2016. BEIRUT, LEBANON
Writing & Photography By Christina Holmes
Dusk had just arrived as we also arrived at our final destination for dinner. Under the trees. After a days exploring I was ready to eat. I had heard all day of a delicacy that I was about to enter my world of taste. Assafir they called it, and all I knew that it meant “little birds”. The family I was about to meet were friends of friends. We parked the car up the mountain off the dusty dirt road. I heard the chickens from afar and muddled voices of many. A sound hello from Chouki came to the present. He would be the one responsible for tonights feast that we were about to partake. His wife Claire their by his side assisting in this preparation as if it were a just a typical occurrence. I see the dimly lit outdoor kitchen in the distance filled with a kitchenette and brightly colored prep tables. I turn to the smell as the smoke poured of the grill as the coals were being prepared. A glass of ice lands in my hand unknowingly. And Angelas brother with an aqua green glass carafe of arak ready to pour awaits me. A nod is exchanged. And back it went. A quick sip on this on a hot sweltering summer night as it was, felt perfect as the weight of my surroundings settled in deep. The calm the peace, the happiness. I peer around, everyone here is in this moment in full. Living it full, and seemed from what I could tell to live each day fuller than the last. Even amongst their daily distractions of political turmoil and devastating internal fighting within the country you never would of known.
My current distractions continued as a spread full of Lebanese staples continued to arrive at the table. Searching through the crowd for a view of what I was most excited about ended how it started, with no view. I was told it would come much later in the evening, so a my eyes landed back to the table. And the realization that food is as much part of this culture as is faith and family. From hummus, to baba, and more the wood top was filled to the edges with all that it could hold. Most of which was all made in the past hour and by someone present. Dishes began flowing around the table almost in a dance. My plate swiftly filled up with my eyes big and my stomach ready to be full. I grabbed my fork.
Suddenly as I make my move to my first bit, there was an abrupt halt. It’s as though Chouki had sensed my hunger. And even more so want to see these birds. He tells me I need to come to the grills now. I jump to my feet. And there they were. In all their glory being prepared, seasoned and ready to hit the heat. This delicacy is one of my favorite amongst the many in different cultural moments I encounter.
Assafir. Yes tiny little birds, called bec-figue in French. Because simply, they feed on figs. Fall is prime time to collect Assafir as this is when the figs begin to ripen and the birds become even more delicious as they fill up on figs. They had arrived headless, but bone in for the rest of the body and de-feathered of course. one cannot be bothered with plucking the feathers from the head so they are popped off so I hear. Prepped with a bit of salt and oil, then skewered. They then land to the hot coals as the air fills with smells of grilled meat and sweet figs. Near by is marquq, a handkerchief bread. Imagine a thin oversized pita that moves like a piece of fabric. Chouki uses it to soak up the juices as they grill. A cycle of turning and soaking commences for the next twenty minutes as my hunger grows more evident. Suddenly he grabs a marquq, then the closest skewer. Wraps up one of the assafir and delivers it directly to my hand dripping with grease. With the instruction, of don’t mind the crunch and a go ahead, I was off. And that was it, I fell in love with this delicacy after one bite. Rich, juicy, and salty. And yes, crunchy. The crunch lasted only for a second as it melted away. A few more happened and then a few more. Followed by more arak and and many sweets.
The night grew long and the dishes had all been washed. Drying now in the moonlight. The party dispersed into the dark of the night back to their homes close by full in every sense of the word.
Story & Photography Christina Holmes. Shot on location in 2015, presented 2016 . Beirut, Lebanon. Sponsored by Sohha Savory Yogurt. Special thank you to Angela & John Fout Co-Founders of Sohha Savory Yogurt @sohhayogurt , and Chouki & Clair Merheb.