MESHWE: Bringing the MIDDLE EAST to METRO MANILA

Back in 2013, an exciting rumour was making the rounds among a certain sector of the balikbayan community in Quezon City. The subject was a restaurant in Malingap Street, and word was that their shawarmas recalled the delectable flavors of the smoky kiosks of the Middle East—from the unmistakably tangy lemon infused taste to the surprisingly compatible French fries. Better yet, there were no clumsily diced chewy beef chunks, corn, runny garlic sauce, or any other blasphemous perversions of the original Arabic wrap dish to be found.

That restaurant, Meshwe (“grill”), was little more than a stall inside the rapidly burgeoning Z Compound food park, but it soon became apparent that it lived up to the hype. Word of mouth spread and the place soon gained popularity among local Quezon City residents and foodies, who would line up at the small window for the quickly sold-out shawarmas, falafels, and sambousak. Most notably, it was a long awaited godsend to the nostalgia-ridden Middle East-raised Filipino kids in Metro Manila; kids who, even after years of assimilating into Filipino lifestyle, never lost the taste or craving for the authentic Arabic cuisine of their childhoods.

Meshwe founder, Nathaniel George Mounayer was one of those kids. Born in Beirut to a Lebanese father and a Filipino mother, his formative years were spent in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, peppered with regular summer vacations to Lebanon. It was within this cultural backdrop that he first developed a particular fascination for food. He recalls, “I was a fat kid (still am!) and loved to eat. I was adventurous and loved to taste every kind of food I encountered. I was my mom›s assistant in the kitchen when she was preparing our meals. Even as a child, I remember I enjoyed watching cooking shows on the TV; my favorites were Emeril Lagasse and Martin Yan.”

Despite his early exposure to the culinary arts, the journey towards mastery wasn’t an easy one, “I can›t say I was a natural… Cooking is a craft that needs constant practice and honing of one’s skill. Passion definitely plays a role in every cook’s journey—passion to cook good food, to taste new combinations, to master recipes, and most importantly to feed others.”

It was this passion that eventually steered him towards the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines, where he earned his undergraduate degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. Years of accumulating experience in the restaurant business followed—first as a Commis Chef in Century Park Hotel, then as a prep-cook in Italianni’s, followed by a stint as  barista in Starbucks. Then in 2009, he returned to the Middle East for further training as a cook, rotating between the Jeddah, Dubai, and Beirut branches of Goodies Restaurant.

But Nathaniel had bigger plans.  By 2010, he had begun to entertain the idea of setting up his own food business, “All the while, I was planning and saving up to open my own restaurant. I decided that I wanted to be my own boss and to run things the way I want them.” Then in 2012, while on vacation in the Philippines, Nathaniel decided to send out an application to one of the increasingly popular night markets in Manila. It was accepted.

This was all he needed. Despite several job offers awaiting him back in Dubai and Jeddah, he decided to stay in the country and focus on putting his dream into action. And so between 2012 and October 2013, he began touring the night markets of Bonifacio Global City, Alabang, Metrowalk, and Araneta Cubao, selling shawarmas and other Arabic dishes from a temporary stall. Finally, in November 6, 2013, the first official Meshwe store began operations in Malingap Street, Teacher’s Village.

The desire to create something authentic, something that recalled the rich flavors of his childhood, had always been foremost in Nathaniel›s restaurant ambitions. Although shawarma stalls and other Middle Eastern restaurants were fairly common—even popular—in Metro Manila, few remained loyal to the source ingredients, often swapping distinct Arabic flavors and spices for more familiar, Filipino-friendly alternatives.

Unsurprisingly, the concept behind Meshwe was initially deemed too risky by Nathaniel’s peers—“People told me that “it’s too authentic, you have to adapt it to the Filipino palate”, “it’s too garlicky and lemony”, “Filipinos will not enjoy authentic Lebanese/Arabic flavors”, “adjust your recipe to fit the Filipino palate”. Undeterred, Nathaniel soldiered on, certain that he was on the right track. His philosophy was simple, “If you yourself do not believe in your business idea, then how can you sell it to others?”

And sell it did. Four years later, the young entrepreneur has two Meshwe branches and his own food park, Pazar (“market” in Turkish), to show for his hard work. He has no plans of slowing down, “We’re looking to add more items in the next couple of months to our menu. We definitely hope to open a branch within Manila in the University Belt area. What we really hope to achieve in the next year is our own full pledged dine-in restaurant that can seat 60 people, with a separate function room for events that can serve up a delicious Arabian Buffet.”

Until then, he continues to work at his craft, spending his free time testing out new recipes and sampling other restaurants as part of his never-ending food education.  Propelling his efforts is the fulfilment that he gets from living up to the expectations of his enthusiastic customers, “Just seeing them enjoy and share their experiences after eating at Meshwe pushes me to constantly do more—To add more items for them to enjoy, to bring more flavors from the Middle East, and to be the pioneer always in serving proper and Lebanese/Arabic food in the Philippines.”

Judging by Meshwe’s customer base—a motley mix of former Middle Eastern residents searching for the taste of home, newbie converts to the church of creamy garlic sauce, and fans of good taste and affordable, honest-to-goodness authentic Arabic cuisine—there is little doubt this time that the Filipino public is ready for more of what Nathaniel has to offer.

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