Tastes of Lebanon

I must have picked up quite a few Kenyan-English expressions – something you usually don’t realise until you see the puzzled, and sometimes amused, reaction of people when you use them with non-Kenyans. One of my favourites is ‘social’ – used instead of ‘sociable’. ‘He’s a nice guy,’ you Kenyans say. ‘Good company, good conversationalist – social.’ Well. I’ve just met a very social man – Paul Lallous, the enthusiastic owner and welcoming host of the Cedars restaurant in Lenana Road.

We were entertaining a journalist friend over from England, who had previously worked in Kenya but hadn’t been back here for something like five years.

‘Where would you like to go for dinner?’ we asked her.

‘Well, there’s a Lebanese restaurant called Cedars that I always meant to try but never got round to…. Do you know it?’

Which was just the prod we needed. Because, we also have been meaning to try it for the nine years it has been there and often driven past on Lenana Road.

Now, we knew very little about Lebanese food, except for hommus, the dip made of blended chickpeas, sesame tahini, lemon juice, garlic and eaten with pita bread – and that became a popular party dish in the 1970s. So we played safe and ordered the house special mezze for four.

This was a medley of vegetarian and meat dishes, of small pastries stuffed with vegetables and vegetable stuffed with meats, of hommus and salads, of chicken and lamb. There was so much of it – and so much variety. You need to be a relaxed group to enjoy a meal like that – and you need plenty of time. And it is best taken with the aniseed-flavoured arak – the ‘milk of lions’.

I’ve done a little research on the internet since that night out. I now know that Lebanese food is truly Mediterranean – a mix of European and Arab cuisine, excited with Eastern spices. I’ve learned that many of the traditional Lebanese dishes are very simple preparations based on grains, pulses, vegetables and fruit. There are various blends of yoghurt, cheese, cucumber, aubergines, chick peas, nuts, tomatoes, burghal and sesame. And lemons, onions and garlic are used in vast quantities.

But I learned more, and in a more enjoyable way, by going back a few days later to talk with Paul Lallous.

I asked him what brought him to Kenya.

‘Because Nairobi didn’t have a Lebanese restaurant,’ he said.

I asked him what has kept him here.

‘Because the restaurant has done well. I now have so many friends – and some people are still regularly coming back who first came nine years ago.’

We talked about Lenana Road and the number of restaurants and bars that have come up there since Cedars – and how Hurlingham now rivals Westlands as a place for entertainment and eating out. It has developed as a commercial centre, too – which has boosted the lunchtime business of restaurants such as Cedars.

I mentioned that the clientele at Cedars the night we went had been almost as varied as the mezze.

‘But what about Kenyans?’ I asked. ‘How have they taken to what you are offering?’

‘Gradually at first – but now very well. Kenyans like their nyama choma. Well, all our kebabs are nyama choma, aren’t they?’

I told Paul how much we had enjoyed, and had been intrigued by, the mezze.

‘Well, mezze means table – or full table. When the Lebanese go out for a meal they go out in a family or in a group. The proper number for a mezze is eight – but here we have compromised and made it for four!’

And it struck me that such social eating out is more often done in warm climates – in the open, in the relative cool of the evening. Kenya has such a climate. But cold and dank England? No wonder the English are not so very social.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

Photo: treatsonabudget.co.ke