Jbeil Fortress Columns
INTRODUCTION TO LEBANESE CUISINE
Author: Elie Nassar (FoodMan)
"This excerpt from The eGullet Culinary Institute is reposted here with the kind permission of the author Elie Nassar and The eGullet Society for the Culinary Arts & Letters."
"Copyright (c) 2005 The eGullet Society for the Culinary Arts. All rights reserved."
"The complete Introduction to Lebanese Cooking may be found at The eGullet Culinary Institute."
Hello and welcome to the class. In the following sections I
offer an introduction to Lebanese cooking, especially home
cooking. After taking this class and participating in the
Q&A, you will hopefully have a better understanding of and
more familiarity with Lebanese food beyond Hummus and
Tabboulli. The sections below are divided into the
Tabikh (Comfort Food)
On the Grill
One thing to keep in mind while reading the material, is
that the Arabic names of the recipes and ingredients are
spelled phonetically, so you might see them spelled
differently elsewhere. One example that comes to mind is
clarified butter which I spell Samen. Others might
write it as Smen, Semen, or Samneh.
The following are the
most common Lebanese food items found in almost every home.
You certainly do not need to have all of them as this list
is meant to give you an idea of the items typically used in
Spices and Herbs: The
two major herbs used are Mint (fresh and dried) and Parsley.
Parsley is only used in its fresh state, never dried. Spices
include Cinnamon, Cumin, Allspice and Coriander. Sumac, with
its nice tangy taste and wonderful maroon color, is also a
very popular spice. Sumac is used to flavor salads as well
as grilled meats and sauces.
Tahini is a paste made from toasted sesame seeds. It is used
in many dishes and sauces such as Taratoor Bi Tahini
and Hummus Bi Tahini. It is also mixed with grape or
carob molasses to make a sweet snack with flat pita bread.
Bread: The “bread” here is not your everyday American
white or wheat bread— it is flat Pita bread. This is a
staple and makes an appearance at almost every meal. No
Lebanese home is complete without it!!! Lebanese bread is a
round thin flat bread about 10 inches in diameter and it has
two sides, a red one and a white one. The two sides can be
pulled apart to create a pocket that can be stuffed with all
kinds of foods. It is used to make “sandwiches” or wraps. It
is also used as a “scoop” for dips, meat, or any food on the
Legumes: These include chickpeas,
white beans, red beans and lentils (red and brown).
Burghul: Another Lebanese staple, it is basically wheat
kernels that are boiled, dried and then ground into small
crumbles. The two textures of Burghul I use are the
medium grind (for pilafs) and the fine grind (for stuff like
Rose water (ma warid) and orange
blossom water (ma zahir): These are mainly used in
desserts. Rose water is extracted from a very fragrant pink
rose called wardi el Jooriya. Orange blossom water,
as the name indicates, is extracted from orange blossoms.
Plain Yogurt: Needs no introduction and is usually found
in all homes. Yogurt is either homemade or store bought. It
is used as-is, in cooking, as a sauce base or to make a
delicious yogurt cheese called Labneh.
Rice: Mainly white rice.
oil, butter, Samen which is clarified butter and is
used for cooking everything from rice to meats to scrambled
eggs. It has a delicious nutty buttery flavor.
Flour: White flour, Semolina.
Basics (fillings, sauces, sides)
as in any cuisine, a good knowledge of the basics will
enable you to be a more efficient cook. Here are the basic
recipes that could be used as bases, sauces, sides or even
meals by themselves.
Yields 2 Quarts Yogurt.
Yogurt is found in all
Lebanese homes, large or small, rich or poor. It is one of
the cornerstones of Lebanese cooking. Even though decent
plain yogurt can be bought, you should try to make your own
at least once. It is very satisfying and the sweet taste is
just unequaled, especially if you are going to use it to
• 2 Quarts (1.9L) Milk
(usually 2% or whole)
• ¼ cup Starter (plain yogurt
with active cultures, either store bought or saved from the
previous yogurt batch.)
If using frozen yogurt as
a starter: Remove it from the freezer and allow to defrost
in the fridge for a few hours or put the container in a hot
water bath for about one hour (that’s what I do) but NEVER
Heat up the milk until almost
boiling, then let it cool slightly. I know when it is ready
by administering the "index-finger test": The milk is ready
if it is cool enough for me to keep my CLEAN finger in it
for no more than 10 seconds (it should still be quite hot
and not lukewarm).
Pour the milk into a glass
container with a lid, stir in the starter and wrap the whole
thing with a wool shawl or a thick sweater and leave it
overnight (or about 10 hrs) on your kitchen counter. The
longer you leave it wrapped, the more the sour taste will
develop. I prefer a sweeter tasting yogurt, so 8-10 hours is
enough. The yogurt produced is sweet with a slight tang and
a soft custard-like texture—absolutely fantastic. Remove a
quarter cup of the fresh yogurt to freeze in a small plastic
container for use next time as a starter and refrigerate the
Perfect Homemade Yogurt
(Yogurt Cheese/Drained Yogurt)
has always been one of my favorite snacks. Mixed with a
little salt and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, it is
heavenly. It could be eaten as a dip for pita bread, or as a
spread, or mixed in with a myriad of flavorings (garlic, hot
chili, mint, olive paste,…) to make an excellent mezze
item. Although you can buy Labneh, a couple of the
decent brands I used to buy have cream added to make it
well…creamier. So, while the taste is great the addition of
cream makes it fattier than butter!!!! Make your own, have
the real fresh thing and control how much fat you want in
• 1 Quart (1L) Yogurt
can really use as much yogurt as you want provided that you
have a colander large enough to accommodate it.
a large colander inside a slightly deeper bowl with the
colander’s handles resting on the edges of the bowl. The
colander’s bottom should be a few inches higher than the
bottom of the bowl.
Place three layers of cheesecloth
inside the colander.
Put the yogurt in the
cheesecloth, cover with a plate or plastic wrap or more
cheesecloth then place in the refrigerator overnight.
Check it after 8 to 10 hours:- the Yogurt should be set and
it should have the consistency of whipped cream or soft
cheese depending on your yogurt and on how long you let it
drain. Remove it from the colander, and store in a sealed
container in the fridge. Discard the whey that is left in
Fresh Labneh still in the cheesecloth
Traditional way of serving Labneh: mix in a pinch of salt
and drizzle with Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Samen (Clarified Butter/Ghee)
Yields about ¾ lb
Along with olive oil, Samen is the
most often used cooking fat in Lebanese cuisine. Samen
is nothing but clarified butter, traditionally made from
sheep’s milk. In today’s world Samen is made mostly
from cow’s milk and could be purchased at major grocery
stores as well as middle eastern shops. Butter can be
substituted for Samen in most recipes, although one
should be careful not to burn the more delicate butter.
• 1lb (450g) unsalted butter
In a saucepan, melt
the butter over medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer,
skimming any “scum” off the surface (reserve the “scum” in a
small bowl). Let cook for 4-5 minutes without letting the
Samen take on too much color. Remove from the heat and
let cool for about an hour or until it is barely warm and
the milk solids have collected in the bottom. Strain through
a fine strainer into a clean jar and store in the fridge. Do
not throw the butter sediment (cooked milk solids) away.
Remove them from the strainer and add to the reserved butter
“scum”. Add salt and you will have what is called Raybit
Samen, a tasty treat to spread on bread.
Plain Burghul (cracked wheat) Pilaf
Yields about 2.5 cups
This basic pilaf makes a
great side dish to any meal. If you prefer to make it more
substantial and have it as a meal, try one of the variations
below or create your own, the variations are endless.
• 3 Tbsp olive oil
• ½ cup diced onions
• 1 cup
medium grind Burghul
• 1 cup chicken stock (To make it
vegetarian use vegetable stock or even water)
Heat the oil in a medium sized pot. Saute the onion until
just colored. Add the Burghul and a couple pinches of
salt and stir so that the burghul is coated with the oil.
Add the broth and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook
on medium low heat for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes check
for doneness. By now the bulghur should be soft with a
little bite. If not, cover and cook for a couple more
minutes. Once you get this texture, turn the heat off, keep
covered and let sit for another 15 minutes. Fluff with a
fork and serve.
Perfectly cooked burghul should not be mushy or clumpy, the
grains should be fluffy and light
- Add some shredded cooked chicken
meat at the end and serve with some yogurt.
- Add one
ripe diced tomato when adding the Burghul and you
have red Burghul with Tomato (burghul bi banadura).
- Make Mujadarra. Double the diced onions and add
half a cup of brown lentils when adding the burghul. Garnish
with fried onions and serve with tomato salad.
- One of
my favorite variations is to add sautéed zucchini and
eggplant along with cubed Halumi or Feta cheese to the
cooked Burghul. Mix everything real good and eat as
is with a drizzle of evoo.
Vermicelli (Riz Mfalfal)
Yields about 2 cups
When I think of any dish served with rice, this is the rice
preparation that comes to mind. I love the flavor of
Samen in this rice but butter will work just as well.
• 1 Tbsp Samen
• ¼ cup very fine vermicelli
crumbled into ½ inch pieces
• 1 cup white rice
• 2 cups water
Heat the Samen in
a pan and add the crumbled vermicelli. Cook until it turns
light brown in color. Add the rice and salt and cook for two
minutes making sure everything is coated with the Samen
and the rice is turning a little opaque. Add the water and
bring to a boil over medium heat. Let it cook uncovered
until the liquid is a little reduced and you can barely see
the rice under the water. Cover the pot and reduce the heat
to low and cook for another 20 minutes or until the rice is
tender. Fluff and serve.
Yields about 2.5 Cups
meat stuffing (or a variation of it) is used as a filling
for veggies, pastries and pies. Feel free to personalize it
by adding more spices or a dash of cayenne or maybe some
• Olive Oil
• 1lb (450g) Ground
Beef or Lamb
• 1 Medium Onion diced
• 1/3 cup Pine
• 2 Tbsp Pomegranate Molasses (or to taste)
In a pot, heat 2 Tbsp of oil and sauté the pine nuts until
lightly colored. Add the onions and cook till soft. Add the
beef and cook till browned. Season with salt and pepper and
add the pomegranate molasses. Taste and adjust to desired
flavor. Let it cool. It is now ready to be used.
Garlic sauce is normally used with grilled chicken, whether
chicken kebabs or chicken pieces (Djaj Mashwi). If
you are a garlic-lover, this sauce will go great with
anything. When a Lebanese family makes grilled chicken, the
garlic sauce is used both as a marinade and as a dipping
sauce for the cooked chicken. The sauce that many people in
the US are familiar with is the white-mayo-like garlic sauce
used in chicken sandwiches or as a dollop on the side of the
plate. Indeed this white sauce is the restaurant type garlic
sauce and you would be hard-pressed to find it in any
Lebanese home. You would however find it in Lebanese
restaurants and Shawarma vendors.
This is the easiest of the two. Mash up as much
garlic as you want, preferably in a mortar and pestle (or
you can use a food processor), then mix it in with enough
extra virgin olive oil to make a loose paste. Add lemon
juice to taste and season with salt.
(white) garlic sauce:
For this one you need to use a
food processor or a blender.
• ½ cup peeled garlic
• 1 Tbsp Mayonaise (optional)
• ¼ - 1/3 cup Vegetable
• Lemon juice to taste
Process the garlic with the mayonnaise, if using (most
restaurants use it but I do not like it too much) to a very
fine paste. With the motor running slowly, add vegetable oil
till you get the desired mayo-like consistency. Add Lemon
juice and salt to taste.
Yields about 1.5 Cups
of the most frequently used sauces in Lebanese cuisine. It
is used for fish, Falafel, Kibbeh, grilled
lamb or Kafta, to name a few.
• 1 cup
• ¼ cup Lemon juice (or more if you like)
1 tsp mashed garlic
• 2 tsp ground Cumin
Mix all the ingredients together with enough water (about
1/2 cup) to make a nice and creamy (NOT PASTY) mixture. The
Tahine sauce might seem as if it is going to turn pasty
at first but with enough water it will loosen up.
Variation: A very tasty variation on this is to use half the
amount of Tahine and substitute a ½ cup yogurt for
it. Finish with some fresh chopped parsley if you like. This
goes great with Kibbeh.
Cucumber and Yogurt salad
This is a tasty
and refreshing accompaniment to most dishes, especially
• 3 cups Yogurt
• 1 10 inch
• 2 tsp mashed garlic
• 1 Tbsp dried
• Salt to taste
Peel and seed the
cucumber then dice into ½ inch pieces. Mix the cucumber with
all the remaining ingredients and serve cold.
Pita Bread (Khobz Arabi)
(Pita) bread is widely available in most major cities in the
US and around the world, so obtaining good bread should not
be a problem. When buying Pita bread make sure it is not the
“thick” kind which I find is hard to use for making wraps or
for scooping food. Good Pita bread should be soft and
pliable (sort of like a tortilla), not brittle or dry. To
store, keep it in the plastic bag it came in and put it in
the freezer. Remove one loaf at a time (or more) as needed
and defrost by either cooking in the microwave for about 10
seconds or leaving it covered at room temperature for about
fifteen minutes. Never leave Pita bread uncovered lest dries
out and become brittle. Always store it in a plastic bag.
If however, you cannot get a hold of good Lebanese bread in
your city, then the following recipe produces good results
even though the end product is a little thicker than I
Makes 5 6-inch
• 3 Cups Bread flour or All Purpose
• ½ tsp Instant yeast (or 1 tsp Active Dry yeast
combined with a Tbsp sugar and ¼ cup warm water till foamy)
• ½ tsp salt
• 1 Cup warm water (reduce the water by ¼
Cup if using Active Dry yeast)
Mix the flour and
salt in a bowl, then add the yeast (or yeast/water mixture)
and add the water slowly while stirring with a plastic or
wooden spoon until everything is combined into a ball. You
might need more or less water than the 1 cup. Once the dough
comes together, transfer it to a floured surface and knead
for a good ten minutes until it is soft and elastic. Roll
the dough into a log and cut it into five equal parts (cut
into fewer pieces if you want bigger loaves). Form each
piece into a ball and put them all on a floured baking
sheet. Cover with a damp towel and let them rise in a warm
place for about an hour or until almost double in size.
Dough balls ready to be rolled
your oven to 500F (270C). If you have a baking stone, place
it in the oven to pre-heat thoroughly. Flatten each dough
ball and with a rolling pin form it into 1/8 inch (3mm)
thick round about 6 inches (15cm) in diameter. After rolling
all the dough, cover and let them rest on a floured surface
for 15-30 minutes. If you have a baking stone then bake them
on the stone by sliding the dough rounds onto the stone and
baking till they puff up like balloons (about 2-3 minutes).
Leave them in the oven no more than one minute after they
puff up even though they might not have much color on them.
This will insure that the bread will be soft and pliable
once cooled. If you do not have a baking stone in your oven,
place the rounds on a baking sheet (making sure they are not
touching) and bake in the oven until they puff up.
Ready for baking
Pita bread ready to be taken out of the oven
As soon as you remove the baked bread from the oven, place
in a container, flatten gently and then cover with a damp
towel. Keep stacking the flattened baked bread on top of
each other and covering them. Store the baked bread in a
well sealed plastic bag. Never let the baked bread cool
uncovered or it will harden.
These last two were left in the oven a little longer. They
were tasty but pretty brittle
Tabikh (Comfort Food)
Tabikh literally means “cookery” or even “cuisine” so
you would hear that so-an-so’s mom’s Tabikh is
excellent or her Tabikh needs more salt. However, the
word, at least in the home I grew up in, took on a much
deeper meaning, namely the quintessential Lebanese comfort
food. It is the meal that mom cooked during weekdays, the
one I thought about all day at school especially if it was
something I loved like the Shaikh el Mahshi.
Tabikh is usually some kind of stew or a bake made with
stewed meat and one or two veggies. It is almost always
served with rice, although flat pita bread can also, and is
often, used. A basic, general recipe would look something
Brown your meat of choice in olive oil, add
garlic and onions, and cook till the onions and garlic are
soft. Now add your vegetable (eggplant, white beans, green
beans, okra, potatoes,…) along with any seasoning, other
aromatics or dried herbs and stir everything. Add water to
barely cover and simmer covered. You should end up with a
stew-like mixture with plenty of sauce and juices.
This description is certainly a simplified version, but
after cooking many similar recipes the only differences I’ve
found are in the condiments or prep work. For example, if
cooking white dried beans you would add tomato paste AFTER
the beans are soft. If cooking eggplant you would add fresh
chopped tomatoes with your eggplant, while okra requires you
to fry it before it added, and so on. Another point to keep
in mind is that the vegetable is usually the star of the
dish, not the meat. You should therefore have a larger
proportion of vegetables to beef, lamb, or chicken. This is
clear from the names of the recipes, such as “eggplant
stew”, “okra with meat”, “rice with peas”, so in most cases
the veggies are the dominant ingredient.
Below are a
few of my favorite comfort food recipes. I do realize that
the Shaikh el Mahshi does not really conform with the
above general description for the Tabikh process. It
is nevertheless a wonderful recipe and one of my all-time
favorite comfort foods.
Mahshi (stuffed eggplant)
Traditionally Shaikh el Mahshi refers to the stuffed
eggplant portion of this recipe. However my mom once had
some extra tomatoes and she decided to use them as well. It
was a big hit and since then she never makes this recipe
without the stuffed tomatoes.
The traditional method
of prepping the eggplant is to fry it and that is what I
demonstrate here. However, brushing with olive oil and
broiling also works great and produces less oily eggplant.
• 12 Thin slices of eggplant (~1/4 inch)
• Oil for
• 4 firm, small, round or plum Tomatoes
recipe Meat Stuffing
Preheat the oven to 375F.
Heat 1 inch (2.5cm) of oil in a deep pot to about 350F
Fry the eggplant slices a few at a time until
browned on both sides.
Move to a rack to drain and
season with salt and pepper.
Cut the stem end from the
tomatoes and, using a spoon, remove all seeds and pulp to
create a hollow bowl (reserve seeds and juices and the cut
Slice a piece from the bottom of the tomatoes
to form a flat surface on which to stand straight (take care
not to make any holes in them though). Season with salt and
Fried eggplant and prepared tomatoes
oven-proof baking dish, make 4 eggplant stacks by placing
one slice in the dish and topping with about 2 Tbsp of the
stuffing. Top with another slice, then stuffing and then a
third slice. Repeat three more times and you should end up
with 4 stacks.
Stuff the tomatoes with the meat
stuffing (pack them real good) and place in the dish as
well. Put the stem end “caps” back on them .
reserved Tomato seed and pulp and juices all over the
eggplant and tomato.
The dish ready to go into the oven
in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes or until the tomatoes
are soft but not mushy.
Serve immediately with rice.
• ½ lb
(450g) Stew beef cut into cubes
• 1.5 lbs (670g)
• 1 large onion, diced
• 2 Tbsp finely
• ½ lb fresh tomatoes, diced
Peel and cut the eggplant into 1 inch dice.
Season the beef with salt and pepper.
In a large heavy
pot, heat some olive oil and brown the beef. Add the onions
Cook till soft then add the eggplant.
Cook for a few more minutes until the eggplant is covered
with the aromatics and oil and meat drippings. Add the
tomatoes and season with more salt and pepper.
everything together, add water to barely cover everything
and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat and simmer,
covered, for about one hour or until the eggplant is cooked
through and very soft.
Correct the seasoning if
Serve over rice or burghul.
Riz w’ Bazilla (Rice and Peas)
I could never figure out why this recipe is called rice and
peas. Granted, it has peas and it is served with rice, but
it also has an equal amount of carrots as well as ground
beef. Why not call it “rice and carrots” or “peas and meat”.
No matter what you call it, this recipe is easy and
definitely good eats.
• 1 cup diced onions
½ lb (225g) ground beef
• 1 cup frozen peas
cup diced carrots (or use ½ lb (225g) whole baby carrots)
• 2 Tbs tomato paste
• Salt and pepper
2-3 Tbsp of olive oil in a pot with a lid and sauté the
onions till soft.
Add the beef and cook till browned.
Add the peas and carrots with salt and pepper and stir well.
Add water to barely cover the mixture.
Bring to a slow
boil and add the tomato paste and stir it until dissolved.
Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or until everything is
cooked and the mixture has thickened slightly.
adjust seasoning and serve hot over rice.
Koussa Bil Zait (Zucchini in Olive Oil)
This recipe represents a certain type of
Tabikh, that which is cooked with plenty of olive oil
and eaten, in most cases, at room temperature or even
straight out of the refrigerator. This type of food is very
common during Lent since it utilizes no meat products. Pita
bread is used to scoop the food rather than serving it with
• ¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• 1 cup
• 1 lb (450g) mixed green Zucchini and
• 1 cup chopped ripe tomatoes
Tbs tomato paste (optional: if the tomatoes are a little
• Salt and Pepper to taste
the squash and cut into ½ inch cubes or half rounds if they
are very small.
Heat the olive oil in a pot with a lid
and sauté the onions until soft but not browned.
the squash and cook for a couple of minutes then add the
tomatoes and tomato paste (if using).
Season with salt
and pepper and add a splash of water (a few Tbsps, enough to
create some steam) then cover the pot and cook for about 10
minutes or until the squash is barely cooked but not mushy.
Serve hot or at room temperature with Pita bread.
- Green beans in olive oil:
Substitute green beans cut up into 2 inch pieces for the
squash and zucchini and omit the tomato and paste. Serve it
with a cucumber and tomato salad.
-Dried beans in
olive oil: Substitute dried red or white (I love the white
ones) beans that have been soaked overnight for the squash
and zucchini and omit the tomato. Cover the beans with water
instead of just a few Tbsps. Cook till soft (about 1 hour).
When the beans are pretty much done add 1 generous
tablespoon of tomato paste. Serve it with a heavy sprinkling
of fresh black pepper.
-Okra in olive oil:
Substitute okra that has been cut into rounds and deep fried
for the squash and zucchini. Add 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
and a teaspoon Cayenne when sautéing the onion. Add ½ cup
chopped fresh cilantro before adding the water and tomatoes.
Kibbeh is the national
dish of Lebanon. The basic Kibbeh is made with minced
lamb, mutton or beef mixed with spices, minced onion and
burghul. It can be eaten raw, fried, baked, or grilled.
Another type of Kibbeh is Potato Kibbeh which
uses boiled mashed potatoes (instead of meat) and adds fresh
mint to the mix as well. Below, I provide recipes for two of
the most common Kibbeh preparations - the Fried
(which many of you will recognize) and the baked.
• 1 cup fine burghul
meduim onion, peeled
• 1lb (450g) ground beef or lamb
• 2 tsp Salt
Put the burghul in a
large bowl and cover it with cold water. Let it soak for
about 30 minutes then drain in a strainer while pressing
down to remove as much water as possible. Return to the
Cut the onion into quarters and puree in the food
Add the onion, beef (or lamb) and salt to
the burghul and knead the mixture with your hands till
smooth. If it becomes too sticky, add a little ice cold
water till it gets smooth.
NOTE: For Raw
Kibbeh cut the burghul amount by half and add
1tsp of ground Cumin to the mixture when you add the salt.
Fried Stuffed Kibbeh
Makes about 20 pieces
• 1 Recipe Kibbeh
• 2 cups meat Stuffing
• 1 small
bowl of water with ice cubes in it
• Oil for frying
Making these stuffed torpedo shaped pies takes some practice
and the first few you make will probably look odd or fall
apart. Keep trying, and once you get the hang of it, it will
become quite easy. Here are the steps to making a perfect
Make the shell by forming a
piece of the Kibbeh into a small ball, the size of a
golf ball. Rub your hands with a little ice water if the
ball becomes sticky while you are rolling it between your
Using an index finger and holding the ball in your other
hand, make a tunnel in the ball. This is where the stuffing
will go. Rotate the ball while “digging” the tunnel to make
it an even thickness. The trick is to get the shell as thin
as possible without breaking it. You should end up with a
hollow, cone-shaped shell.
Spoon about 2 tsp of the meat filling into the prepared
shell, leaving enough room to close it.
Using both hands gently close and seal the shell over the
filling and, using the ice cold water as lubricant, form it
into a football shaped pie.
Heat about 2 inches (5cm) of oil in a deep pot to 375F
(190C). Fry the Kibbeh a few at a time until they are
deep brown on all sides. Drain and serve with “Yogurt Tahini
Sauce”, “Cucumber Yogurt Salad” or “Tomato Salad”.
Baked Stuffed Kibbeh
Makes one pie, about 4-6
• 1 Recipe Kibbeh
• 2 cups Meat
• 1 small bowl of water with ice cubes in it
• ¼ cup Samen (or melted butter).
your oven to 375F (190C). Prepare a baking dish or pie pan
by rubbing the insides with a tablespoon of the Samen.
Build the first layer of Kibbeh. The easiest way to
do this is by building it in patches. Pat a piece of the
Kibbeh between your palms until 1/8 - 1/4inch (3 - 6 mm)
thick (depends how thick you like it). Lay the Kibbeh
disc in the prepared pan. Keep doing this, placing the discs
next to each other till you cover the bottom. You will have
several “holes” which you need to patch with small Kibbeh
pieces. Wet your hands with ice water and smooth the first
layer till it looks uniform and with no holes.
Put your stuffing all over the first layer of Kibbeh,
then top it off with another layer of Kibbeh using
the same technique you used to build the first one. Close
all the holes and smooth it out.
Using a sharp knife cut the unbaked stuffed Kibbeh
into wedges and make a small hole in the center where the
cuts cross. Drizzle the remaining Samen (or Butter)
all over and make sure it goes into the cuts and the hole in
the center. This will give it a beautiful color and amazing
Put the stuffed Kibbeh in the oven and bake for 45
minutes or until it is nice and golden brown in color.
Remove from the oven and serve the slices with “Cucumber
Fried Kibbeh, Baked Kibbeh with Tahini Yogurt Sauce and a
On The Grill
Like most American
households, the grill in the Lebanese home is a symbol of
family get togethers, weekends, and nice summer afternoons.
The fuel of choice –at least in my household- is always lump
natural charcoal, never gas. Certainly it is never
“briquettes” which is something I had never seen till I got
to the US and mistakenly thought it was charcoal.
The three most common items put on the grill in the Lebanese
kitchen (or back yard, balcony or front porch) are lamb
kebabs, garlic marinated chicken pieces with potatoes, and
of course Kefta. Other grilled items include
Kibbeh, and grilled vegetables such as mushrooms,
cauliflower and sometimes fish. Usually at the end of the
meal my grandmother would place a kettle (rakwi)
between the leftover coals and she would make the best after
meal coffee. Here I list recipes for these three simple
grilled items. Probably the most complicated one is the
Kefta. It is a little tricky to get them on a skewer but
you can just as easily form them into patties instead.
Kefta (ground meat Kebabs)
Makes 6-7 Kebabs
• 1lb (450g) ground lamb or beef or a mixture of both (use
meat that is about 85% lean at the most).
• ½ cup
finely chopped parsley
• ½ cup finely diced onion
• 2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
• 2 tsp ground Cumin
• Salt and pepper to taste
Soak 6 or 7 bamboo
skewers in water for about 30 minutes (or use the metal
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl using your
hands until everything is well incorporated and the mixture
To make the Kefta Kebabs, form a
short 2 inch piece of the meat mixture into a fat sausage
shape. Pass a skewer through the small sausage lengthwise.
Now start rotating the skewer with one hand while cupping
the meat with the other and pressing it to create an
elongated kefta sausage on the skewer. Rotating the
skewer helps you distribute the meat evenly which reduces
the chance of it falling off.
Kefta ready for the grill
skewers till the desired doneness.
Serve with pita
bread, onions tossed with sumac, Hummus, rice, and turnip
Djaj Mashwi (grilled chicken)
Makes about 4
• 1 Chicken cut into eight pieces
1 lb (450g) potatoes peeled and sliced crosswise into ¼ inch
• 1 cup Homemade garlic sauce
Wash and dry the chicken pieces. Put them in a bowl and add
¼ cup of the garlic sauce. Mix everything really well and
marinate covered in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Do
the same with the potatoes.
Remove the chicken
and potato from the refrigerator. Season both with salt and
put on the grill. The potatoes will need about 5 minutes per
side on a hot grill and they will come out cooked but still
firm, if you like them softer then cook longer on a cooler
side of the grill.
Serve with the remainder ½ cup
of garlic sauce for dipping, pita bread and a nice salad
like Fattoosh or Tabbouli.
Lahm Ghanam Mashwi (Lamb Kebab with Sumac)
Makes about 6-7 Kebabs
The lamb is traditionally
skewered along with cubes of lamb tail fat (Liya).
The lamb used in Lebanon is typically without a tail-
instead they have a large lump of pure fat dangling where
the tail is supposed to be. That is called the Liya
and is very tasty. Since I’ve never seen it in the US I
usually use very nicely marbled leg meat.
• 1 lb
(450g) Lamb meat from the leg cut into ½ inch cubes.
10-12 small onions not more than 2 inches in diameter
Salt and pepper to taste
• 2 Tbsp Sumac
6 or 7 bamboo skewers in water for about 30 minutes (or use
the metal ones).
Peel the onions and trim the stem and
root ends. If your onions are too big to put on the skewer,
halve or quarter them, making sure that they do not fall
Put two pieces of lamb on the skewer then one
onion, then two lamb and one more onion and finish with two
more lamb pieces. Repeat with the remaining meat and onion.
Season the skewers with salt and pepper and grill over high
heat until done. Once removed from the grill, sprinkle the
kebabs with Sumac and serve with Pita bread, Tahini
and yogurt sauce, cucumber and yogurt salad, or with rice.
My fondest memories involving
Falafel are the ones of our weekend trips to my home
town. It is Friday afternoon, I do not have to be back to
school till Monday which seems so far away and we are
driving along the Beirut coast towards our home town.
Inevitably my father would pull over at a small Falafel
shop in Tripoli to get some hot steaming Falafel
sandwiches. Stopping for Falafel in Tripoli was a
much loved tradition in our family. Nostalgia aside,
Falafel is one of the most popular middle eastern foods
anywhere in the world. This should come as no surprise, as
anyone who has tried it knows that it is absolutely
The proper way to eat Falafel is in a
sandwich or wrap. The fried falafel patties are
wrapped along with all their garnishes in soft Pita bread
and eaten on the go. I’ve never really seen a “Falafel
platter” until I came to the US. It is not a fancy food that
should be eaten with silverware, it is rather the ultimate
street food eaten at sandwich shops that seem to be at every
street corner in Lebanon.
In my recipe I use a mixture
of Fava beans and chickpeas because I believe this gives the
best results in terms of taste and texture. However, you can
use just chickpeas if you prefer or even just fava beans.
Makes about 20 Falafel patties
• 1.5 cup dried peeled fava beans (Ful Majroosh)
cup dried chickpeas
• 1 cup chopped green onions
2 Tbsp minced garlic
• 1 Tbsp Cumin
• 1 tsp Baking
• 2 tsp salt
• 1 tsp Black pepper
tsp hot chili powder (or to taste)
• 1/2 cup finely
• Oil for frying
In a large
bowl, soak the Fava beans and Chickpeas for 12 to 20 hours.
They should be soft enough to eat without cooking but still
crunchy. Drain the beans and try to get as much water out of
them as possible.
In a food processor chop the beans
till very fine.
Add all the remaining ingredients to the food processor and
process to a nice coarse paste. To test, take a piece and
squeeze it in your palm. It should stay together and not
crumble much. If you think the mixture is too dry, add a few
teaspoons cold water while the processor is running.
Heat 2 inches (5cm) of oil in a pot and using the Falafel
scoop, form the falafel into discs and drop directly
into the oil. Fry on both sides till deep brown. Remove and
drain on a rack. If you do not have a Falafel scoop
use your hands to form the falafel into thick patties, they
will come out just as good although a little uneven in
Falafel scoop and spatula
Use the scoop’s spatula to pack the mixture in the scoop
Serve the falafel with Pita bread, Tahini sauce, chopped
parsley, tomatoes, pickles, or any other veggie or dip you
The Falafel sandwich (wrap)
Lebanon, the proper way to eat Falafel is in a
Falafel sandwich. The Falafel patties are put in
a pita bread and topped with greens, veggies, pickles and
Tahini sauce and then wrapped with the bread. The
following explains step-by-step how a Falafel
sandwich is made:
Split the Pita bread open into
two pieces (a light one and a darker one).
Cut one of the two Pita pieces in half and lay that half
down the center of the whole Pita piece. This extra piece
will add support and strengthen your wrap.
Put three Falafel patties down the center (on top of the
pita half you laid there) and crumble/mash them with your
Top the patties with your selected condiments.
Fold the pita in half "lengthwise" covering the Falafel
and condiments, then wrap tightly forming a nice [/i]Falafel[/i]
Most Middle Eastern desserts
fall into two groups: Cream stuffed and nut stuffed. Almost
all Middle Eastern desserts are served drizzled with
fragrant rosewater syrup. I do realize that these are broad
generalizations and that there are other kinds of desserts,
but these two groups are certainly the most prevalent.
Another fact about Lebanese desserts in general is that they
are rarely consumed at the end of a meal. An interesting
aside (and this occurred to me when I was trying to type a
title for this section in Arabic), is that there is no
Arabic word for dessert!! Sure, we have words like
Halwayat or Helu, both of which mean sweets or
pastry but there is no word whose literal translation would
be “Dessert”. A Lebanese host is more likely to offer you
some fresh fruit and, a little later on, coffee rather than
a plate of Baklava. These desserts, including the two
recipes below are actually very common breakfast items
especially Kenafi which is usually eaten stuffed into
a sesame-studded bread called kaak.
Cream Filling (kashta)
Yields about 2 cups
Kashta is one of two basic dessert fillings used in many
Middle Eastern desserts, the other being a nut filling. It
is normally made from the cream that floats on top of whole
cream milk when simmered. I have never managed to make the
real Kashta. In Lebanon one would buy already made
Kashta from pastry shops or buy the canned clotted cream
variety (which I am not too crazy about). This recipe gives
excellent and tasty results every time and is the best
substitute for the real thing.
• 2 cups Heavy
• 2 Tbsp Corn Starch
• 2 tsp Orange Blossom
• 2 Tbsp Sugar
In a saucepan, bring
the cream to a gentle simmer. Meanwhile make a slurry with
the corn starch and some of the cream. Add the slurry to the
cream in the pan and bring to a boil. Add the orange blossom
water and the sugar and keep stirring until you get a very
thick spreadable mixture resembling cream cheese in texture.
Yields about 2 cups
The nuts used are just an
example. You can use just one or the other or substitute any
other nut such as pine nuts or pistachios.
cup finely chopped walnuts
• 1 cup finely chopped
• 1 cup Sugar
• 1 tsp Orange Blossom water
• 1 tsp Rose water
Mix all the ingredients
Fragrant Syrup (Atr)
Yields about 1 cup
Pretty much ALL middle eastern
desserts are doused with this fragrant syrup.
• ½ cup Water
• 1 Tbsp Lemon Juice
• ½ tsp Rose Water
• ½ tsp Orange Blossom Water
Mix all the ingredients in a saucepan and heat until it
boils and all the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, cool
and store in a jar. It keeps for 2 weeks without
refrigeration and for months refrigerated.
Kenafi (Semolina pastry stuffed with cream)
Makes 10 Servings
• 2 cups Semolina Flour
2 tsp salt
• 1 stick (1/4 lb/125g) butter melted and
• 1 recipe Cream Filling
• 1 recipe
• Orange Blossom Jam (optional Garnish)
To make the pastry:
Preheat the oven to 375F (190C).
In a bowl mix the Semolina with the salt.
melted butter and stir to create a semi-homogenous, crumbly
Turn the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and
form roughly into a disk shape.
Cover with another
piece of plastic wrap and wrap the disk tightly. Refrigerate
for about 30 minutes.
Take the dough out of the fridge
and, on a clean work surface, divide it into two equal
We need to create a thin rectangle of dough,
working with one part at a time while keeping the other one
wrapped. The best way to do this is to flatten the piece
with the palm of your hand, top with a piece of wax paper
and use a rolling pin and roll it to a 1/8 inch (3mm)
thickness. Once this is done, transfer the dough to a
rectangular shaped baking dish. Since the pastry is very
crumbly, the method I use is to cut it into smaller squares
and, using a spatula, transfer the smaller squares to the
baking dish . Once the first layer of pastry is in, use your
hand to pat it and smoothen it and use any extras to close
First layer of pastry
Using a spatula, put
the cream filling on top of the first layer of pastry and
level it out.
Top the cream with the second half of
pastry using the same method as the first layer.
Cream Filling in place and the second layer of pastry going
Place the dish in the preheated
oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the pastry has a nice
Serve warm or hot topped
with some Fragrant Syrup and orange blossom Jam for garnish.
Asabih El haroos (nut-stuffed phylo rolls)
Makes about 25 little rolls
The Arabic name for
this dessert literally means “Bride’s Fingers”. These flaky,
nutty and delicious Baklava-like pastries are very easy to
make and very addictive. After making them you will never
settle for the mushy, cloying store-bought Baklava.
• 2 cups nut filling
• ½ lb (225g) phyllo sheets
Melted Samen or butter
• 1 cup (or to taste)
Preheat the oven to 350F (190C).
Cut the phyllo sheets into rectangles (about 10x4 inches /
25x10cm). I use a pizza cutter for this to avoid tearing.
Working with one phyllo rectangle at a time brush it lightly
with the Samen.
Place about 1 teaspoon of the
stuffing on one end. Use your fingers to compact the
stuffing into a sausage shape (this will make it easier to
Roll the phyllo with the stuffing like a jelly roll. About ¾
of the way up, fold the sides inward so that the roll is
sealed and the stuffing will not fall out.
Brush a baking dish lightly with Samen or butter and
place the rolls close together in it. Brush the rolls
generously with Samen and place in the oven. Bake for
about 30-45 minutes or until golden brown.
Let cool for about 30 minutes and drizzle with about ½ a cup
of the syrup (use less if you like). Serve at room
temperature with more syrup on the side for those who like
it extra sweet.
In this section I introduce
three major beverages that are common in a Lebanese home:
Coffee, Tea, and Arak.
Makes 3 servings
Lebanese coffee is a strong brew served in small cups very
similar to espresso cups. The coffee grind is very fine,
almost powder-like and the roast is usually very dark.
Coffee beans are not indigenous to the Middle East and are
imported- the Brazilian ones are considered the best.
A good Lebanese host always makes coffee for his or her
guests –usually without asking if they want any- and it is
considered bad manners not to. So, if you visit three
different homes on any day, count on drinking coffee at
least three times. My wife was so sick from drinking
Lebanese coffee during our visit to Lebanon that she never
touches the stuff now. Arabic coffee is available at middle
eastern grocery stores and some ethnic sections of major
grocery stores. It is usually vacuum packed. The brand I use
is called Café Najjar and it is made in Lebanon. The
recipe for making coffee below is of course based on my
taste, so feel free to make it stronger or lighter if you
The scale I use is 1 heaping teaspoon of coffee
for each small cup of water (cup here refers to the small
espresso coffee cups –maybe three ounces- NOT a measuring
• 3 small espresso cups of water (about ¾
• 3 Heaping tsp of Arabic coffee (or a good dark
finely ground coffee)
In a small kettle or a
small pot bring the water to a boil. Remove the kettle or
pot from the heat and gently add the coffee. Stir to combine
and put back on the burner (DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK ON IT). In
a few seconds the coffee will start rising and it will boil
over if not removed from the heat. You want it to rise to
the point where it ALMOST boils over. So let it rise and
just before it boils over, remove it from the heat and stir
gently. Repeat this “boiling” three more times. Remove from
the heat, cover and let sit for a minute so that the grounds
can settle. Slowly pour the coffee into small espresso cups
in a thin stream to disturb the sediment on the bottom as
little as possible.
You can see the ground coffee in the left side of the
Variation: Cardamom is often
added to Arabic coffee especially when you buy it from
street vendors. I normally enjoy mine without it but every
so often I do like to add some cardamom. Simply add some
ground Cardamom when you add the ground coffee. For the
above recipe a ¼ teaspoon is enough or else the Cardamom
will overpower the coffee.
Tea spiked with
Makes 2 tea cups
your host does not serve coffee, you will surely be served
tea. Actually, in some Lebanese communities and regions you
are more likely to be served a good cup of strong tea rather
than coffee. Tea is the beverage of choice with most
breakfasts whereas coffee is more a stand-on-its-own
beverage. So, if you walk into a Lebanese home during
breakfast time, chances are that they will be drinking tea.
We used to go hunting in a small mountain town in North
Lebanon about three hours drive from my home town. We would
usually spend the weekend staying with a family of shepherds
and farmers who were old family friends of ours. On their
front porch, under a huge walnut tree, usually at about four
in the morning or so, still dark and chilly outside, we
would have a simple breakfast with small cups of steaming
sweet hot tea before we would go hunting. That,
unquestionably, is the best tea I’ve ever had. Every time I
make tea I am trying to re-create what these nice farmers
• 2 cups water
• 3 Tbsp
• 1 stick cinnamon about 2 inches long
Tbsp loose black tea leaves
In a tea kettle or
small pot bring the water to a boil. Add the sugar and bring
to a boil again. Add the cinnamon and tea and stir to
combine. Remove from the heat and cover. Let it steep for a
minute or two. Pour the tea into tea cups and serve piping
hot (If loose tea leaves in your tea cup really bug you then
you can pour it through a small strainer).
Variation: Try substituting different spices or herbs in
moderate amounts for the cinnamon stick. My favorites
include a fresh mint sprig, Fennel seeds and Star anise.
Without a doubt, Arak is the
national alcoholic beverage of Lebanon. No real get together
or celebration is complete without Arak. This strong spirit
is made from fermented white grapes and flavored with fennel
seeds (yansoon) so it has a distinctive licorice
taste. It is distilled three times. Out of the bottle, Arak
is colorless (like Vodka) but when served, water is added,
turning the Arak milky white. It is then topped with some
Even though Lebanon produces very good
quality wine and a delicious pilsner beer, Arak always takes
center stage at important events. It is the one and only
companion to Kibbeh, especially in its raw form, as
well as to anything cooked on the grill. The Arak I use is
distilled three times by my family from my grandfather’s own
vineyards and for our personal use and this is the best kind
you can get. However, good quality Arak is available at some
liquor stores. Good Arak brands include “Ksara”, “Kefraya”
and “Al Masaya”.
Pour Arak into a small glass until it
is quarter full (or more if you want it stronger), top off
with ice cold water, leaving an inch at the top to make room
for a couple of ice cubes. Add the ice cubes and enjoy.
If you enjoyed this class and would like
to expand your knowledge of Lebanese and middle eastern
cooking then check out these two fantastic books. Pretty
much all you need is in there and I refer to them often.