Ideas of exchanging and relating through shared food are central to Lina Ghotmeh’s design for Serpentine Pavilion 2023, titled À table: the French-language call to gather together for a meal. In response, chef and food activist Kamal Mouzawak shares reflections and perspectives on how tables sit at the heart of home, work and family.
Tawlet means table in Arabic (just like table in French), and that is specifically what Tawlet’s family chose to name our first farmers’ kitchen in Mar Mikhael, Beirut, in 2009. We refuse to call Tawlet a restaurant because it fixes it as a food and beverage project and hence withdraws any home, and human, approach.
The first location of Tawlet was in the dead-end street at the end of Beirut, in what is trendy Mar Mikhael now, but it was off location in 2009, and we just moved there for the cheap rent. We had a neighbour there who used to open the door every morning and ask shou tabkha el mama el yom? – what is Mum cooking today? Just like a small boy, back from school, starving and running to the kitchen, the centre of a home, and asking, what is for lunch?
Lunch was not held in an official style at the dining table in the dining room (if this still exists in the home), but at the kitchen table, where we eat, do our homework, have a coffee with the neighbours. And I notice that these are memories of a past time. Is there still a mother in the kitchen today? Or neighbours to have coffee with? Or homework to do?
Still, today I do have a kitchen table (although no dining room and hence no dining table!) that is the centre of my home and my life – à table! It is my office, where I work alone, or meet with others, where I like to have a coffee or a drink with everything laid on the table, where I and we eat, where I sit and prepare to cook… The centre of my active life (part A of a home), in contrast to a comfortable seating area (part B of a home), and a calm bed to sleep in (part C of a home). These three functions and areas make a home.
In Middle Eastern traditions, a home is just a space, one space, that changes function through the day. Now, it is a space to work: to cook, prepare food, to craft – now, it is a space to sit – and later, a space to rest and sleep. Nearly an empty space, with very little or no furniture (a reminder of a nomadic tent – light and agile), it has mattresses and covers in a wall hook, or ‘niche’, by day, which are put on the floor at night. There are carpets and deep cushions to sit on by day, and low tables to work at when needed.
So, one needs very little to function, live, rest, or work. The lightest is the easiest… No need for clutter of decor, just focus on the essential: the quality of few items, and hence their durability and comfort. An active table is a kitchen table – whether that is a Sixties-style Formica table, one of the long ‘farmhouse tables’ which are on-trend, or a student’s small, generic Ikea table. My kitchen table, in every home, is an old, used, bare wooden table….
Curious to know the stories of other tables, I look North and South from Beirut, like day and night, towards two of our best cooks at Tawlet: Georgina al Bayeh from Kfardlekos, North Lebanon, and Zainab Kashmar from Hallousyieh, South Lebanon.
Georgina lives around a table. In her self-designed and nearly self-built kitchen, the pièce maîtresse is a big table – stainless steel legs and a thick marble top – where Georgina does all her preparations: rolling vine leaves, sorting the parsley for tabouleh, making fatayer, shaping kebbeh zghertewyieh (thin, round balls of kebbeh, which is mixture of minced meat and burghol, filled with fat and charcoal-grilled)…
“À table means Sunday family gatherings for me, when I cook and the extended family meets at my mother-in-law’s home around a big table filled with Sunday lunch – a very special menu. When weekday’s meals are of a tabkha (stew), a salad and maybe another appetiser, Sunday lunches are built around a tabouleh, fries, hummus, warraa ennab (vine leaves), fweregh (stuffed intestines, a laborious and luxurious dish), and obviously, barbeque.”
Zainab’s table is more her eating table, set on her terrace, facing the rolling hills of south Lebanon, with a background of a ‘museum wall’ where Zainab hangs her whole collection of old agricultural tools and kitchen utensils. À table for Zainab is the family reunion, of her husband and three children.
“The best table is when we get together for a breakfast-lunch, around 11 am, with a lot of raw meat – the best treat – in different forms. This could be small pieces of fillet, or of raw liver, or of lahm aal sekinn (knife-ground meat served with onion, pepper and sumac) and lahm b ammond (fried meat with lemon), all served with fried eggs, mana’iish… Eating is the reason to gather, but in fact the main reason is to be together, to bond, to update each other on stories, projects and feelings…”
In the North or South of Lebanon, we would all say tffadaloaal sofra. The equivalent of à table in Arabic, this literally means please come to the table… But, as Zeinab said, tables or the food on them or the work we do around them are not an end, but just a reason to get together again, because this is what really feeds and nurtures us.
Kamal Mouzawak is a chef and food activist passionate about sustainable food production and traditions and identity through cuisine and agriculture. Founder of Beirut’s first organic market and the cooperative restaurant, Tawlet (Table), Mouzawak draws on rural communities’ culinary knowledge while raising awareness of the importance of sustainable food through cooking classes, health education and environmental campaigns.