If you wake up in the morning and forget which country you’re in, just head out for breakfast. In Tel Aviv, you start the day with a bowl of warm hummus. In Japan, a bowl of rice, a soft-cooked egg, miso soup and grilled fish. And in Beirut, you have a choice of flatbreads filled with cheese or meat.
Or one can stop by a café such as Al Soussi, where the menu features a dozen dishes, including za’atar salad with onions, pepper and mint; fūl, pureed fava beans; eggs awarma, an open-faced omelet with lamb rillettes; and fatteh, a chickpea salad with yogurt, tahini and pita.
The 73-year-old chef-owner of Al Soussi, Raji Kebbe, is a hardworking, open-faced soul. His kitchen is small and everything is prepped in advance. A small propane burner and a 10-inch nonstick skillet are put to work for the warm dishes—the omelets and sautéed goat testicles, for example. The salads are quickly assembled from large containers of simple dressings based on lemon or lime juice mixed with olive oil plus all the usual suspects: hummus, chickpeas, yogurt, pita, fresh za’atar (wild thyme leaves).
Kebbe is the Lebanese equivalent of a short-order cook. There are no wasted movements: foods are quickly whisked in and out of pans, flames shoot up high in the air, and Kebbe pivots easily from one station to the next, assembling dishes in seconds.
The fatteh is of particular interest because it’s designed to transform stale pita bread into a meal. It uses many of the standard ingredients of the Middle East: yogurt, tahini, flatbread, chickpeas and pine nuts. However, like all recipes from the Levant, it is highly variable—every region has a version. In Syria, they make fatteh with stuffed baby eggplant; other cooks fry the pita instead of toasting it.
I visited with cookbook author Anissa Helou while in Beirut and she told me that fatteh is one of her favorite summer dishes, but she also adds chicken or lamb to the dish. As she points out, “The combination of textures is delightful. In one bite you have crunchy (the toasted bread and nuts), soft (the chickpeas) and velvety (the yogurt).”
If you wake up in the morning and forget which country you’re in, just head out for breakfast.
Back at Milk Street, we toasted fresh pita in a 400°F oven, brushing it with melted butter and cumin. As the pita cooled, we toasted pine nuts in the oven, watching them carefully since they easily burn. They then were tossed with melted butter, cumin, salt and pepper.
To simplify the recipe, we used canned chickpeas, warming them in a microwave along with seasonings and water. To serve, we broke the crisped pita into pieces and placed it into serving bowls. The warmed chickpeas then were spooned on top of the pita, followed by a yogurt mixture that included tahini, garlic and lemon. Finally, mint and the buttered pine nuts. If you have za’atar (the classic Middle Eastern spice blend, named for the thyme featured prominently in the mix), you can sprinkle some on top to finish, but this is optional.
As Helou said, this simple salad is a lesson in texture—crunchy, soft and velvety—and can be served any time of day. It also can be dressed up with chicken, seasoned ground beef or lamb to make it a more substantial meal.