Breaking taboos with Tabbouleh

Breaking taboos with Tabbouleh

Aylin Öney Tan -
Breaking taboos with Tabbouleh Tabbouleh, taboos and tawlet. These three words create miracles at the hands of Kamal Mouzawak, a pioneer from Lebanon who utilizes food for conflict resolution. Tabbouleh must be one of the most recognized Lebanese dishes worldwide. How can making tabbouleh bring peace to the world? Of course Mouzawak is not a romantic optimistic in that sense, but he believes working, producing, sharing and eating together can help break taboos. In a little country which has maybe the most diverse population, with people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs, the common ground can really be as simple as chopping parsley together. He knows that, and simply puts it as: “I want to make food, not war!” 

Years ago, when we first met in Porto, he was just initiating a farmers market to bring producers and consumers together, eliminating the middlemen who usually get the real profit. He created Souk el-Tayeb in 2004, a model market that generated worldwide recognition for its success. The reason for his success was to base its existence on connecting the people to the land. Through sharing the bounty of nature, the people connected to each other, even if from different backgrounds, regions or religions. Souk el-Tayeb had its foundations in goodness. “Tayeb” means good, fine, a word that can be both used for a good taste and for a goodhearted person. 

Bringing producers and consumers together breaks the boundaries between the urban and the rural. Rural and urban are not antagonistic parts; on the contrary, they need and complement each other. Souk el-Tayeb eventually evolved into a big organization, an umbrella institution fostering many events and projects. They initiated a capacity building program designed to build, reinforce and improve the skills of farmers, producers and cooks in both technical and non-technical ways. This assistance can vary from consultation on agricultural practices to food processing, or giving assistance in sales, marketing and promotion. Apart from the weekly farmer’s market, they also organize events and regional food festivals such as “Food & Feast” or educational awareness programs like “Souk @ School.” To support small-scale producers, home cooks and artisans they developed “Dekenet Souk el-Tayeb,” bringing together the souk’s finest products and traditional kitchen utensils under one label. The “Beit” project focuses on preserving regional culinary and architectural traditions and there are Tawlet restaurants in Beirut, Aammiq, and Deir al-Qamar, or more rightly communal kitchens that serve food to people cooked by women. “Tawlet” means “sofra” in Turkish, a table meant for eating. Tawlet outposts also act as houses for hosting workshops and trainings, sometimes inviting other partners like NGOs, foundations and cooperatives. One thing is certain: Kamal’s table is meant for more than eating, it is a table of hope.  

Tawlet el-Tayeb is a place where people are united regardless of their ethnic or religious heritage, being Druze, Shiite, Sunni, Maronite, Greek Orthodox or Jewish does not matter here. A Maronite from the north and a Shiite from the south cook the same dish together in their own different ways, side by side. Thanks to this experience accumulated over years, Kamal can now also develop models to offer a helping hand to Syrian refugees. His last but not least initiative is the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR cafeteria, and Atayab Zaman (meaning Delicious Past) a culinary training program for female Syrian refugees. Most of the women participating in this program end up cooking at Tawlet restaurants or in the UNHCR cafeteria, sustaining their families. 

Mouzawak was here in Istanbul for a brief visit as one of the speakers of the event “Discover your Food!” organized by the Turkish Kitchen Association. This year’s theme was “Courage,” and all speakers had their unique experiences about how the concept of courage applied to their own work. Having just attended the Migration, Culture and Gastronomy Summit organized by UCLG in the southern province of Gaziantep only two days ago, I was charged with ideas to develop projects on food with Syrian refugees. Kamal’s talk opened a table of hope for me, hoping that we can have him here in Gaziantep to share his experiences and help Turkey create similar models inspired by his work, embracing Syrians that no longer have a table of their own. To learn more from his experience visit

Bite of the Week

Fork and Cork of the Week: Have you ever heard of a wine called Linen Shirt? Well, this is the name of the grape, a local variety in Cappadocia, near the skirts of the majestic mountain of Hasan Dede. The color of this grape resembles the long lost tradition of a fine linen textile of the region, and the locals named the grape after the traditional shirt (keten gömlek) made from this particular textile. But the name remains the least weird thing about this wine. It is made in huge historic earthen jars, pretty much in the same fashion that wine was made millennia ago. This special winery deserves an article dedicated to telling their story. Udo Hirsch and Hacer Özkaya are a crazy couple who are dedicated to reviving old methods of wine and cheese making. They were also presenters at the “Discover your Food!” event. Unfortunately, Hacer’s cheese aged in earth jugs is not for sale, but one can have the opportunity to taste it if you visit their place in Güzelyurt. For this truly unusual wine experience, look for the Gelveri label.