Tripoli, the second-largest city in Lebanon, is better known for its widespread unemployment, poverty, and violent clashes than for its pioneering enterprises and new cuisines. Despite not being the most obvious home of the Middle East’s newest culinary arrival, however, it has become the Lebanese epicentre of the wheat free wave now spreading across the country and beyond.
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BreadBasket Square founder Soumaya Merhi is at the heart of Lebanon’s arm of the health food industry. Merhi’s team is baking an array of rustic spelt and rye breads, oat biscuits, and a range of mouth-watering pastries in their bakery on the outskirts of Tripoli—all of which are wheat free as well as free of GMOs, and animal products.
Merhi was keen to produce Lebanese products, not international interpretations. “I could have made some French boulangerie or patisserie, but I didn’t see the point. There are so many really good Arabic things—Arabic snacks, breads, and cakes,” she explains. “I think [customers] were so pleasantly shocked that they were like, ‘Oh, OK, this is new.’”
Tripoli can often feel much further away than the 50 miles that separate it from the cosmopolitan heart of Beirut, where many health-conscious Lebanese and expats mingle in upscale bars and cafes. Meanwhile, Tripoli hosts some of the region’s poorest urban communities and the country’s most conservative populations; it’s also wracked by rampant unemployment. A 2012 UN study estimated 66 percent of residents in the city’s Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood live below the poverty line. Bab al-Tabbaneh is also the home of some of Merhi’s six bakers, none of whom finished school and many of whom have friends who fight and die in the militias.
Just weeks after Merhi returned from Montreal to begin managing the bakery two years ago, the Lebanese army undertook a major security operation in Tripoli, complete with street battles between state security forces and armed militias. The aim was to try to stop the worryingly regular fighting in a number of neighbourhoods of the city—much of it connected to the war in next-door Syria through Tripoli’s small but largely pro-Assad Alawite community…[Continue reading over at VICE Munchies]