HENRI NASR KNOWS THE BEST LEBANESE RESTAURANT IN TOWN
Henri Nasr has little use for measuring cups. “I make food from memory – and from the touch. Except for dessert — you can’t fool around with dessert recipes,” said Nasr, 67, a retired teacher who lives in Chateauguay.
Nasr grew up in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. He was the fifth of seven children. His mother cooked three meals a day for her brood. In those days, daughters were expected to help out in the kitchen – but not sons. Nevertheless, Nasr spent a lot of time in his mother’s kitchen. “I chopped, I peeled, but cleaning – no, no, no! Cleaning was for girls,” he said.
Most of the recipes Nasr’s mother used were passed down by her mother-in-law. Nasr immigrated to Canada in 1976 to get away from the civil war that was ravaging Lebanon. In Montreal, he earned degrees in philosophy and education. Between 1982 and 1987, he returned to Lebanon to look after his ailing father. That was also when Nasr met his wife Mirna. The couple had two daughters. Sadly, Mirna died in 2007. Cooking traditional Lebanese food is one of the ways Nasr shows his love for his girls.
His specialties include kibbeh (beef with bulgur) and sayadieh (fish made with onions and sesame sauce). There’s generally a salad – either tabbouleh (a bulgur salad) or a fattoush. Because tomatoes were still in season when we met him, Nasr was in the mood for fattoush. Lebanese cooking, he explained, is all about fresh ingredients. “It’s a category of Mediterranean food, which is known to be one of the most balanced kinds of cooking because of the variety of vegetables,” Nasr said.
There are tricks to making fattoush – and Nasr knows them. For one thing, the sumac – a lemony-tasting spice which is sprinkled over the vegetables – can’t be old. Nasr smiled approvingly as he sniffed the open spice jar. His sumac comes from Lebanon. “When people go to Lebanon, I beg them to bring me sumac,” he said. Fattoush should not be stirred until just before serving time. “If you don’t stir it,” Nasr said, “it can last in the fridge for a few days.”
What makes fattoush delicious and popular is the combination of ingredients. “The taste of all the vegetables at the same time is explosive in your mouth,” Nasr said.
Nasr’s daughters enjoy cooking, but they leave Lebanese cuisine to their dad. “I always say, ‘Stand by me and learn how to do it, so you can make it tomorrow when I won’t be here,’ but they never stay to learn,” he said. On the other hand, they’re nearly always available for dinner when their dad is cooking Lebanese-style.
Nasr’s recommendation for the best Lebanese restaurant in Montreal? It turns out to be an easy question. “Henri’s!” he answered.
1 romaine lettuce, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 bunches of Italian parsley, stems removed, chopped fine
½ bunch of fresh mint, stems removed, chopped fine
1 large green pepper, chopped into ½ inch pieces
1 large cucumber, not peeled, chopped into ½ inch pieces
2 tomatoes, chopped into ½ inch pieces
1 bunch of radishes, sliced and chopped
2 tbsp sumac
1 cup olive oil
1 large piece of pita, toasted and broken into pieces
Set sliced onions aside in a bowl.
Layer sliced lettuce on the bottom of a large, flat serving bowl.
Put all the other vegetables in a bowl. Add salt and pepper and mix well.
Carefully lay the chopped vegetables on top of the bed of lettuce. Top with onion slices and sprinkle with sumac.
Separate the pita bread along its two sides; toast lightly.
Just before serving, pour oil over salad.
Serve with toasted pita bread.
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The Secret is in the Sauce! is sponsored by Canadian Heritage’s Official Languages Program.