Greetings from Lebanon.
I’m here for the next few weeks, so expect to hear a lot about my food adventures. If you’re a regular visitor, then you know about my Lebanese connection. My husband is originally from Lebanon and I’ve frequently written about my love of Lebanese food, including Ode to the Chickpea and Authentic Lebanese Tabbouleh. I think it’s one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.
We had a fabulous first day here, enjoying a leisurely lunch with relatives at a restaurant in Amchit — a seaside town outside of Beirut that’s near my father-in-law’s house (and it happens to be the town of the current Lebanese president).
The restaurant we visited is called Mhanna Sur Mer and it sits elegantly on the side of a large clift on the Mediterranean. We took a elevator down to the dining area that looks out over the water with spectacular views of rock formations.
Before I knew it, our table was filled with mezze: an artful combination of hot and cold appetizers that included many of the Lebanese favorites that I’m sure you know, along with some foods that were new to me. I actually learned a lot during our lunch.
Piles of warm, puffed up pita breads were delivered to the table that we dipped in smoky baba ghannouj (Moutabal) and creamy hummus garnished with whole chickpeas.
But the mezze included much more than these familiar dips. And our meal taught me a lot about the Lebanese culture.
That’s where the new lessons come in. For starters, I learned that centuries old techniques have shaped the cuisine in Lebanon.
Mouneh is the celebrated tradition of preserving food in the winter. In the mountain villages of Lebanon, most of the year’s labor was dedicated to the mouneh. Many years ago during the winter snows, the villagers would be cut off from the rest of the world without grocery stores or refrigerators. So the women in the villages would preserve food to last all winter.
Pickled vegetables are very popular in Lebanon and the origins are linked to the days of mouneh when the villagers would store vegetables in brine to prevent them from rotting during the winter months. Our mezze included a pickled vegetable platter that featured cauliflower that was pickled in beet juice (a technique commonly used with turnip for lift), cabbage, broccoli, carrots, cucumber and ginger.
Chanklich or Shankleesh is another common dish of mouneh. This is a unique fermented cheese made from cow’s or sheep’s milk yogurt (labneh). For centuries, the Lebanese would pour yogurt into cloth bags and hang it so the water would drain from it. This white cheese is then salted and rolled into balls. They are sundried and sealed inside clay molds. This would allow perishable dairy products to last in the winter without refrigeration. After fermentation the cheese balls are covered in mold — somewhat like the original probiotic food. The mold-ripened cheese is then rolled in dried thyme (zaatar).
Our Shankleesh arrived as a tennis-ball size lump served with finely chopped tomato, onion, green pepper and radish. The waiters tossed the mixture at the table and we ate the cheese-vegetable combination with bread. Click here for a recipe for Shankleesh.
Lesson #2: Vegetables have a starring role in Lebanese cuisine. As Americans, we often start our meal with a single salad drenched in creamy dressing. The Lebanese enjoy an array of salads as a first course that are made with some of the most nutritious greens you can eat.
We ate tabbouleh with parsley, sauteed chickory with carmelized onions, fresh rocca salad (similar to arugula) with beets and fattoush, one of my favorite Lebanese salads.
Then a plate of fried sardines arrived (Bezreh fish). They were beautifully prepared and served at the table nestled between crispy bread and topped with a half of fresh lemon. I was really proud that my daughter tried the sardines, even though her brother couldn’t quite do it.
Lesson #3: Meat is enjoyed in small portions.You won’t see a big slab of meat dominating the plate. Our mixed grill of chicken and lamb kebabs and lamb kafta was almost an afterthought once everyone enjoyed the vegetable-packed mezze.
Lesson #4: Why is fruit so over-looked in America? We just don’t seem to embrace fruit the same way as the Lebanese. Our meal ended with a beautiful array of fresh fruits, which is the most popular dessert in Lebanon. Wouldn’t it be great if that caught on in the U.S.?
Ok, so maybe we don’t have 3 hours for lunch. But it was the perfect reminder of how special it is to share a good meal with family and friends.