Tawda in Damascus: Lebanon’s beloved kebab is going global

Written by By Aaalleyne Mitchel, CNN

There is a distinct Yemeni scent wafting through the meat market at Tawda in the Syrian capitol of Damascus. It’s orange, of course.

Tamal Froman works alongside masters in their crafts — from Lebanese stews to Somali meat — in the Turkish shop, because — as the 24-year-old from east London says — “we need to be careful of the dangers we are presenting to the world.”

For luxury, upmarket take-out? Try the Iraqi kebabs at the shop’s ‘Tavva branch.’ Credit: Courtesy Tawda

Froman’s newest addition to the Tawda chain, which already has branches in London and Liverpool, is dedicated to Lebanese beef, served in flatbreads as you may find in its London original.

“They were very much a traditional food, and they were very much my subject,” he says. “And then, you know, years later, you see them all over the world, so I thought, OK, let’s give that a go.”

The results — which have been branded “fantastic” by influential blogs, and tasted “extraordinary” — are long-standing favorites.

But there is a story behind this memorable dish that is just as striking. One brought into international focus, over the past week, with calls to ‘bring it back.”

‘Daffodils over thyme’

Tawda has been credited with the Iraqi kebab, originating from Baghdad, as the Yemenis believe it resembles the flower. It was first served up in Syria, and, for decades, has been synonymous with Lebanon.

Don’t expect the same laid-back atmosphere. The restaurant — something of a diner’s retreat in northern Syria — is occupied with traditional stews and sheikh cuisine in its small and low-key confines.

Following an hour-long wait for a table, it is still tough to get your hands on a bowl of salt-cured beef, which is served with a square of flatbread and — handily — the shop’s brand-new hashtag: “#TawdaSpendingLeisureTime.”

“People want a good hang,” explains owner, Zaher Khaled, who also works in a Lebanese restaurant in London.

If you don’t, don’t worry. Khaled has three ‘gut-satisfying options’ in his small restaurant. The Arab version of steak tartare — crostini wrapped in bread, with tomato and lemon — is topped with shawarma fat, and serves as a filling to start.

For a light lunch, try roasted vegetables; try your hands at the Baajab in the rice stew, which is served as a side for meat dishes and is seasoned with mint and lime.

Khaled’s passions have inspired the food inside this ‘casual storehouse of knowledge.’ Credit: Courtesy Tawda

Khaled has met customers from all over the world, including at least one who wants to bring the kebab back. “They met me in the middle of the street,” he laughs. “They didn’t even know the name.”

With the tastes on offer, it’s difficult to predict how far the current version will go in the coming years.

Tawda, in the case of its Yemeni meat, is inspired by a typical dish in Tripoli in Lebanon. Credit: Courtesy Tawda

“Somebody’s loved it for 40 years,” says Froman. “And now it’s still very popular — not everyone, but it does.”

But Khaled has been open about the Iraqi kebab, the most recent in a long line of “fantastic” dishes.

“It might not go on forever,” he says, “but it’s got a really good future.”

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