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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Msabbha: Breakfast of Champions

A typical Tartoussi day starts, as everywhere else I suppose, with breakfast. Most folks would eat at home and our meal is no different than elsewhere in the Levant. However, there are certain men, especially those involved in heavy labor or working long hours and normally missing lunch, who need something extraordinary and potent to carry them through the day. There are also gluttons with big bellies and insatiable appetites who crave the Tartoussi breakfast of Champions on a regular basis (I would name my friend Abu Ahmad just to prove my point, once every other day is his average). For these hungry beasts and many others, nothing will do except the famous, the one and only, the extremely rich in protein, the original Msabbha (مسبحة) of Tartous.

Since this particular plate is never prepared at home, it is either consumed in the little restaurants where it is cooked overnight or taken away. Many families would send a volunteer to bring this breakfast home and eat it together. My kids wake me up every Friday morning with a unanimous decision, “Go get us Msabbha”.

Msabbha is simply enough a plate consisting of chickpeas, Tehina and olive oil. Chickpeas are boiled in water for hours in a large unique copper pot until very tender. Tehina is a thick dip with sesame seeds as its base. It is diluted with water first, then garlic, fresh lemon juice and salt are added and stirred until it reaches a thin consistency. The final ingredient is olive oil, and where else can you get the best quality in the world but Tartous. The Msabbha plate is prepared by laying the chick peas at the bottom, then Tehina is cascaded over to fully cover and finally olive oil is generously poured on top. The word Msabbha is derived from Sabaha = to swim. The chickpeas are swimming in olive oil. Needless to say, this is one delicious entrée, and, you can only have it in Tartous.

There are rituals involved.

First, you need to go to the bakery (Firen Ammoura = فرن عمورة) to get the open bread (خبز مشروح) . At the “restaurants” they serve regular Levantine bread (Pita), but the Msabbha deserves better than that. Ammoura is the only bakery in Tartous where firewood is used. With warm bread in hand, you pass underneath the old northern arch of the old city and head toward one of the Msabbha joints.

Second, the Msabbha joint is only frequented by men. A few proprietors have tried to accommodate what is referred to locally as “families” meaning really “women”, but I don’t think the idea caught on. There are always young Western tourists, boys and girls, eating at these Msabbha joints and nobody really mind them. I have even been around with non-Tartoussi, yet Syrian girls and no one paid any attention. But I have never in my life seen a local female eating there. I think it’s a traditional peculiarity of Tartous, like the all-men cafés where no local woman sets foot, yet many strangers sit in very comfortably without even registering any response from the regular customers.

Then, there are only a handful of good Msabbha joints in town, all located, relatively speaking, within or around the old city. Don’t even try to go in one of the many modern places where Msabbha is served as a novelty. You might as well eat the Lattakian Msabbha, which really is… ah forget it. Ask a group of Tartoussis (locals mind you) about who serves the best Msabbha in Tartous and you’re going to have a heated argument. Basically, the only real Msabbha specialists are (in no particular order), Mustafa Monem and Mahmoud Nabelsi in the Khrab quarter, Abu Ayad Taha and Nasser in Al-Saha (the old square), Naeem in Al-Mina St. and Salem of Haret Al-Barrieh. Voila, go in any of these six places and you’ll be alright (the first three on the list are my favorites).

Now you walk in, proud that you have brought your own bread, and find an empty table or even chair in the small place. Mustafa Monem’s is roughly (8 x 3 meter) and has six tables inside. There are also a couple of tables outside on the sidewalk. On a busy day, many customers will be eating standing up. The menu is simple, Msabbha, Fool Msabhha ( with Fava beans) and Fool Mdammas (Fava beans with Hommos but without Tehina). Each individual serving is sold for SP30.00 (roughly 60 cents). With your order, a free side plate of pickles, fresh green mint, olives and onions is served (it’s called Sa7en sarvice= صحن سرفيس). Regular customers get an extra treat. Halfway through their meal, Abu Mohamad will fix the plate, meaning that he will add some Tehina or olive oil as needed.

After this happy meal, customers walk out heavily. The chickpeas, Tehina, pickles and onions would have taken their toll by now. You are in dire need of a glass of tea as soon as possible. You should also not get close to colleagues (remember the onions) unless they, too, had Msabbha with you. Love making is to be avoided at all cost, preferably until the next day even if both partners had Msabbha together.

But, it is really worth it after all. For 60 cents, you can’t go wrong. And, nothing is as fulfilling and delicious to start your day with as a good plate of Msabbha, the Tartoussi way.


Dubai Jazz said...

Salam Abu Fares; yet another one of those yummy, delicious posts!
I have to confess that I've never had the Tartousi Mousbaha, but I was fortunate enough (!) to have the Lattakian one (Abu Suis restaurant, was it called?), which honestly tasted fine.
I am going to try the Tartoussi one for sure the next time around.
And yeah, you couldn't be more right, the 'onion effect' is nuclear!

Unknown said...

Hi Dubai Jazz
I'm not being provincial, the Tartoussi Mousabbaha is much better. In Lattakia, after they boil the chickpeas, they add the Tehina and heat the mixture together. Soon enough it becomes very Makhboussa, more like a gambo. In Tartous, on the other hand, each individual plate is custom prepared. You can order it with lots of Tehina or a little bit, as per your preference.
I have worked for years in Lattakia and had plenty of Mousabbaha at the "right" places. BUT, it's not even close...
Onions!? What can I say about onions. A wise man once said: "Anything good in life is either illegal, fattening or immoral". He's right but he must've added "or smells so bad after you eat it you'd wish you've never got near it in the first place".
Thank you for coming my way.

Yazan said...

This one I give, Tartous mesabbaha is much better...
I'm drooling... but for the first time... I'm not that far away..

Tomorrow, I'm taking an american friend to the only syrian rest i found here [hope it's good]...

and in exactly 10 days.. I'll be eating real foood againnnn

Unknown said...

Hey Yazan
Don't forget to give me a buzz once you're here. Use my email link on my profile page.

Serena said...

Yum! Sounds delicious! Will need to make a plan to come to Syria to experience this dish! Keep up the fab blog, Se

Unknown said...

Hi Serena
This will be only breakfast.
There's so much more, for lunch then for dinner.
Hope to see you here one of these days.

Shannon said...

Once again I'm kicking myself for reading your blog immediatley before lunchtime!

Unknown said...

Hi Shannon
Of all the dishes I've written and will write about sometime in the future, Msabbha is particularly special for me. How can I explain... if a Big Mac or a Whopper immediately bring the "image" of America, a plate of Msabbha is what reminds any Tartoussi of his hometown.
I got a call from 2 friends who live and work in Dubai. They told me that they arrived late at night and that they're staying for 48 hours only. "Why don't we have Msabbha together in the morning" they said. We had a great breakfast (see pictures), talked about the last year we've spent away from each other, then washed it all down with a large hot glass of tea. We bid each other goodbye and hoped to see each other hopefully next summer.
They've been away for a year both of them. Msabbha was the first thing on their minds.
Thank you for dropping by.

Karin said...

That looks and sounds DELICIOUS to me but I assume, one dish does have some 10.000 calories minimum!! I can literally SMELL it .. and had to laugh about your precautions what better to avoid right after that!! GREAT post Abufares, you always succeed to make me hungry!! ;-)

Unknown said...

It is delicious with plenty of good calories.
As for the warning, I think it's only fair that I should post it. Onions, for the uninitiated, consumer and partner alike, can have a dynamite effect. Ad Dubai Jazz wrote: "NUCLEAR".

Ingrid said...

you know, isn't it a lot like hummus? same ingredients or is it different in that the chickpeas are perhaps not pureed as with hummus? the bread looks reallllly good right now (it's making me hungry looking at it)... yes, a good protein breakfast will kick start any day perfectly..I really enjoy learning about your culture this way..especially when it includes food, ha!

Unknown said...

You are absolutely right Ingrid.
FYI Hummus in Arabic means chickpeas.
While Hummus is a ubiquitous cold appetizer in the Middle East, Msabhha is not. First, it's very local and only known along the Syrian coastline. Then it's not an appetizer at all but instead a hot meal. While Hummus can be stored for a few hours without a great loss of quality or taste, Msabbha has to be consumed immediately after preparation.
From experience, it's easier to prepare a plate of Hummus and in many cases people do it at home. Msabbha is more like alchemy (I'm serious), the precise cooking of the chickpeas, the exact consistency of Tehina and the quality of olive oil all conspire to either make it or break it. That's why nobody bothers make it at home. It simply wouldn't work!
Thank you for passing by.

Ingrid said...

wow, I must have either not read the post properly or just been too tired to notice, how interesting the difference between hummus and msabha. I would love to try it because a vegetarian protein meal, boy, what can beat that?? Too bad it's too difficult to make just right because I'd love to try it..
and btw, don't make me hungry before lunch although louisiana crawfish, have not had good experience eating that. Of course, I was pregnant at the time and did not know it hence my taste buds did not take too kindly to it! lol
sigh, I'm still hungry looking at the food're killing me!
ok, I'm ready for some recipes that I can try at home,

Anonymous said...

Abu Fares, for these kind of posts you should always put a warning at the start of the post:
Anyway, Inshaa Allah one day we will go there and try it along with all the other things you keep talking about!!
Abu Abdo

Unknown said...

Hi Ingrid
You sure can try to prepare Msabbha at home. Boil the chickpeas until very tender. If you catapult 1 chickpea with your fingers to the wall, it should stick.
Then if you already are familiar with the preparation of the Tehina sauce you're almost done.
Remove the hot chickpeas without the water add the tehina sauce on top then pour the olive oil. Enjoy it with bread and let me know how it comes out.

Unknown said...

Abu Abdo
Get your ass over here and I'll take you to the best Msabbha joint in town, that's a promise.

Soulico US Tour Blog said...

Salam Alykum Abu Fares
i gotta tell ya that this is one of the finest things ever written on Hummus. as an Israeli i always said that Hummus and not political leaders will bring peace.
hope it will be soon so i can deep a pita into those Mousabacha places you worte so informative well about.
respect & slamat
eyal, tel aviv