t like dining in an empty restaurant. I love it. I love the desolate atmosphere of an empty dining room and I love the undivided attention I get from both waiters and chefs, at least in places like Qal’at al-Rumiyeh, my favourite restaurant in the Lebanese mountains, near where my mother lives. Fortunately, the restaurant is not always empty. Only when I tend to go for midweek lunch when there isn’t a single soul there apart from the family that owns the restaurant, seated at their regular table by the door and my mother and I (I always insist we go there as soon as I arrive in Lebanon), not counting the waiters milling about with nothing to do. I don’t particularly like the place which is huge and pretty charmless, but I love the dramatic views over a deep valley and the Mediterranean in the distance and of course the excellent food.