Photo by Joshua Hersh
The first time I ate a loz akhdar --a green, or unripe, almond--at a sunny, Sunday barbecue in Beirut, a month or so ago, I dismissed it as a novelty. For weeks I had been seeing those little guys--small, oval-shaped, with fuzzy green skin, and hard as a rock--at nearly every fruit stand in the city, and, although I admit I was intrigued, they looked about as appetizing as a pine cone. So I passed.
At the barbecue, when I finally learned what this thing was--and that people liked them!--I was game to try one. This led to an ardent debate among the locals (always a good sign) about whether you had to remove the center, or if you could in fact eat the whole thing. Ultimately I did the latter, consuming it fuzzy skin and all. And? It was fine. The flesh in the middle--the aspiring almond--was white, and had the consistency of hard Swiss cheese but not the flavor. On the whole, it tasted pretty much exactly the way you'd expect an unripe nut to taste. I was not impressed.
I needed to know what was going on. Why wouldn't the Lebanese let a plum just become a plum?
"Try it with some salt," a friend helpfully suggested. Result: salty unripe nut.
So, like I said, I put this obscure genre of produce out of my mind, dismissed it as a fluke. Then, a couple weeks later, I was at my local grocer when my eye landed on a giant bucket of green, shiny fruits I had never seen before. I'm a sucker for shiny--the fruits looked like glossy, oversized cherries--and so I bought a handful. But when I got home and popped one in my mouth, there was that same disappointing, unfinished flavor again. It was almost devoid of flavor, although maybe what I really mean is devoid of sugar, only this time with an edge of sourness. When I asked a friend what I had just eaten, she told me, "Oh, that's the jenarik , the unripe plum. Try it with salt."
Soon I could hardly leave my house without encountering yet another variety of unripe produce. It turned out there are a lot of them, and the Lebanese enjoy them all: unripe chickpeas (some people claim they're the best), unripe apples (in the summer), unripe grapes ( hosrom , which are used to make an extremely sour molasses that people eat on salads). To me, unripe means not ripe--as in, not ready to eat--but the Lebanese seem to prefer them to the real thing. I needed to know what was going on. Why wouldn't the Lebanese let a plum just become a plum?
The first person I checked in with was Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Beirut's main farmer's market, the Souk el Tayeb , and the poet laureate of Lebanese produce, to see if he could explain this bizarre Lebanese love affair with unfinished fruits and vegetables.
"It's a definite sign of spring," Mouzawak replied.
Isn't the ripe thing the sign of spring? I asked.
"No! That's summer. Spring is when you have the things that are not done yet, that are just forming. Green fava beans, raw green peas. The almond is the fanciest! It's not unripe for us, it's perfect. All of these things you dip in a bit of salt, by the way. It's like the yin and yang. The green is very yin, and the salt is to balance that out, so the taste feels better."
"They're party nibbles," he said, "an example of the Lebanese dolce vita . You get five kilos of fava beans and some arak [anise-flavored liqueur, similar to ouzo and raki], and you sit and sip the arak and eat some the favas."
Mouzawak has an almost sensual appreciation for food - at one point he seemed to suggest that Lebanese appetites were related to something from Ovid's Metamorphoses --but I was looking for a more definitive answer, so I called up Rami Zurayk.