Bringing Sri Lanka to Lebanon

mattobeirutWhen it comes to foreign cuisine, Lebanon is stuck somewhere in the 1970s, as if the only things worth eating were fettuccine Alfredo, steak frites, guacamole, and sweet and sour chicken.

This is particularly disappointing given its substantial and diverse population of foreign nationals. The country is home to around 250,000 migrant domestic workers, for example, most of whom hail from African, South Asian, and Southeast Asian nations like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. It’s hard not to connect their culinary underrepresentation to the widespread racism against non-Western migrant workers in Lebanon, whom NGOs report suffer routine physical, emotional and verbal abuse at the hands of their employers.

While we have a long way to go in undoing the racism against non-western migrant workers in Lebanon, one cramped restaurant in a trendy Beirut neighborhood is using food to help with the cause.

In one of the quieter alleyways that break off from the mayhem of bar-crowded Armenia Street in Mar Mikhael, Mótto opened the doors to its small dining hall in the summer of 2014.

Motto_indoorsLebanon’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant features a rotating menu of international cuisine prepared by guest chefs (some amateur, some professional) from different national backgrounds. They take over the kitchen for a few nights and share either their own culinary heritage, or a foreign cuisine they’ve experienced and cherished.

“Beirut is full of international communities but the market here is limited to the most generic cuisines,” says Mótto co-owner and former investment banker Karim Ghazzi. “I think there’s much more room for innovation. Restaurants are more focused on decoration and PR; not enough attention is paid to the actual food being offered. You see the same cuisines and similar menus everywhere.”

There are only a handful of tables in Mótto’s cozy space that seats 30-something people each night. There’s a chalkboard menu hanging above the kitchen, shelves lining the walls displaying local wines and condiments, and an open kitchen from where the guest chef can see and be seen by diners.

A restaurant can serve as a space for cultural exchange, says Ghazzi. Mótto, he elaborates, allows people to talk about culture through food. “The pay-what-you-can model encourages clients to discuss the food, to assess the experience, taste and ingredients.” It encourages them to literally value it.

The establishment has hosted around 12 chefs so far, offering a taste of Peruvian, Iranian, Brazilian, Spanish, French, Serbian, Senegalese, Filipino, Thai, Ethiopian cuisine, and more to Lebanese audiences. The owners invited Rahel Abebe, for example—an Ethiopian migrant worker who used to cook at a café run by Lebanese feminist collective Nasawiya—to work her magic on their audience, for whom she’s prepared dishes like traditional Jewish Ethiopian pea stew, collard greens, and injera.

Aleppo-born Lebanese chef Sossi Mahoney—who is also particularly fond of visiting Southeast Asia—was introduced to Mótto and its owners by a mutual friend. There, she’s shared her love for Thai food with a menu that included pad Thai noodles and beef panang curry.

Elia E.B., a Lebanese auditor turned full-time private caterer and cooking instructor, approached Mótto about collaborating himself, and has tackled everything from white tuna ceviche on Peruvian night to saffron rice cake with chicken and eggs for a Persian-themed week.

And, Rio De Janeiro native Carla Lacerda, who works with the UNHCR in Beirut, faced off against Spanish language teacher Paco and his wife Mary in a Brazilian-Spanish culinary showdown that featured gazpacho, paella, toasted cassava flour, and black bean stew. All three are regulars at Mótto and, after becoming “part of the extended family,” Ghazzi explains, were invited to prepare their own taste of home.

Ghazzi acknowledges that by embracing culinary—and through it, cultural—diversity, Mótto can discourage the Lebanese tendency to distinguish between western, Asian, or African expatriates in the country—where the former are treated as equals and the latter as inferior. “I can see how Mótto’s concept can normalize relations with these countries and their cuisines, and how this food experience can bridge gaps and challenge stereotypes,” he says.

While much of the restaurant’s clientele is already familiar with different kinds of foreign cuisine, some do come armed with reluctance—especially towards African and Asian menus.

“I sometimes sense a condescending attitude towards certain cuisines,” says Ghazzi. “Some people come in with an exclamation mark on their face. ‘This is Sri Lankan food?’ I take that as a challenge. Within the first ten seconds, things shift. I interact with them. I tell them about the food and introduce the cuisine. I encourage them to talk to the chef. Our position and ambiance challenge this attitude, I think.” Mótto’s motto, Ghazzi says, is to have the chefs visibly plate the dishes and the owners serve and discuss them with the customers, offering a more personal dining experience.

Over time, the Sri Lankan menus of resident chef Nimal, who’s been collaborating with Mótto from the start, have become one of the restaurant’s most popular. On the night I visited, dinner began with a delightfully dense but soft pol roti, a coconut flat bread, with a side of sweet, sautéed onions. This was followed by lamb biryani, tangy pork, spicy chicken and fragrant potato curries, and idiyappam (or string hoppers, which are steamed noodles pressed from rice flour). A small but satisfying piece of moist date cake provided a light, sweet punctuation to a generous meal of diverse stews and grains made from recipes Nimal’s mother taught him back home in Kandy, a major city in central Sri Lanka.

A private chef based in Lebanon since 1995, Nimal had only cooked Lebanese food for his former employers. At Mótto, he often prepares the Lebanese lunches served throughout the week. He’s particularly proud of his tabbouleh and baba ghanoush.

“It’s my job. I find it relaxing,” Nimal says, adding that there’s something particularly satisfying about stepping outside the Lebanese kitchen to serve his native cuisine to a soundtrack of Sri Lankan music, seeing people taste biryanis and curries for the first time, and establishing a connection with his Sri Lanka. “People love it.”

“My grandmother used to tell me, ‘The more you appreciate a certain cuisine, the closer you get to respecting its culture,’” Greek-Lebanese maritime lawyer Bissar Sleiman told me after her first experience dining at Mótto, where she sampled Nimal’s Sri Lankan fare. “The food at Motto was, in a word, accurate. If my grandmother’s saying is true, and I believe it is, restaurants like that could bring some cultural awareness and respect to Lebanon. (Courtesy