Situated on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon has an area of 4,015 square miles (10,400 square kilometers), about three-fourths the size of the state of Connecticut. The Lebanon Mountains are rugged. East of the Lebanon Mountains is the Bekaa Valley, an extremely fertile flatland. At the eastern flank of the Bekaa stands Mount Hermon, straddling the border with Syria. Lebanon contains few rivers, and its harbors are mostly shallow and small, with polluted coastal waters. Lebanon has an extraordinarily varied climate: within a 45-minutes drive in winter, spring, and fall, both skiing and swimming are possible. Less than 30% of Lebanon’s total area can support crop production. Expansion of cultivated areas is limited by the arid and rugged nature of the land.
HISTORY AND FOOD
A unique cultural history has helped to make Lebanese food the most popular of all Middle Eastern cuisines. For most of its past, Lebanon has been ruled by foreign powers that have influenced the types of food the Lebanese ate. From 1516 to 1918, the Ottoman Turks controlled Lebanon and introduced a variety of foods that have become staples in the Lebanese diet, including olive oil, fresh bread, baklava (a sweet pastry dessert), laban (homemade yogurt), stuffed vegetables, and a variety of nuts. The Ottomans also increased the popularity of lamb.
After the Ottomans were defeated in World War I (1914–1918), France took control of Lebanon until 1946, when the country won its independence. During this time, the French introduced some of their most widely eaten foods, particularly treats such as flan, a caramel custard dessert dating back to the 1500s, and buttery croissants.
The Lebanese themselves have also helped to bring foods of other cultures into their diet. Ancient tribes journeyed throughout the Middle East, carrying with them food that would not spoil easily, such as rice and dates. These foods slowly became part of the Lebanese diet. As the tribes wandered, they discovered new seasonings, fruits, and vegetables that they could add to their everyday meals. Exotic ingredients from the Far East (east and southeast Asia) and other areas of the world were often discovered by these early tribes.
Lebanese Rice Pudding
- 1 quart whole milk
- ¾ cup rice
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 to 3 Tablespoons vanilla
- Spoonful of orange marmalade (optional)
- Cook the rice according to package directions.
- When rice is cooked, add the sugar and milk and mix well.
- Continue cooking over medium heat for 3 to 4 more minutes.
- Remove the pot from the stove. Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of vanilla and mix well.
- Serve topped with a spoonful of orange marmalade.
Serves 4 to 6.
- 2 teaspoons dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- 3 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of warm water.
- Sift together the flour and salt.
- Combine the yeast and water with the flour and salt and mix well.
- Work the mixture into a dough and knead for several minutes.
- Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place for 3 hours.
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Divide the dough into 6 equal portions and roll into balls.
- Using a hand or a rolling pin, pat and press each ball of dough into a 5-inch circle about ½-inch thick.
- Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, or until the pita are light golden brown.
Cucumber with Yogurt
- 1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced
- 2 cups plain yogurt
- 2 or more cloves of garlic
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 Tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
- A few sprigs fresh mint, for garnish
- Put the cucumber in a serving bowl.
- In a separate mixing bowl, beat the yogurt and garlic together and season to taste with salt and black pepper.
- Stir in the mint.
- Pour the mixture over the cucumber.
- Garnish with sprigs of fresh mint and serve with pita bread.
Serves 6 to 8.
FOODS OF THE LEBANESE
The Lebanese diet focuses on herbs, spices, and fresh ingredients (the Lebanese rarely eat leftovers), relying less on heavy sauces. Mint, parsley, oregano, garlic, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon are the most common seasonings.
Bread, a staple food in Lebanon, is served with almost every meal, most often as a flat bread, or pita. It is so crucial to the Lebanese diet that some Arabic dialects refer to it as esh , meaning “life.”
Fruit, vegetables, rice, and bread out-weigh the amount of meat eaten in the average Lebanese meal. However, the most commonly eaten meats, poultry and lamb, make up some of the country’s most popular dishes. The national dish, kibbeh (or kibbe ), consists of a ground lamb and cracked wheat paste, similar to paté. Kibbeh was originally made by harshly pounding the lamb and kneading in the spices and wheat. Those who were unfamiliar with this practice often found it quite unpleasant, including the English food writer George Lassalle, who described it as “frightening.” Some rural villages continue to prepare it this way.
Mezze , a variety of flavorful hot and cold dishes, is another important part of the Lebanese diet. As many as forty small dishes are presented at once as either appetizers or as a meal itself. Hummus (chickpea, sesame seed, and garlic paste), rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves, mashed beans, hot and cold salads, grilled seafood and meats (including kebabs , cooked cubes of lamb, peppers, and onions), and pickled vegetables are most popular. Lebanese meals are rarely served in courses, but presented all at once. Tabbouleh (a salad made with cracked wheat) and mujaddara (a lentil and rice dish) are also widely consumed.
Lebanon’s variety of fresh fruits makes them popular after-dinner desserts. Melon, apples, oranges, tangerines, persimmons, grapes, and figs are great treats. Baklava , a sweet, flaky pastry, is usually associated with Greek cuisine. However, the Lebanese have embraced the dessert and normally prepare it with pistachio nuts, drizzled with rose-water syrup (the Greeks use walnuts and honey). Ahweh (strong, thick Arabic-style coffee) and the country’s national drink, arak (a colorless alcoholic beverage made with anise, also called “Lion’s Milk” because it is white), are most commonly served with dessert.
- ¾ cup cracked wheat, finely ground
- 2 cups fresh tomatoes, diced
- 2 Tablespoons dried mint
- 1 or 2 bunches of parsley, cut fine
- ¾ cup green onions, thinly sliced
- Juice of one lemon
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- In a bowl, cover cracked wheat with warm water and let stand about 15 minutes. Drain thoroughly.
- Mix tomatoes, mint, parsley, onions, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper in a separate bowl.
- Add the drained wheat and mix well.
- Add more lemon juice and olive oil, if needed. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
- Serve in a bowl, or on a bed of lettuce leaves, with pita bread cut into triangles.
Serves 6 to 8.
- 2 cups cracked wheat (bulgur)
- 4 cups cold water
- 2 pounds lean ground beef or lamb
- 1 medium onion, very finely chopped
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- ½ teaspoon allspice (optional)
- ¼ cup butter, melted
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Place cracked wheat in a large mixing bowl and cover with the cold water.
- Let stand 5 minutes, and then drain. Press on grains to remove water.
- Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
- Process in batches in a food processor fitted with the chopping blade or a blender.
- Butter a 9×12-inch baking pan.
- Spread the mixture into the pan, smoothing the top with wet hands.
- Cut into 2-inch squares. It is traditional to cut the kibbeh into a diamond pattern.
- Pour melted butter over the top. Bake for 50 minutes.
- Serve with pita bread.
Serves 6 to 8.
4 FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
It seems as though the Lebanese are always participating in holiday celebrations, especially religious holy days. This is because Lebanon is home to two main religions: Islam and Christianity. Despite bitter disagreements between them, the people of both religions continue to enjoy their own traditional festive celebrations, which often include large feasts among family and friends.
Muslims (believers of Islam) celebrate several holidays throughout the year, though probably none are as important as the holiday of Ramadan. During the entire ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims avoid all food and drink between sunrise and sunset. In some villages, a man beats a drum through the streets, attempting to wake people before the sun rises so that they may enjoy an early breakfast. A typical pre-dawn breakfast might include grapefruit, pita bread with olive oil, a boiled egg, a cup of laban (yogurt), and tea. After the sun sets, Muslims gather with friends and family to share in a delicious feast.
Eid al-Fitr , meaning “festival that breaks the fast,” marks the end of Ramadan and food is generously shared with loved ones. The Feast of the Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha , is also celebrated with food and festivities. During this time, a sheep is killed and eaten after returning from the hadj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). Many families donate a portion of their sheep to the poor.
The most widely celebrated Christian holidays are Christmas and Easter. Visiting friends and family at Christmas has become tradition. Prior to a large chicken or turkey lunch, most guests are offered sugarcoated almonds to snack on. Dessert is commonly bûche de noël , a French Christmas cake shaped like a yule log. Homes are decorated with tinsel, and Christmas trees are often adorned with orange peels cut into various shapes. Easter is probably the most important holiday for Christians. Children may celebrate by playing a Lebanese Easter egg game called Biis-Biis , in which they compete to see who has the strongest, unbreakable hard-boiled egg. After a long day of excitement, families sit down to enjoy a lamb dinner, often followed by ma’moul(date-filled teacakes) or ka’ak (cookies).