A passion for pickle: how Lebanon's crisis led locals to rediscover traditional food

Seeds of a culinary revolution are being sown as an old tradition attracts foodie influencers

Every summer, Jihad Hammoud prepares Lebanese provisions, or mouneh, for her family to enjoy come the colder months.

She never imagined that this ancestral tradition – one that has helped generations of Lebanese to survive tough winters, famines and droughts – would inspire a thriving small business that would help her weather the challenging times the country now faces.

Since its launch in July, Mounet Em Jamal, as Mrs Hammoud's business is known, has been receiving more than 10 orders a week. She lives in the small town of Taalbaiya, in the Bekaa Valley.

With the help of her son Ali, 29, she set up social media pages to promote the business. They have gathered more than 1,000 followers.

Mr Hammoud, who lives in France, started posting photographs of his mother's delicacies on his Twitter account in the summer and, soon after, orders for traditional preserves started pouring in from all over Lebanon.

“He is the face of the brand,” Mrs Hammoud jokes. “In these troubled times, everyone is stocking up on mouneh, because everything is so expensive and demand for cheaper, local goods is increasing.”

Her specialty is a traditional cheese from the Bekaa Valley called keshek. She also regularly makes the 90-kilometre journey to Al Qaa, a town on the Syrian border known for its tender aubergines, the preferred kind for pickling.

Mouneh is one of the few hopes that we have of exporting Lebanese products

Mounet Em Jamal is part of a wider trend. Lebanese are going back to age-old preserving and pickling techniques to make ends meet as the country heads closer to total economic collapse.

For the past year, Lebanon has been hit by a severe financial crisis, triggered in part by a shortage of foreign currency that has sent the value of the Lebanese pound into freefall. Nearly half of the population now live below the poverty line, according to data from the World Bank. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and continued political inaction are compounding the crisis.

Food Consultant Barbara Massaad, author of the book Mouneh: Preserving Foods for the Lebanese Pantry, says the tradition of making provisions for the winter is a part of Lebanon's culinary heritage that has never died out.

“Our ancestors knew how to live off the season. Mouneh was a way to survive,” she says.

In a video posted on his Twitter page, Mr Hammoud explains that his parents retired and that the mouneh business was a way of providing them with an income at a time when inflation has reduced already low retirement funds to a pittance.

“Like many in Lebanon, my parents have no income and no retirement pension,” he says. “I came up with this mouneh idea so that I can give people access to good food, while helping my parents.”

Professional pages for these small businesses have proliferated on Instagram and Twitter, although many had been active offline for years. For Kamale Nakad, 71, the founder of Mounet Em Tony, making traditional preserves allows her to do what she does best from the comfort of her home.

The mother of eight founded her business in Bqaa Kafra, northern Lebanon, seven years ago, and set up a social media page with its own branding with the help of her son, Elie.

“It means a lot for my mother to have this financial independence, so we always try to encourage her in her business,” Mr Nakad says.

These traditional recipes are enjoying a revival as part of a trend for healthy and organic food.

“People are more health conscious, and want to go back to what is natural,” says Mohamad Abiad, an associate professor at the American University of Beirut’s agriculture department.

“At the same time, the financial crisis has encouraged people to start working in agriculture.”

'A way to help your country'

Fares Abou Merhi is one of the many people forced to switch trades by the crisis. He worked in the restaurant industry more than 20 years ago and, since the 1990s, sold shoes and clothing imported from Europe.

But a shortage of foreign currency means the Lebanese pound, which is officially pegged at a rate of 1,500 to the dollar, on the street trades at more than 8,000. The price of imported goods has shot up, although subsidies on staples such as wheat have shielded the country from food insecurity so far.

For the past couple of years, Mr Abou Merhi’s business struggled. He began selling mouneh on the side to make ends meet, before making a complete switch.

“Starting in October of last year, things really went downhill. The economy was dead, except for food businesses. I had employees depending on me, loans from the bank,” he says. “I had no choice but to go back to where I started: the food industry.”

He started a family business, Erchalli Maison Mouneh, which buys mouneh in bulk from Lebanese villages and sells them to retailers and city dwellers. His shop in Antelias, a Beirut suburb, stores traditional recipes alongside original, more luxurious creations such as chestnuts in syrup and pickled lettuce stuffed with walnuts. These delicacies are sought out by an affluent clientele.

He says the number of orders he received has tripled in a year, with sizeable demand from Lebanese living in the Gulf who long for flavours from home.

Lebanese food YouTuber Anthony Rahayel says the dual effect of Covid-19 travel restrictions and the devastating explosion at Beirut's port are pushing up sales of traditional, domestically produced specialities among the diaspora.

“There is an emotional effect from the coronavirus. People cannot travel as freely and they miss home,” he says. “But there is also an emotional effect from the Beirut blast. Buying Lebanese products is a way to help your country.”

Mr Rahayel, a food influencer and author of the blog No Garlic No Onions, says he has been calling for Lebanese to rediscover their culinary heritage and eat local foods since 2012.

"Mouneh is one of the few hopes that we have of exporting Lebanese products and getting fresh money from abroad," he says.

The appeal of mouneh, for many, is that it is not merely a business but also part of a culinary heritage that has always helped Lebanese to weather difficult times.

“I hope this tradition persists,” Mrs Hammoud says. “And that these recipes continue to be passed from mother to daughter.”