The World’s Best Arab Eatery Is Hidden in the Brazilian Jungle

Nobody would believe it if it was said that the best Arab restaurant in the world is in Brazil and is on the banks of a river of the Amazon, infested with alligators and anacondas. However, this seems true.

The surprising “Al-Manzul” of Cuiabá, in the heart of the midwestern state of Mato Grosso, even receives illustrious guests from New York, who charter flights especially to flavor the cuisine of the thousand and one nights.


“I cannot state that this is the best Arab restaurant in South America or in the world, as some tourist guidebooks have been saying,” explained Salah Ayoub, a slender Maronite-Christian Lebanese of almost 70 years of age, who receives his clients at the door of his restaurant, hidden by a variety of trees, among them mango trees.


“What I really can say, as I go there frequently, is that it is undoubtedly the best Lebanese Arab restaurant.”


The menu starts with an entrée of 20 dishes, each one a delicious surprise to the taste, with flavors that are unknown to even the most refined of the Arab restaurants in the city of São Paulo (where the Syrian-Lebanese community is one of the largest and richest in the world) and to the Arab enclave in Foz do Iguaçu, beside the famous Iguaçu Falls.


The owner of the restaurant is prepared to explain each dish to those who wish it. From the raw Kibbeh to the zucchini stuffed with milk curds and mint, from the broad bean meatballs in sesame oil to the aubergines marinated in pomegranate juice.


But he stands there, in the heat of the Amazon, which is discretely reduced by enormous fans, adamantly refusing to sit when invited to.


“It would not be ethical,” he says humbly. “I am old-fashioned. This is why I am the only one who continues cooking as was cooked in Lebanon before 1975, before that bloody civil war that destroyed everything.”


He came to Brazil from the Middle East in 1952, after having purchased an enormous piece of land “by mail”. “When I got here I noticed that it was over 200 kilometers away from Cuiabá and that access was impossible. There was no road, not even a trail to get there,” he says, smiling to Clarimar, a beautiful cabocla (the mixture between a South American Indian and a Caucasian) who has also been his cooking companion since then.


“I sold everything for a piece of bread and began my golden business: Cuiabá is sitting on a giant block of gold. I saved money and now, in my old age, have realized my dream of opening a restaurant. The name, Al-Manzul, means ‘house of the guests’ in my language.”


Among the guests who have been immortalized in photographs are many Latin-American presidents. The most recent is of Enrique Iglesias, the president of the Inter American Development Bank (IABD), who travelled to Cuiabá especially to eat at Ayoub’s restaurant.


He arrived from Fortaleza (2,300 kilometers away) during the last IABD world assembly, in a plane specially chartered by 80 clients who had made their reservations in New York.


On the back of the picture the handwritten dedicatory note by Iglesias leaves no doubt: “To the best Arab restaurant in the world.” Surprisingly, after sampling the many entrées, the main dish arrives.


Ayoub does not permit you to refuse the mutton. “It took me years to find in Brazil an animal that had a taste similar to that of the mountain sheep in Lebanon”, he explains, while serving a scented meat that melts like butter in your mouth.


“I buy it from a farm that is 800 kilometers away from here. Does it please you? It is certainly not as good as the sheep bred in Afghanistan or Tajikistan, which, as you know, is among the most delicious in the world, but…”


The 25-euro bill arrives while out of an exotic silver coffee pot he pours his scented Arabic coffee and a flock of macaws flies past the window.


On saying farewell, Ayoub comments: “I have already been invited to open a restaurant in São Paulo. I would make a lot of money there, but nobody will take me away from here. The peace and the dedication to the good things in life are worth much more than money, although it seems that in the current world, especially in the land where I was born, nobody can understand that.”


Ansa News Agency

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