My fingers are sticky and wet, and I can feel juice slowly trickling from the corner of my mouth to my chin; looking around I notice I’m not the only person who decided to eat with my hands, and I feel a sense of relief; I tend to worry about displaying bad manners when eating in a foreign country.
When I arrived in Singapore I was thrilled about the location of the hostel I’d be staying in. I was in the Arabic area. I had visions of incredible food. Food I had been craving for months and unable to find while I was in Malaysia. As I walked around the neighbourhood, I would look at menus and become discouraged by the steep prices and the difference in what I thought was authentic food. It took 2-3 MRT stops south of my chosen neighbourhood for me to find a restaurant with reasonable prices and authentic food. I learned of Urban Bites through Twitter, and when I saw their menu, I knew I had to eat there.
become discouraged by the steep prices and the difference in what I thought was authentic food. It took 2-3 MRT stops south of my chosen neighbourhood for me to find a restaurant with reasonable prices and authentic food. I learned of Urban Bites through Twitter, and when I saw their menu, I knew I had to eat there.
As I sat in Urban Bites, Chef Ghazi’s restaurant, my food was no longer food. I could feel the passion and hear the story of what I was eating. The hommos was smooth and the olive oil was light and not bitter. With each bite I took, I would think of how Chef Ghazi had made the olive oil. This was not supermarket food. This was whole raw foods that had been used to create a culinary experience. I have never sat in a restaurant and chatted with the Chef responsible for the food I’m eating. The experience was like no other. In fact, it’s an experience I would like to have in each country I visit going forward.
Remember when I wrote about the best hummus I had ever tasted and how my travel plans are starting to revolve around food?After spending time with Chef Ghazi and tasting his hummus, I decided to return to Derwish and try their hummus again. The difference between the two was instantly noticeable.
“I don’t like garlic in the hommos. It will spoil the taste of the hommos. You want to taste the tahini, the chickpeas, the real chickpeas of the hommos.”
As a huge fan of garlic, I wasn’t sure, however, after sampling the hummus at Derwish again (after my visit with Chef Ghazi), I can say that Chef Ghazi was 100% right. It does taste different. My mouth was tainted by garlic (which I am normally okay with), and I didn’t taste the chickpeas, tahini or olive oil as much as I should. In many ways, it’s a completely different dish.
I was experiencing a culture. I was taking part in a tradition. In my mind, I was sitting in a restaurant in Lebanon.
Chef Ghazi believes in being authentic in terms of ingredients and cooking, and frankly, I completely agree with him.
“We introduce the Lebanese food or the medicinal food in a way which is really authentic one. People have a lot of tastes. Some locals say “Oh, we don’t eat lamb”. Most of our food is made of lamb. Our starters are all vegetarian and once you do this hommos, motabel, tabbouleh or falafel if you don’t do it exactly, it’s like a hygiene tablet I call it. You don’t do it in microwave. You don’t use the right ingredients. You’ll be spoiling the whole taste. The whole thing.”
Chef Ghazi’s eyes sparkle as he speaks and his passion for authentic Lebanese food oozes out of him in a way that makes me want to pack up my whole life and move to Lebanon. Tomorrow. His personality is infectious and I can’t help but sit and listen to him. I would sit in his restaurant every day and listen to his stories if I could (and eat an obscene amount of hommos, labneh, Lebanese bread and Shwarma). Chef Ghazi’s commitment to keeping his cuisine authentic goes beyond using fresh ingredients and old recipes. It’s more than that. He’s bringing a piece of Lebanon to Singapore and his mother is helping him do it.
I sat and listened in awe as Chef Ghazi spoke about his mother in Lebanon and how during the summer months she goes up to the roof of her home to stir tomatoes for homemade tomato paste. At first, it seemed surreal, that an elderly woman would take 2-3 months to make tomato paste by hand. But looking into Chef Ghazi’s eyes, I knew he was telling the truth. Tomato paste isn’t the only ingredient that arrives in Singapore from his home in Lebanon, and the more Chef Ghazi spoke about his mother and ingredients she prepares for him, the more I wanted to meet her and follow her for a week. This woman sounds absolutely amazing. She hasn’t given into the ‘easy way’. She prepares food the old way, the hard way, the authentic way. And this has filtered down to her son, the chef.
In Chef Ghazi’s kitchen (and I’m sure his mother’s as well) nothing goes to waste. When mint is added while making Labneh, he dries the leftover pieces and chops them up to use as garnish. And it doesn’t stop there. It’s rare for Chef Ghazi to waste food. If it can be used, it will be used. Although we’re talking about food, I can’t help but think of life in general and how we waste things (food, money, talent, time etc.). Everything that can be utilised, should be. It makes complete sense.
As a travel writer/blogger, I look for the story in a city or monument. I look for a story when I meet locals. Up to this point, I have not thought of looking for a story when I eat. I feel almost ashamed to admit that now.
I learned a lot during my time with Chef Ghazi. I learned to appreciate authentic food. I learned to look for the story of what I was eating and the work that went into preparing it. I learned that being wasteful (even in life) is to be avoided at all costs. I learned that I seriously need to live in Lebanon for like 6 months!