True to my Arab blood, food is a big deal to me. It’s a simple pleasure, an art form, and a profound way to express love. I rarely meet an Arab who doesn’t appreciate good food and when I do I am honestly perplexed. I feel the same way about good chocolate and cheese. And, all of humanity is included on this one, not just Arabs, haha.
A healthy, home-cooked and well-flavored meal that has been made with love brings me more joy than I can say. My mother has always been an excellent cook who devotedly prepared the healthiest version of our favourite dishes by integrating tips and knowledge that she has amassed along the way. And, any visit to my beloved aunt Yusra's house would also have us bursting with excitement and anticipation as she would greet us on entry to her home with hints of all the treats in store. It was like an ongoing feast with Kaak in her armoire drawer, Fatayer tucked away on top of her closet, Sabr fruit in the fridge and ice cream in the freezer. And I haven't even touched on the main meal category. The list would go on and on.
Both her and my mom would welcome us from our travels with our favorite dishes. My aunt would also thoughtfully prepare foods that my mom avoided making due to the time they took, or that she could not source the ingredients for. Delights like stuffed carrots with pomegranate molasses or 3akkawi with minced meat and onions and recipes with Sale’ or Akkoub. I loved seeing my mother's face light up at the thought that she would soon be eating these favored and missed dishes.
Actually, I have been blessed all my life with proximity to friends who cooked divinely and with whom I had an open invitation. Such is the generous hospitality of a true Arab home and heart. While I was studying in the US, I had the gift of access to both a Palestinian and Lebanese kitchen. And, in London, I was introduced to the wonders of the Iraqi cuisine. I am still in a state of awe at all the kinds of foods that the Iraqi cuisine says to stuff with rice and meat. It’s truly amazing to try, whether it be stuffed onions, bell peppers or potatoes and all made divinely with their expert knowledge of spices. Then, to truly round off my Middle Eastern tour, when I was staying in New York, later on, I would have Pastilla or couscous on demand from a wonderful Moroccan lady called Mariam. She used to take care of the children of a dear friend while I was getting my masters. They loved her food just as much as I did and were generous enough to share. Truly blessed.
It was while reflecting on all these delicious food memories and longing for some wholesome home cooked food that I came across a Lebanese restaurant one day in Paris. I have a couple of favorite restaurants across the world that serve traditional Arabic food, but what I could not seem to find was a restaurant that created artistic and elegant twists of homemade classics. All that changed when I looked up a Lebanese restaurant called Liza in one of Paris’s arrondissements that we wanted to explore as a family.
The moment I stepped in to the fabulous interior of Liza, I knew it could very well be what I had been looking for. The deal clincher for me would be the food and just as I had hoped, it was fabulous. Whatever we ordered had a delightfully modern and refined look while keeping every ounce of home cooked flavour. From the serving plate, all the way to the garnish, the attention to detail was the work of an artist. Yes I found it, indeed.
In my excitement, I took photos to document the gorgeous interiors and its details. I was eager to know who the interior designer was and later discovered that it was Maria Ousseimi. I found her name in the restaurants cookbook. That book became my partner in writing this post. It was in French, which was an extra challenge that I greatly enjoyed and took time appreciating the charming way the Lebanese express themselves in the French language.
The owners, Liza Soughayar and Ziad Asseily are Lebanese and became friends at the age of 13. Their ways separated in college but they kept in touch, before reuniting and getting married and opening Liza, in Paris, in April 2005. Ziad was the mastermind behind the cooking and the business development and Liza behind the impeccable hosting.
After the success of Liza, Paris, they went on to open Liza, Beirut, in the elegant Achrafieh neighborhood. It occupies the first floor of the Metropolitan Club which was once the AbdAllah Bustros Palace. So it is in the traditional layout of a 19th century Lebanese home with impressive Moorish style windows. And both Maria Ousseimi and Marc Soughayar did a fabulous job of bringing a refreshing touch of elegantly witty lightness to the weighty grandeur.
The book on recipes is both a tribute and an insider look into Lebanese culture and cuisine, with its famous flair for hospitality and taste. The book speaks of the 12 essential ingredients in a Lebanese pantry and recommends Souk El Tayyeb as the best place to find them in Beirut. They also included the 4 foods that a Lebanese could subsist on permanently if it ever came to that. If you are curious, they are tomato, olives, bread, and labneh.
I loved how they peppered the book with explanations of special ingredients like Hindbeh, a variety of the dandelion and a personal favorite of mine, the orange flower water, a welcome touch of the orient to many a drink or desert and the man’oosheh, that just needs some raw vegetables to become a filling sandwich. And how they devoted a whole section to street food that is well loved in the Arab world for breakfast, dinner or a late night meal, like a falafel or shawarma sandwich.
I was touched by the warm and thoughtful thanks in the book for those who supported Liza and Ziad on their journey with Liza in Paris and Liza Beirut. They even introduce the chef of the Paris restaurant, Subrata Kumar and of the Beirut one, Johnnie Nadaf.
And on an ending note, Liza shares with us some of her favorite addresses in Lebanon. I recognized some of my own in the list such as Bokja designs, Orient 499, and Nada Debs. And, the others, I so look forward to visiting as well as Liza Beirut, of course!
I have a keen interest in collecting cookbooks on Arabic cuisine and the cuisine of Muslim countries, like Turkey and Iran who have formidable food traditions in their own right. This book is one I know I will use to cook with once I am in my own kitchen again and ready to roll my sleeves up and cook and feed my loved ones. Keeping my aunt’s and mother’s legacy strong.
LIZA – the expression of a tasteful lifestyle from Beirut to Paris! Contemporary comfort cuisine prepared with love, time and delicious fresh products…
DISCOVER Maria Ousseimi
Ousseimi, 50, has indeed traveled. She lived in Beirut until the age of ten, when in 1975, her family emigrated to Europe. After gaining a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University, she explored the impact of conflict on children in an award-winning documentary, Childhood Lost, and in a book for which she spent a year in war-torn zones of El Salvador, Mozambique, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 2015, Liza et Ziad Asseily asked the talented Maria Ousseimi – the interior designer of LIZA BEIRUT – to embellish the Paris location by supplementing Hubert Fattal’s existing décor.
VISIT mine and Liza’s shared loves
There are some addresses mentioned in Liza’s cookbook that I also know and love. I wanted to share them with you, so you could experience them too.
To Liza Restaurant for the contribution of images. And, to the owners of the other images, we sourced from the internet.