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.