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Ethnic Cuisine: Lebanon

by Joe George

introduction  |  recipes

At one time the mere mention of the country Lebanon would conjure up images of sun-drenched beaches, snow-capped mountains and a cultured, hospitable population bearing a vibrant, healthy cuisine. With its world class museums, universities and exciting nightlife, Beirut was often referred to as "the Paris of the Middle East." Unfortunately, because of the civil war (1975-1991) most only remember the violence and destruction that came close to annihilating this beautiful little country. Today however, tourism is up and rebuilding is being done at an astonishing rate; Lebanon is currently one of the largest construction sites in the world. This isn't the first time that Beirut has been rebuilt, as early as the 6th century the city was destroyed by devastating earthquakes and later a tidal wave and citywide fire. After each destruction the city was rebuilt to recapture its original splendor, this time is no exception.

The similarities between most Middle Eastern cuisines cannot be denied. With the language of the countries surrounding the eastern and southern Mediterranean being predominantly Arabic, many of the dishes carry the same names from region to region, though they may be prepared or seasoned somewhat differently. Because of this, the cuisines of the Middle East are often sadly lumped into one homogenous category, when in truth they can vary greatly. To view the cuisines of the Middle East as one is like proclaiming that all cuisines of Western Europe are alike. Lebanese food, for example, combines the sophistication and subtleties of European cuisines with the exotic ingredients of the Middle and Far East.

The cuisine of Lebanon is the epitome of the Mediterranean diet. It includes an abundance of starches, fruits, vegetables, fresh fish and seafood; animal fats are consumed sparingly. Poultry is eaten more often than red meat, and when red meat is eaten it is usually lamb. It also includes copious amounts of garlic and olive oil — nary a meal goes by in Lebanon that does not include these two ingredients. Most often foods are either grilled, baked or sauteed in olive oil; butter or cream is rarely used other than in a few desserts. Vegetables are often eaten raw or pickled as well as cooked. While the cuisine of Lebanon doesn't boast an entire repertoire of sauces, it focuses on herbs, spices and the freshness of ingredients; the assortment of dishes and combinations are almost limitless. The meals are full of robust, earthy flavors and, like most Mediterranean countries, much of what the Lebanese eat is dictated by the seasons.

With the recent emphasis on the health benefits of Mediterranean cuisine, many Americans are discovering and embracing authentic Lebanese food. The awareness of this ancient cuisine has also inspired professional chefs and restaurateurs across the country to feature exciting Lebanese items on their menus.

Situated between the east and the west, Lebanon is a culinary and cultural crossroads. Lebanon is located on the eastern most shore of the Mediterranean in the Fertile Crescent, where western civilization is said to have begun. The cuisine of this ancient land is diverse and steeped in history; both the eastern and western influences in its cookery are apparent. Though its mainstream popularity is relatively new, the cuisine is not; the cuisine of Lebanon has been in the making since pre-biblical times. The influence that Lebanon has had on the world is totally out of proportion to its size; culinary contributions from this tiny country have had the greatest impact on modern Middle Eastern cuisine. Roughly encompassing an area of land the size of Connecticut, the people and cuisine of Lebanon are known throughout the world-Lebanese cuisine is a true reflection of its welcoming culture.

The national dish of Lebanon is kibbeh, an emulsified paste of the freshest lamb and bulgur wheat. Think of kibbeh as a sort of Lebanese pate. Originally, kibbeh was made by pounding lamb with a jorn (mortar) and modaqqa (pestle), then kneading in spices and soaked bulgur. To some, that are unaccustomed to this procedure, this can be an unpleasant sight. The informative English food writer George Lassalle, in his book Middle Eastern Cuisine, East of Orphanides, describes kibbeh-making in the rural villages of Lebanon as "frightening." He found the incessant pounding and kneading of the meat and bulgur both dreary and alarming. With the advent of the electric grinder and food processor this ancient method of kibbeh-making has all but stopped, except in the most rural villages. Often in American cities with large Lebanese and Syrian populations you'll find butchers that specialize in "kibbeh meat": lamb that is ground two or three times to form an emulsification.

Kibbeh can take on many forms, the most famous being kibbeh nayee (raw kibbeh) which is somewhat like steak tartar. Two other common forms of the food are kibbeh bil-saneeya (baked kibbeh) and kibbeh rass (fried kibbeh), both of which usually contain a filling of cooked meat and pinenuts. Baked kibbeh is layered in a pan with its stuffing and drizzled with olive oil, while fried kibbeh is shaped into miniature hollowed out footballs and then stuffed before being fried. Both of these cooked kibbeh are often served with refreshing yogurt sauce. Despite advancements in modern technologies, kibbeh-making is still an arduous task and usually reserved for holidays, festivals or Sunday dinner.

Literally not a meal is eaten in Lebanon that does not include bread. It is seasoned with zahtar (thyme-sumac seasoning) and olive oil for breakfast, and utilized both as a foodstuff and eating utensil for virtually every meal or snack. Bread is regarded so highly in the Middle East that in some Arabic dialects it is often referred to as "esh," meaning life. In an area of the world that is steeped in biblical history it is easy to remember that in the Christian church bread symbolizes the body of Christ.

While one may not think of Lebanon as a particularly well-known wine region, there are a few beautiful Lebanese-made wines available in the United States. From the Bekaa Valley, for example, you'll find Ksara and Chateau Kefraya. Ksara is an excellent, full-bodied red and its winery, founded by Jesuit priests, is the largest in the Middle East. Chateau Kefraya produces a light and pleasant rose. And from the Mount Lebanon region is Chateau Musar (this author's personal favorite), which is an outstanding, full-bodied red. Chateau Musar is produced by a Frenchman and his son who migrated to Lebanon decades ago; their wine has the rich-fullness of classic Bordeaux.

The entire Mediterranean rim is known for their anise-flavored liqueurs. In the South of France there is Pastis, in Italy you'll find Sambuca, in Greece Ouzo, and in Lebanon there is the ubiquitous Arak. Arak is the national drink of Lebanon. Interestingly, these anise-flavored liqueurs came into existence around the turn of the century as a substitute — out of desperation actually — when the infamous beverage Absinthe became illegal. Absinthe was a bitter, anise-flavored liqueur that was popular with writers, painters and other freethinking types during the mid-to-late 1800's. It was originally produced about a century prior to treat malaria. However, the essential flavoring came from the bitter root of the wormwood plant and was reputed to have narcotic properties with disastrous side effects — prolonged consumption of the beverage caused lesions on the brain. When absinthe became illegal, manufacturers substituted anise for the wormwood, to supply the demand, and a number of close imitations were produced including Pernod, Sambuca and various brands of Arak and Ouzo.

In Lebanon, very rarely are drinks served without being accompanied by food. One of the more healthy and entertaining aspects of Lebanese cuisine is the manner or custom in which their food is often served, it's referred to as mezze. Similar to the tapas of Spain and antipasto of Italy, mezze is an array of small dishes placed before the guests creating an awe-inspiring array of colors, flavors, textures and aromas. This style of serving food is less a part of family life than it is of entertaining and cafes. Mezze may be as simple as pickled vegetables, hummus and bread, or it may become an entire meal consisting of grilled marinated seafood, skewered meats, a variety of cooked and raw salads and an arrangement of desserts.

Although simple fresh fruits are often served towards the end of a Lebanese meal, there is also dessert and coffee. Baklava, which is usually associated with Greek cuisine, is also a popular Lebanese dessert. The main difference between the Lebanese variety and its Greek cousin, is Lebanese baklava often contains pistachio nuts and is drizzled with a rose-water syrup, the Greek variety usually contains walnuts and honey.

Coffee is a big deal in Lebanon. It is served throughout the day, at home and in the public cafes. Lebanese coffee is strong, thick and often flavored with cardamom. It is also usually heavily sweetened. When guests arrive at one's home, they are invariably persuaded to stay for a coffee, no matter how short their visit.

The food of the entire Mediterranean region is a celebration of life; it is fresh, flavorful, diverse and invigorating. While speaking with a Lebanese chef who had once operated a restaurant in the South of France, I questioned him on the food of the sun-drenched Mediterranean. He said that the genius of it was in its simplicity, and that the food was a product of both the earth and the sea. He also told me of the natural bond that all of the Mediterranean cuisines share, from the tip of Spain to his homeland in the Levant, "the same waters equally splash all of the countries around the Mediterranean". With that said, I walked away a content and happy diner.

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