Captured By The Recipe Hunters In Lebanon
To arrive at our story of Ketermaya, we must take you back to our time in Cyprus. Bassam and Elena are a catering duo living and working out of their organic homestead near Paphos, Cyprus. Bassam is the typical Lebanese dad, full of hugs, jokes and sarcasm and Elena is the quintessential Cypriot Londoner; full of love, sass, wit, and a laugh that will fill the room with joy! Bassam and Elena invited us to their home during Christmas time for fun, games, and recipes with their three smart and charming children. We watched movies, made gingerbread houses, and prepared a bunch of Elena’s traditional recipes together, like vasolipita cake.
Bassam is originally from Ketermaya, Lebanon. He is the youngest sibling of 11 brothers and 3 sisters, most of whom are still living in Ketermaya. When he heard we were going to Lebanon, he immediately called up his sister and neice and asked if they would host us and show us their family's recipes. Our plans were set, we would stay with his sister Amal while his niece Ranine would help translate.
After spending almost two weeks in Beirut visiting Leila's family and attending Anthony's best friend's wedding, we strap on our backpacks and hiking boots to transform back into “The Recipe Hunters.” Rather than spend $60 on a taxi from Beirut to the mountainside village of Ketermaya, we hop on the local public transportation and head on a bumpy $1.00 bus ride towards the village.
Ketermaya is a Sunni village in the South of Lebanon most recently popularized due to how they have embraced the inflow of Syrian Refugees (read here). It is a medium sized mountain village whose population of 15,000 spans across less than 7 acres. Just 2 hours from the Syrian border, Ketermaya is spread upon both sides of a beautiful hill in the south of Lebanon. Getting from one side to the next to meet friends and family becomes quite the workout! Half the town lives on the western slope while the other half of the town lives on the eastern slope. As you enter the town’s main street, you will see mountains of fresh fruits and vegetables ready for sale by wrinkled, old vendors and young teenage boys. You will pass hair salons, clothing and linen stores, mechanic and electronic shops, bakeries selling markook and manaeesh, and goats, cows, and sheep tethered to the side of the butcher shop entrances. Everyone in the town seems to have a role in the stores from children to grandparents.
Ranine aka "RuRu"
We meet Bassam’s niece named Ranine or “Ruru” and her brother, Khaled, where they are waiting for us outside of the local hardware store. After a week of kissing, hugging, and meeting tons of people at a wedding, Anthony is forewarned to hold back his Italian-ness in a community whose females are mostly hijab. It is implied through their hijab that you should not hug or touch a woman who is not your female relative. As we meet Ruru, Anthony places his hand on his heart to show he is honored to meet her and we shake Khaled’s hand. We immediately begin talking about the town, what they are studying, and how excited we are to come to Ketermaya for a week. Ruru tells us that she is off from school that week and is so happy for the opportunity to be with new friends and practice her English. They guide us to meet their very special Aunt Amal at a house around the corner.
The Amazing Amal
Amal greets us at her home with a big hug and smile. Amal has never been married, but she never spends a minute alone. All her nieces, nephews, and their friends have an open invite to her house. Amal is constantly chatting, laughing, and smoking her cigarettes in the comfort of her home. Her sisters, brothers, and their friends and family drop by on a moment’s notice. Luckily for us, she is also known as the best cook of the family. When her countless nieces and nephew come home from school they call Amal to ask her what she is cooking and if they prefer that to their own mother’s food, they run on over. We are excited to spend a week full of good food, family, and fun with Amal, Ruru, and their family.
Every morning we wake up and begin our day with Amal asking us which recipe we would like to learn. Do we want to learn a recipe with peas, with okra, with molokhia (jews mallow, with chicken? The list goes on and on. After coffee, Amal writes a list of ingredients for the recipe we choose and we walk with Ruru down to the main street and visit the vendors to buy what we need. Back at the house we gather in the kitchen with Amal and her cousin Sanaa and they teach us recipe after recipe from start to finish. By the time the food is ready to eat, a small congregation of friends and family have arrived at the house. We set the table and chow down as one big happy family. We spend the rest of the week learning their family recipes, visiting to Ruru’s home and cooking with her mom, and visiting their uncle at the local manaeesh bakery. Amal teaches us her favorite Lebanese comfort foods and staples. Each and every recipe is complex in it’s own way yet with simple ingredients.
We never know what to anticipate when visiting a new country and living with a new family. In this case we are pleasantly surprised by the incredible kindness that Amal and her family show us. We are also striken by the way that the families within Ketermaya functioned together; the expression "it takes a village to raise a child" fit our observation perfectly. For instance, it was not uncommon to see a 5 year old roaming throughout the town from loving aunt to aunt; eating, playing games, and finishing school work before retiring to their own mother and home for the night.
What we did not anticipate on our visit to Lebanon was the snow storm that struck the countryside this past week. We put on all the clothes we have and huddle around smoldering coals to keep warm. We learn recipes by daylight and flashlight, play cards, make shadow puppets on the walls, and eat warm Lebanese food, surrounded by Amal's family and friends. Within the walls of Amal's home, the wintry chill brings us closer together and we wouldn't want it any other way.
The storm that week left us shivering in our shoes, but with a roof over our heads, warm food, hot tea, layers of wool blankets, and a small receptacle of coal to warm our hands, we faired just fine. The same came not be said for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living only miles away from us huddling in exposed flimsy tents, freezing and hungry. Interestingly enough, sound shelter is not the only lacking variable in this situation. It is difficult for the Lebanese to take care of the Syrian refugees when their own corrupt government makes electricity a 21st century luxury. The country's decades-old power crisis leaves most residential families with no heat and, at best, 2-3 hours of unprompted electricity per day. That being said, the refugees were not the only group of people affected by the storm. In total, 11 people died that week in a country as small as Rhode Island, because they were cold. Because they needed a wool blanket or a warm sweater. To donate a blanket, a tent, kitchen supplies, and more to Syrian refugee families, visit here.
Home is a sense of belonging, it is a sense of comfort, and it is a sense of love. The feeling of home can be felt in a place, in an action, or with people. In Beirut, we felt home through comfort of friends, family, and invitations to events. However, in Ketermaya we felt home through a sense of love, family, and togetherness. As we pack in tightly to stay warm and place our hands over the warm coals in between card games we felt the universal happiness and peace that makes a home special. Thank you Amal and Ruru for making us feel like family.