Mediterranean Cooking from the Garden with Linda Dalal Sawaya—a year in the garden!
BY: Linda Dalal Sawaya/Contributing Writer
A year ago I began writing my weekly food and garden column inspired by what is growing in my garden at the moment, and what to do with it in the kitchen. Although my garden is in Portland, Oregon, the slant is Mediterranean, and primarily Arabic, Levantine, and more specifically Lebanese, as this is my parental culinary heritage and the subject of my cookbook, Alice’s Kitchen: Traditional Lebanese Cooking. Both of my parents immigrated from the now—and even then—trendy village of Douma, Lebanon, high in the northern mountains with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea and enveloped with terraced olive orchards.
Douma, my family village in Lebanon © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Picturesque is an understatement. The village is a poster-child for beautiful Lebanese villages whose red tile roofs make it a stand in for an Italian village. On one of my precious trips to Lubnan, I saw a Ministry of Tourism poster for “Lebanese Villages” and, yup, Douma was the one.
I say it was “trendy” one hundred years ago because my beloved mother, Alice, tells of theater troupes who came through Douma to perform. Additionally, mama remembered going to see movies there as a young girl. She and my beloved grandmother, my Sitto Dalal, came to the U.S. in 1926 when mama was 16 and her brothers were 14 and 18. My father, his mother, and my maternal grandfather all came in 1912. The streets of Douma, unlike the dirt roads of other small villages, were paved my mother proudly stated. And mama tells of the best hommous served at the cafe of her relative, Issaac el Hage. Low tables attracted people who sat on cushions eating from platters of hommous with saj or tannour-made Arabic bread enjoying the ancient culinary ritual of sharing food.
My cousin, wood artist, Elie Ayrouth in the souk of Douma © linda dalal sawaya 2016
When I took mama for her first return visit to Douma in 1998, seventy two years after she’d left on the big ship, cousin Elie Ayrouth took us through the village souk to his woodshop and atelier and opened a door across the narrow street to where the movie theater had been.
Sitt Yvonne Maloof in her Douma home © linda dalal sawaya 2016
It was then derelict and a mere shadow of its former self, but now, thanks to Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, who made her fabulous and award-winning film, Where Do We Go Now?, predominantly shot in Douma with the now Douma star, Sitt Yvonne Malouf, and the rest of the Doumanis, the movie theater has been renovated and has a new life in a new century. Sitt Yvonne invited mama and I to a memorable bus tour of Greek Orthodox monasteries in Lebanon with the choir from Douma’s Greek Orthodox church. I have some video of mom and Sitt Yvonne sitting beside each other joyfully singing the Lebanese national anthem which is priceless.
Aramco World cover illustrated by me © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Douma is now trendy again, or it has been this way all along—ahead of its time. One indicator: food enthusiast and Souk al Tayeb founder, Kamal Mouzawak, has created an elegant village bed and breakfast in Douma, Beit Douma. For years Douma has been a retreat for people from all over in the mountains especially in the summer where the air is clear, dry, and cool, unlike the humid seaside. Hotel Douma was built in the 1950s with funds from Doumani expatriates, whose hearts remained in the homeland. The hotel, nestled in the snobar (pine tree forest) at the edge of town, was built in the round. For me, the parallel with the round Capitol Records building in Hollywood, near where I grew up created a resonance that I expressed in my cover illustration for the Saudi Aramco World article that excerpted Alice’s Kitchen when it was first published in 1997.
Solar water tanks and panels on Douma rooftops © linda dalal sawaya 2016
There are other indicators: no houses for sale, and if there are any, they are spendy. Lots of new construction going on of what I call McMansions; some are in the old style, and some are not in the classic elegant Douma village style. Solar water heaters are prevalent on Douma rooftops, which I find gratifying. And they are low cost, which enables many to enjoy this perfectly appropriate technology.
Classic Douma architecture © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Douma has a fantastic “nadi” a club where there are theatrical performances, athletic events, the big summer Douma Festival and maharajan, and even yoga classes; all of this under the direction of two wonderful and dedicated and creatively inspired people: Saleem Shalhoub and Hayat El Hajj Shalhoub. The Douma club has been responsible for planting 1000 cedar trees in Douma, which is not far from the Tannourine Cedars. The Lebanese Mountain Trail is nearby and the club is in process of creating an International Youth Hostel on the top floor of the Nadi. And Douma has several Facebook pages for fans like me.
Hayat El Hajj Shalhoub with Douma behind; Douma Club nestled into the snobar © linda dalal sawaya 2016
In Douma, kitchen gardens have been a tradition, and now gardening is experiencing a rebirth in the U.S. My love of gardening began when my mother took me to a nursery and let me choose some flowers to plant in a border edging her strawberry plants. I will always remember the magenta and bright yellow flaming celosia I selected, a presage of my artistic expression. We planted carrots, as well, and my father had planted so many fruit trees in the temperate Los Angeles garden: figs, lemon, avocado, olive, loquat, apricot, and orange. There was of course, the parsley, mint, and baqle patches and the required grape vine for grape leaves and fruit.
Purslane (baqle) patch in Douma © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Doumanis are very proud as you can discern and I remember my parents debating with their friends from Zahle, a rival famous Lebanese village, about which was better. You know who prevailed in our house!
So my year in my Portland garden, documented here, along with my love of cooking passed down from my grandmother to my mother, and even my father, has completed a cycle. Here are a few highlights from the four seasons in my garden.
fava beans and tabbouli with quinoa © linda dalal sawaya 2016
hommous with Yemeni cilantro salsa (zhug) and hommous with baba ghannouj © linda dalal sawaya 2016
HIndbi (red dandelion) salad and falafel © linda dalal sawaya 2016
And what is happening right now: baby figs are growing at a remarkable rate; a new jupiter grape plant cutting from my Jewish friend artist Bonnie Meltzer last fall already has baby grapes on it; chard is starting to bolt; strawberries are blossoming for Oregon’s June harvest; roses are blooming; it’s time to plant more greens; what a blessing!
baby figs in Portland April © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Jupiter grapes already producing first year! © linda dalal sawaya 2016
chard overwintered in my Portland garden © linda dalal sawaya 2016
It’s been a lovely and blessed discipline: a way to combine my passions of gardening, cooking, photography, and writing. I thank you for taking time to read and to connect with the stories and the images. If you would like to connect, please feel free to email me, to purchase Alice’s Kitchen, and sign up for my blog, and for my art and cooking news, which I publish a few times a year, and visit my website to see my artwork.
With love, I encourage everyone to plant something this spring: even in a pot, if you have no garden, and celebrate life, food, our earth, and all that we have been given. And cook something, too: it is a creative, nourishing act. These days, when people are too busy to cook, you might discover how therapeutic it is, along with gardening. Happy gardening, cooking, and sahtein!
—Linda Dalal Sawaya, daughter of two Lebanese immigrants, is a Portland, Oregon artist, cook, photographer, Master Gardener, and author of Alice’s Kitchen: Traditional Lebanese Cooking
Remember, as my mother Alice said, “If you make it with love, it will be delicious!”
story and all photos © linda dalal sawaya 2016