Mussels in Arak – The Milk of Lions
Majd, an old college friend from Lebanon, was visiting London last week. It’s been nearly a decade since I last saw him, so you can imagine how overjoyed I was to see him.
As is customary with Lebanese, the traveler will always ask “badeek shee” (addressing a female) or do you need anything from here? And the person being posed the question should ideally respond: “salemtak” (addressing a male) or “your well being.”
Of course, I didn’t even wait to get asked the question. Are you kidding me?!?! I went straight for the kill and said; “Dude can you bring me some Arak with you, I’m having a hard time finding it here!” He’s thinking: “Is she having withdrawals or what?!”
Arak- Lebanon’s national drink- is a clear, colourless, unsweetened, aniseed flavoured alcohol distilled from grapes. It is quite similar to other spirits from around the Mediterranean like the Greek ouzo or the French pastis, amongst others. It’s also been nicknamed “halib al seba3″ or “The milk of lions” when back in the old days it was drunk by men in the mornings to show off strength and masculinity along with the belief that such a practice can also bring health. In Lebanon, the preferred alcohol volume of Arak is around 72%. To drink arak, it is diluted with water where it turns into a milky white color.
Majd arrived for dinner with a lovely bottle of Arak. We talked, drank, talked some more and shared loud and obnoxious laughs in remembrance of the olden days; when we were young, stupid and stupider.
We were all congregated in the kitchen while I was preparing a dish of prawns in arak and sumac. I twisted open the bottle of arak and started pouring it into the pot of sizzling onions and garlic when suddenly Majd had an all too familiar bewildered look on his face ” Beta what are you doing, aren’t you supposed to use wine?” he asked. ” Well you can, but I’m not making mariniere, this is my Lebanese fusion version, ya know!” I replied.
“hmm, yea I guess but in Lebanon we don’t really use arak in cooking because the process to distill it is so long and precise, and arak is such a delicacy, it goes through three distillations.” He insisted, his heart breaking.
“yeah, I know! You sound like my dad!” I said.
He’s right and he wasn’t the first one to give me such a perplexed look at first. When my dad first saw me cooking with arak-a man that distills his own arak- he proclaimed me crazy! That was it for him! What kind of daughter did he raise! He quickly got over it.
May I also add, that I recently made this for my aunt while in the South of France. It has now become one of her favorite ways to enjoy mussels.
So, you can guess how dinner went… I’ll save you the blacked-out recollection. But, when Majed tasted those prawns, he stopped arguing with me. That was it. No more conversation. Just E.A.T.I.N.G!
Some traditions are meant to be kept and some are meant to be broken! And I’m breaking the hell out of this one!