International Cooking: Food from Lebanon

I was initially excited about Lebanese week because I knew I would get to make some delicious food. However, I didn’t get as much help from Reddit as I was expecting. There was one guy who took major offense at me considering Israel a country and including it in my challenge, and another who asked what hummus Beiruti was as if I were a crazy person, without actually giving me any helpful information. Hummus Beiruti was something I had seen mentioned in a few places as a version of hummus with extra spices and chiles, popular in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. But no one seemed to know about it and I didn’t want to make a dish that might not exist in Lebanon, so I removed it from my list. Luckily, there were a few helpful people and I did end up making some delicious food from Lebanon, but maybe not as much as I would have liked. I’ll admit to my enthusiasm being dampened a little by some of the responses.

Lebanon is located in the Middle East in West Asia, with the Mediterranean Sea to the west. The region has been inhabited since at least 5000 BC.

Lebanon was once home to Phoenicia, a maritime empire that also extended further up and down the Mediterranean coast. The Roman Empire conquered the region in 64 BC, and Lebanon became a major center for Christianity.

During the 7th century, the area was conquered by Muslim Arabs and fell under the control of the Rashidun Caliphate. Due to the resulting conflicts with the Byzantines, trade in the area declined for the following three centuries.

The Crusades began in the 11th century, resulting in Lebanon being controlled by a crusader state for some time, before the land was ceded to the Ottoman Empire in the early 16th century. The Empire dissolved around World War I, and the region fell under French administration. This is around the time that Lebanon was established as a state.

In 1943, Lebanon became independent, but only enjoyed a few decades of stability before the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. During this time, military occupations by Syria and Israel also took place.

Since the conflict in the country has ended, Lebanon has made extensive efforts to revive its economy and rebuild its infrastructure. It is considered a developing country and is currently experiencing an economic crisis caused by multiple issues including recent disasters.

What Do People Eat in Lebanon?

Lebanese cuisine, like those of many countries in the region, can be traced back to ancient times. It was influenced by the empires that occupied the area, and since the Ottomans were there for a good 500 years until 1918, that is the kind of food that is most prevalent. There are also some popular French foods, such as eclairs and croissants.

When entertaining or eating out, it is common to enjoy a mezze, which is a wide array of small dishes. This style of eating is very popular throughout the whole region. All kinds of dishes can be included, with some common ones being stuffed grape leaves, dips, and salads, accompanied by flatbread.

Bread is an integral part of Lebanese meals; it is rare not to include it. There are a variety of flatbreads and some are topped with meat and onions or za’atar.

Dairy such as cheese and yogurt is often used in Lebanese meals, but butter and cream are rare aside from their use in some desserts.

Lamb and chicken are the more popular types of meat, but beef and, to a lesser extent, pork are also used. I didn’t find too many fish dishes, but there are a few and it makes sense that seafood would be eaten in a coastal country.

Meat is expensive so there is also a wide range of vegetarian dishes, making use of ingredients such as eggplants and legumes. Even with meat-based dishes, a variety of vegetables are common accompaniments, either in salads or as components in stews.

Desserts are heavily influenced by Ottoman cuisine and often include ingredients such as honey, pastry, nuts, dried fruits, and sweetened cheese.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Lebanese dishes I didn’t make!

Fried Kibbeh (Beef in Bulgur Shell)

Fried Kibbeh (Beef in Bulgur Shell)

Kibbeh consists of meat stuffed into a shell made from bulgur and more meat, and it’s considered Lebanon’s national dish. I made the fried version, but there is also a baked version which I’d like to try some time.

First, I’ll say that I don’t think I had the right kind of bulgur for this. I was supposed to use fine bulgur. I thought mine looked pretty fine, but the package didn’t specify whether it was fine, or medium, or anything. Considering this, I think my kibbeh still turned out okay in the end.

I started by cooking the filling, consisting of onions, ground beef, salt, and 7-spice, also known as ‘baharat’. Once cooked, I added some pine nuts and set the filling aside.

Meanwhile, I had the bulgur soaking. I combined it in my food processor with onion, basil, mint, and salt. I also added some spices to stand in for kamouneh spice. I looked it up and used a recipe I found from Zaatar & Zaytoun to make it. I used cumin, pepper, dried marjoram, dried basil, dried mint, cinnamon, baharat, and salt. The only thing I was missing was dried rose petals, so I left those out.

Once the bulgur and other ingredients were combined, I added some ground beef, more salt, and baharat, and processed until the mixture turned into a paste.

I took about 3 tablespoons of the paste at a time and filled it with some of the cooked meat mixture, then tried to enclose it so that it looked kind of like a football shape but with more tapered ends. I found the kibbeh a bit difficult to form and I think it’s because my bulgur wasn’t as fine as that in the recipe photos; even the food processor never really got it that fine. Once all my kibbeh were formed, I deep fried them until the bulgur shell was cooked through.

I served these warm with a simple sauce made from yogurt, cucumber, dried mint, garlic, salt, and olive oil. They may have been misshapen but they were delicious! I really enjoyed this mix of spices.

I used two recipes from Feel Good Foodie: one for the kibbeh and one for the yogurt sauce.

Fattoush (Salad with Fried Pita)

Fattoush (Salad with Fried Pita)

Fattoush is a popular Lebanese salad. What makes it special is the addition of pieces of fried pita bread!

The vegetables used can vary, but I included lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, green onions, and parsley. The dressing was made from olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, sumac, pomegranate molasses, dried mint, salt, and pepper.

Right before serving, I sliced some homemade pita into wedges and shallow-fried in olive oil until crisp. I seasoned them with salt while still hot and added them to my salad.

This was a delicious salad; I loved the dressing and the combination of the fried pita and fresh vegetables worked really well. I ate this with my kibbeh.

The recipe I used is from Feel Good Foodie.

Batata Harra (Spicy Potatoes)

Batata Harra (Spicy Potatoes)

This is a simple dish, usually made from fried potatoes tossed with olive oil, pepper, garlic, and cilantro. I’ve actually made a version of this before, but it had additional spices and while it was delicious, I don’t know how authentic it was. This time I made sure to go with a Lebanese recipe.

This recipe calls for roasting the potatoes rather than frying. It also calls for Yukon Gold potatoes, and I wish I listened to myself and went with russet potatoes instead. There seem to be a lot of recipes around that specify gold potatoes when the aim is to make them crispy. In my experience, russets work far better, I’m assuming because of the higher starch content. I find it really odd that so many recipes advise gold potatoes in cases where russets would, in my opinion, be 10 times better.

I cut my potatoes into cubes, tossed them with olive oil and salt, and roasted them in the oven. They did not really get crispy, and I know russet potatoes would have. I was trying to follow the recipe but in future, in cases like these, I will just use russet potatoes if I know the potatoes are meant to be crispy.

I heated some olive oil on the stove and lightly sautéed some garlic, crushed red pepper, and cilantro. Then I tossed this mixture with the roasted potatoes, as well as additional cilantro and red pepper. I finished with a squeeze of lemon juice.

This tasted really good, but I can’t help but miss the crispy potatoes that I know I could have had if I had just used russet potatoes instead!

The recipe for this is from Feel Good Foodie.

Shish Tawook (Chicken Skewers)

Shish Tawook (Chicken Skewers)

This is a popular dish that has variations all across the Middle East. Many countries seem to agree that marinating meat, threading it onto skewers, and grilling it makes for a delicious meal.

I marinated some cubed chicken breast in a mixture of yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, tomato paste, paprika, cinnamon, oregano, ground ginger, salt, and pepper. Then I threaded the chicken onto skewers right before cooking.

I don’t have a proper grill or even a grill pan, so I decided to bake these at high heat in the oven. I set them on a wire rack to make sure the marinade didn’t pool around the chicken. They took longer than I was expecting—a bit over 20 minutes—but I thought they were perfect when they came out. The chicken was moist and had amazing flavor. I was a little unsure about the cinnamon and ground ginger but they worked well.

I served the chicken with tabbouleh (next dish) and homemade pita.

The recipe I used is from Feel Good Foodie.

Tabbouleh (Parsley Salad)

Tabbouleh (Parsley Salad)

I’ve eaten tabbouleh before and I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with it. I’ve also made it a few times, but I’ve never specifically sought out an authentic Lebanese recipe until this week.

I started by combining olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Then I added the bulgur and let it soak under it softened and absorbed the dressing.

I added parsley, tomatoes, green onions, and mint, and once everything was combined the tabbouleh was ready. I think I’ll use a food processor next time; chopping all that parsley by hand was a lot of work! It was worth it though because this was delicious.

The recipe I used is from Feel Good Foodie.

Manakeesh (Za’atar Flatbread)

Manakeesh (Za'atar Flatbread)

I’ve seen variations of manakeesh come up a few times during this challenge. I was excited to finally get to make it for Lebanon! It’s a flatbread that can have a variety of different toppings, but one of the most traditional is a combination of olive oil and za’atar. Za’atar is a seasoning made from a herb of the same name, as well as sesame seeds, salt, and sumac. The za’atar herb is often substituted with other herbs, such as thyme, marjoram, or oregano. Other spices such as cumin and coriander can also be included.

To make my manakeesh, I first combined my yeast with a little sugar and warm water. Once it was foamy, I added it to the flour, salt, and olive oil and kneaded until the dough was smooth. I let it rise for around 45 minutes. Even though it’s cold here at the moment, this recipe has a fairly high amount of yeast so the dough rose pretty fast.

I divided the dough into balls and rolled out each into a flatbread. Then I topped them with a mixture of za’atar seasoning and olive oil and baked until they were done.

I really liked these flatbreads! They were so simple but they were delicious. Even my picky husband ate one (though he loves bread and I think he just tolerated the za’atar in order to eat the bread part).

The recipe I used is again from Feel Good Foodie.

  • Fatayer – a triangular pie that can have a variety of fillings, such as meat, spinach, or cheese.
  • Warak enab – Lebanon’s version of stuffed grape leaves, traditionally stuffed with either rice and meat or rice and veggies.
  • Hummus – this is a very common condiment found all throughout the region, made primarily from pureed chickpeas. Other ingredients include lemon juice, tahini, and garlic, though there are many variations.
  • Sayadieh – spiced fish served on rice with onions, sumac, and tahini sauce.
  • Baba ghanoush – a popular condiment made from grilled eggplant, lemon juice, tahini, and garlic.

Final Thoughts

This was a good week. My favorite food from Lebanon was the shish tawook, followed closely by the manakeesh.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Lesotho.

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