Touta, the passionate cuisine of Lebanon in Lisbon

Word on the street was that a renowned Lebanese chef had relocated to Lisbon and inaugurated a dining establishment named Touta. Hence, on a balmy spring night, we ascended the ascent from Estrela to Campo de Ourique to experience it firsthand.

Rita Abou Ghazaly cordially welcomed us into the elegant dining hall adorned with Middle Eastern motifs. Presenting us with hibiscus and rose-infused kombucha as Lebanese tunes filled the ambiance with the same subtle tones we encounter in fado.

The meal commenced with a basket of Lebanese flatbread and cheese truffles—crispy cheese treats enfolded in delicate phyllo pastry. Following was a platter of hummus, a blend of chickpeas and tahini sauce that is a cornerstone of Middle Eastern gastronomy. This interpretation surpassed any we had ever sampled. Garnished with soujak meat, pickles, and aquafaba, a luxurious chickpea water emulsion akin to whipped egg whites. Immediately afterward, grilled cabbage accompanied by lentils and beetroots gently spiced with preserved lemons was served.

We savored a delightful soup concocted with a local fish known as mero. It evoked memories of cação soup, a traditional Alentejo dish. To culminate the feast, we relished an exceptional grillede black pork dish served with black beans, carob marshmallows, and a molasses-based barbecue sauce. Dessert consisted of a flawlessly sweet croquette.

“What inspired you to establish a culinary haven in Lisbon?” we inquired from Rita. “You must ask Waël,” Rita replied with a chuckle, “he is the mastermind behind it all.” Waël Haddad shared that his affection for Lisbon had blossomed since his inaugural visit a decade ago. “I frequently returned and brought along my companion Rita and my relative Touta, a revered Lebanese chef. With each visit, our fondness for the city deepened, prompting us to scout for a suitable restaurant space. After exploring various districts, we chanced upon this ideal location with a ‘for sale’ sign. And now, here we are, living out our dreams.”

Chef Cynthia Bitar, affectionately referred to as Touta, came forward to greet us. Her ardor for cuisine was inherited from her mother, a famed caterer in the Middle East. Touta’s fascination with cooking has always been unyielding. “As a youngster, during playdates, I often found myself in my friends’ kitchens cooking. Food occupies my thoughts during the day and fills my dreams at night.”

After being trained at the Paul Bocuse Academy in Lyon, she returned to the family catering business. However, akin to Waël and Rita, Touta succumbed to Lisbon’s charms. The parallels between Lebanese and Portuguese cuisines, the caliber of local ingredients, and the warmth of its populace captivated her. “The farmers markets boast extraordinary produce. Taste this carrot.” She halved a petite carrot to allow us to savor its fragrance and relish its natural sweetness.

Touta guided us to the grocery store situated at the rear of the dining establishment. Its shelves overflow with Lebanese products and jars filled with pickles, jams, fermented beverages, and preserved citrus fruits crafted by her. We lingered well past midnight, enchanted by Touta’s passionate culinary creations, sampling everything from molasses and infusions to spices like sumac and za’atar.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, commerce with Africa, Asia, and South America catalyzed Lisbon’s transformation into a nucleus of global talent. The diverse convergence of people profoundly influenced Portuguese culture, cuisine, and art. Witnessing Lisbon once more attract individuals who will propel the city to new heights is truly heartening. Welcome, Waël, Rita, and Touta!

Touta can be found at Rua Domingos Sequeira 38 in Lisbon – 960 49 49 49. Visit the restaurant’s website for more information.

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Asraful Shohag

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