I’m the kind of person who thinks that if something’s worth eating, it’s probably worth making at home. Or at least trying once or twice. I don’t think I’ve bought a condiment in years (aside from the obligatory name-brand ketchup and mustard for an annual family cookout — I know my audience).
But one thing has long had me stumped: the Lebanese garlic sauce called toum. It’s the pungent, white stuff — sometimes ethereally cloud-like — that no Lebanese restaurant (or home) would ever be without. It’s traditionally a marinade, a sauce for cooked meats, and a salad dressing. And in my garlic-loving family, someone’s finger inevitably ends up clearing out the last of it before the meal is through.
When I tried to make it at home, however, I ended up with something just okay, too mayonnaiselike to be authentic. And getting the garlic level right was hard, because by the time you tasted it, it was too late to adjust.
So, toum was something we could enjoy only after a trek to, say, Beirut, in West St. Paul. That is, until one day a farmers market booth with alluringly bright white jars stopped me in my tracks. I did a cartoonlike backtrack.
The young bearded man behind the table started to explain what it was he had to sell — what he called Grlk, a sauce, a dressing, a spread — when I (probably rudely) cut him off. “Two jars, please. Make that three.”
And since that day, our fridge has never been without a jar of Grlk, the toum Peter Chehadeh makes from his family’s recipe. His Lebanese grandmother taught his Norwegian St. Paulite mother, and she taught him.
The first thing I asked when I met Chehadeh for an interview was whether he’d mind making a batch of Grlk while I watched and got some pictures. I was afraid he’d balk at sharing his secrets. But he wasn’t worried in the least. “Sure. I’ll show you. I’ll tell you everything that’s in it.” His unspoken challenge: The ingredients alone won’t get you there. Even watching the technique won’t be enough. It takes years — perhaps generations — to get a feel for the changes in texture as the blender (the modern day stand-in for his ancestors’ mortar and pestle) does its job. This was a guy who was clearly not concerned that I’d stop coming to get my weekly fix at the farmers market.
Chehadeh makes his toum in a church’s commercial kitchen. He shows up with a single produce box full of ingredients — vegetable oil, a bag of peeled garlic cloves he’s carefully hand picked, lemon juice, and salt. With that, a 1,500-watt blender and about two feet of counter space, he’s in business. (Some toum recipes call for egg white or egg white powder. That’s what makes it fluffy, almost like uncooked meringue. Chehadeh shakes his head at that: “If you’re going to make it, make it right.” I know when a fight is not mine to fight, so I’ll just back away slowly from that one.)
Before he started filling jars for the public, Chehadeh tested his recipe on his coworkers at the store where he was working retail. Unsurprisingly those taste tests convinced him to pull back on the garlic. But, not to worry, Grlk is still strong stuff. He weighs out what looks like a cup and a half of garlic cloves — and into the blender they go, with salt and a little bit of oil.
A good minute of power turns the garlic into a slightly chunky paste. Then comes the oil, in a thin stream — just like making mayonnaise. Chehadeh wears safety goggles so he can peer into the blender, watching the mixture emulsify and thicken. But, more importantly, he’s listening. The blades catch at a slightly different pitch, and he knows it’s time to add some lemon juice. This thins the mixture out and bleaches it. (Good toum is bright white.) Lemon juice alternates with oil a few more times, and together Chehadeh and his blender have done their magic. This is also when he adds chipotle peppers in adobo sauce or basil, to make his flavored Grlk. They are good enough to win over even staunch purists.
I watch closely, trying to memorize the sound of the blender blades. Then I give up and offer to buy whatever stock of Grlk he’s got on hand. I know when I’m beaten, and this time I don’t even care.
Chehadeh sells most of his Grlk, a jar or two at a time, directly to customers who come to love it and come back for more. He works four farmers markets throughout the summer — and that’s almost always him standing behind the table, if it’s not his mother, father, or sister. Look for him also at places like the Minnesota Garlic Festival in Hutchinson and the Minneapolis Home and Garden Show. It’s a grueling way to get product into people’s hands, but it suits Chehadeh, who has more than a decade of retail experience and a flair for talking up a food he clearly loves.
You can also pick up Grlk at the Herbivorous Butcher, Lowry Hill Meats, the River Market Co-op in Stillwater, the Northeast Co-op, and the Linden Hills Co-op (after the current remodel is done). But, if you really need a fix, order it online. Chehadeh will personally drive it to your house. That’s how much he wants you to have this stuff. For our out-of-town readers: Yes, he ships and has probably already shipped to your state.
Chehadeh swears he doesn’t have a business plan, but he’s got clear and specific plans for the future. He plans to add another co-op, has his eyes on Kowalski’s (start your lobbying now, fans), and wants to do demos on the east and west coasts.
He might even need to get another blender.