Cuisine - Lebanon
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
by Joe George
Joe George, chef, culinary educator and writer -- is a graduate
of The Culinary Institute Of America and The School For American