In a Jar of Tomato Paste

I have a hazy recollection of my early days in Lebanon. I’m not sure if it’s Alzheimer’s, the human condition or just suppressed memory, but the first 21 years of my life are pieces of a puzzle that stray in and out of mind. I grew up during the height of the Lebanese war. My family and I were driven out of our home on my fifth birthday. I don’t remember that day. I do remember that it was difficult for us to find a place to stay. People north of Beirut were hesitant about providing rent to the southern “migrants” – they didn’t trust that we wouldn’t overstay our welcome. For months, our family of 6 spent a great deal of time in dad’s ’78 Mercedes, moving between hotels and the homes of friends and relatives. We eventually found a 2 bedroom unit in Mastita. We lived there for 14 years, the owners of the unit becoming part of our extended family. I have a clear memory of when a large amount of sand was delivered to the neighbourhood. We used it to fill up large hessian bags with which we secured the bottom floor of the building to protect us from a direct hit, stray bullets or shrapnel. When the bombing got seriously close, all the residents would rush down to the sand fortress for shelter until things cooled off. For a kid like me, it was as close as I got to being on a camping trip – a whole lot of fun. I didn’t realise the extent of the danger I was in. Sometimes, I’d be too sleepy and lazy to even bother getting out of bed. Dad would have to carry me to the bomb shelter on his shoulders. Shortly after the war slowed down and the bombing stopped, the protective sand bags collapsed under their own weight. Talk about a false sense of security.

During those days, fresh food was hard to come by. There was no electricity and so no refrigeration. Despite the fact we were living in the 20th century, our way of life in many aspects was more like the era that had just passed. Women would gather around the saj in large groups when a shipment of flour came in. They would bake markouk bread for the whole neighbourhood. We were somewhat luckier than most in that Dad’s job took him travelling around the region. He would visit small farms on his way and purchase as much fresh produce as he could get his hands on. Mom would then need to preserve his findings. Fruit became jam or cordial, milk became yoghurt, kishk or labne, and vegetables were pickled or sundried. I never knew how good mom’s tomato paste was until I moved to Sydney. Fresh, sweet Lebanese tomatoes boiled to a smooth paste that was further dried in the heat of the Lebanese summer sun. This went into anything from marinades, pasta sauces, soups and stews. Those jars full of paste would see us through the year. In the way these jars preserved the memory of a summer tomato, sun-kissed and ripe, my mother’s efforts are preserved in my memory more than any other from back then. Seeing a jar of homemade tomato paste reminds me of my childhood, of my mother and father, my brothers and sister and of our life together. Isn’t it strange? I really miss those days.

Last week, my friend Kristie brought over 10 kilos of organic tomatoes. I used 5 kilos and they turned into a single jar of tomato paste. The others were eaten fresh. This paste will keep for a year, and I will use it during the winter time. Next year, my daughter might even have some in a soup. She’ll get to know how tomatoes from her first summer tasted like. The memory and flavour of that summer is preserved in a little glass jar, waiting patiently for her.


  • You post brought in memories of sandbags and war! Funny how you don’t realize what it all was till when you grow up!
    I was recently asked how was it like to be born and living into a war, funny thing is I replied: it is all you know, you don’t realize what it is till later.
    My mom did similar stuff, although we were closer to the red lines in Beirut! Funny how life can continue with death threat hovering!
    I remember the tomato paste making on the stove in the apartment! That thing is a long process! But to be honest nothing better than homemade tomato paste. Your daughter will sure have high standards in the kind after that first trial!

  • Terrific article; just the thing one is used to seeing from you. Not only are you a gifted writer you also draw from your own experiences, letting others feel some of the emotion in the stories.
    Thanks for sharing

  • What a beautiful story. I especially like the idea that those times of turmoil, strife and potential hunger aren’t the terrible memories that those who haven’t experienced it would expect. I want to hear more.

  • What a wonderful post, I loved reading about your memories and life and how you drew that line of memory through to the tomato paste.
    I am visiting Lebanon this year, in few months time, and am very much looking forward to learning about the many traditional foods and techniques!

  • That’s why children are often our symbol of hope! Their innocence and unknowing resiliance keep us all going, what a wonderful story you’ve told us! All that love and memory tied up in a simple jar of tomato paste!

  • Lovely story fouad. You’ve many gifts and its awesome that you’re so generous in sharing them

  • Arresting post; I must say that Lebanese are so remarkable in their resilience and the fact that no matter how horrendously difficult their circumstances, they always seem to go on and not waste time with bitterness. Life must go on, you have a daughter now and she will be asking questions; I am glad to see that as a father you will share your past with her just like you are sharing it with us today. Love the homemade tomato paste, we get so many tomatoes in the summer we jar a bunch of them too.

  • Yes, food, like music, is a fond keeper of memories. Your story is beautifully told and your home made tomato paste is as treasured as your past.

  • I grew up in the safety of the US. My parents always watched the nightly news and when they showed segments on the war in Lebabon, as well as other places, I always wondered how people lived through it. Thank you for sharing your story as I have learned from it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could end war and violence?

  • Hi Fouad,

    Such an extraordinary memory and so
    beautifully conveyed.
    Thanks for your powerful prose. I look
    forward to each new post.

  • Sometimes I think writing about food is a way to uncover memories that are embedded in it. Until you start to put the words down, you don’t realize the that food is a narrative in and of itself, not merely a thing we use to create narrative. I think it was Brillat Savarin who said “Sauce is distilled desire”. This tomato paste is certainly that.

  • I was browsing food blogs, and when I saw this story I knew I’d have to comment, just to let you know how touching it was. You have a way with words, and that tomato paste looks AMAZING. Would love to see a recipe one day!

  • In late august, the women of my home village would puree gigantic batches of tomatoes and dry them out on the rooftops in large stainless trays. The sun dries out the puree, which the tetas diligently remix and salt every day until the “rubb” is concentrated enough.

    I remember sneeking onto rooftops to sample spoonfulls of the stuff…

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