Try Raw Liver and Arak in the Mountains of Lebanon | The Wanderlist 2019
Why the Lebanese mountains have made our list of the best 2019 travel destinations
Photo: Zahra Hankir
What? Test your taste buds with one of Lebanon’s most daring dining experiences while taking in surreal views of the country from its majestic mountain range.
Where? Jowar el-Sama (Neighborhood by the Sky), close to the Cedars of Tannourine, Mount Lebanon.
Why? To experience Lebanon without visiting its mountains for a staple Sunday lunch is to not experience the country at all, at least not in all of its culinary and scenic glory. Arak – a cool, refreshing liquor of the anise family – is the drink of choice for mountain dwellers. Occasionally dubbed the “milk of lions,” it is paired with sawda nayye, or raw liver, and served as part of an elaborate mezze spread comprising the usual Levantine ambrosia. The spirit is similar to Greek Ouzo, with peppermint undertones and licorice overtones.
While raw liver is a Lebanese delicacy, the dish is an acquired taste that’s not for the faint of heart: its consistency is disgustingly slippery, its bloody taste distinct. The lamb meat is seasoned with cumin and sumac and garnished with coriander and mint leaves, then served with fat tail and scooped up in pita bread. Raw liver and Arak are matched as Arak tends to wash out the foul taste of the liver. The liquor, served with ice, has an alcohol percentage of 50 percent and is usually thrice-distilled from a local grape harvest before being infused with anise seeds. Just one sip of it is a shock to the senses; some speculate it has healing properties.
Where you indulge in this stomach-churning tradition is everything. Nestled in the folds of Lebanon’s mountain range is Jowar el-Sama, a shack-like restaurant run by Rania Habshe and her sister. The venue, just off of the route to the Cedars of Tannourine from Beirut, is virtually unknown to tourists despite its stunning cuisine and extraordinary views.
Jowar el-Sama is family-run: Rania and her sister are the chefs; her daughters help in the kitchen; and her father slaughters animals nearby. The Arak is homemade, and vegetables are grown in the backyard. In the restaurant’s vicinity is Tannourine: home to rare flora, grottos, panoramic slopes, and dense forestry filled with Lebanon’s oldest Cedar trees – the perfect trail for a rocky hike should you fancy one. The closest landmark is also historic: At 2,400 meters above sea level, Kniset el Rab (Church of the Lord) is one of the highest churches in Lebanon.
When? Ideally, head to Jowar el-Sama during the grape harvest season in Lebanon’s late summer/early Autumn months (September and October) – you’ll escape the bustle and congestion of Beirut, which has long established itself as one of the Middle East’s best tourist destinations, and get a chance to enjoy Lebanon’s infamous mountain breeze. The restaurant only opens from June until October.
How? Travelling by taxi, to get to Jowar al-Sama from Beirut, ask your driver to take you to Kniset el Rab close to Tannourine. Once at the church, ask for the restaurant – it’s the only one of its kind for miles and locals are familiar with it.
If you can’t make it to the mountains, try Ma'allem Arteen in Gemmayzeh, Beirut; Al-Fayyat in Sin el-Fil, just outside the capital; and Hajj Nasr in Achrafiyeh for a breakfast of raw liver sandwiches sans Arak (arrive early, there’s usually a line of kebbe enthusiasts). Also try Massaya, a popular winery and Arak distillery in the Bekaa Valley, for exceptional mezze along with the liquor – raw liver, sadly, isn’t on this menu.