The Lebanese diaspora who live worldwide have introduced new ingredients, spices and culinary practices into Lebanese cuisine, keeping the cuisine innovative and renowned both beyond and within its borders.
Most often, foods are grilled, baked or lightly cooked in olive oil; butter or cream is rarely used other than in a few desserts. Vegetables are often eaten raw, pickled, or cooked. Like most Mediterranean countries, much of what the Lebanese eat is dictated by the seasons and what is available. Lebanese cuisine also varies by region. South Lebanon is famous for its kibbe, the Beqaa Valley for its meat pastries (such as sfiha), and north Lebanon and Saida (Sidon) for its sweets.
Typical Lebanese dining, with mezze and arak, taken at a restaurant in Beirut, Lebanon, 1950
In Lebanon, very rarely are drinks served without being accompanied by food. Similar to the tapas of Spain, mezeluri of Romania and aperitivo of Italy, mezze is an array of small dishes placed before the guests creating an 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 cafés.
Mezze may be as simple as raw or pickled vegetables, hummus, baba ghanouj and bread, or it may become an entire meal consisting of grilled marinated seafood, skewered meats and a variety of cooked and raw salads and an arrangement of desserts. The assortments of dishes forming the mezze are generally consumed in small bites using a piece of flatbread.
A typical mezze will consist of an elaborate variety of 30 or so hot and cold dishes, which may include:
When dining as a family, the mezze typically consists of three or four dishes, but when served in the restaurant, the mezze can range from 20 to 60 dishes, as the variant combinations and dishes involved are plenty. Family cuisine also offers a range of dishes, such as stews (yakhneh) which can be cooked in many forms depending on the ingredients used and are usually served with meat and rice.
Although simple fresh fruits are often served towards the end of a Lebanese meal, there is also dessert, such as baklava and coffee. When sweets are not available, fruits are typically eaten after meals, including figs, oranges and other citrus fruits, apples, grapes, cherries and green plums (janarek). Although baklava is the most internationally known dessert, there is a great variety of Lebanese desserts.
Dishes and ingredients
Lebanese dishes are heavily influenced by the multiple civilisations that have existed within the region, which has accumulated together to form the modern Lebanese cuisine we know today. Using fresh, flavourful ingredients and spices, Lebanese cuisine combines Turkish, Arab, and French cooking styles. Characteristics include the use of lamb (introduced by the Ottomans); the abundant use of nuts (especially almonds and pine nuts), and dressings made from lemon juice.
The Lebanese use bread, usually flatbread, as an integral part of a meal and food is generally not served without it.
Variants of manaeesh and other bread presented in a Lebanese eatery
Pita bread with a pocket, known as khubz Arabi (Arab bread), is widely popular, and may be cut or torn up to dip in various dishes or be stuffed as a sandwich or wrap with ingredients such as falafel or shawarma.
Marquq is prepared much thinner, almost paper thin, and cooked on a metal saj or pan.
Ka'ak is a common Lebanese street bread that is usually consumed as a snack. There are many variations of ka'ak, from being sprinkled with traditional sesame seeds to being stuffed with cheese and za'atar.
Manaeesh (mini-pizza) is traditionally garnished with cheese (kashk, in its Lebanese version), za'atar, spicy diced tomatoes and may be eaten for breakfast. These are made in many variants in a number of local bakeries or furns. Some bakeries allow customers to bring their own toppings in order to build their own customized manaeesh for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Variants include manakousheh za'atar (thyme pizza) and manakousheh jebneh which has only cheese.
Manaeesh dough can also be eaten with minced meat and onions which is called lahm bi 'ajin. Mini versions are called sfeeha. The same dough can be made into a triangular pie called fatayer, filled with spinach, onions and sumac.
Cheese, as well as yogurt and eggs, are commonly used in Lebanon. One of the more recognizable dishes within Lebanon is labneh. Unlike regular yogurt, labneh is strained so as to remove the watery whey, leaving a thicker, creamier consistency. It is spreadable and garnished with olive oil and sea salt. It is an extremely versatile dish that can be served in a mezze platter for either breakfast or dinner. A variant is mixed with garlic.Ejjeh is the traditional omelette of Lebanon. It is made with egg, chopped parsley and scallions. Within Lebanon, people make this omelette with different herbs that are cultivated from their village.
The traditional cheeses of Lebanon originate from around the world
Baladi cheese has a mild yet rich flavor. It is called the "cheese of the mountains" since it is made in the high mountains by local shepherds in Lebanon.
Feta is used in salads and other dishes, although some cooks will use a milder cheese called jibtieh baidha (simply "white cheese").
Halloum is a semi-hard unripened cheese, perfect for grilling and frying. Along with akkawi it is traditionally stored in brine, giving it a strong, salty taste. (Though modern methods have allowed fresher varieties with less salt.)
Kashkaval is a cheese popular in many Eastern European countries that has made its way into Lebanese cuisine. It melts very quickly and is practical for pasta, pizza and sandwiches.
Nabulsi is similar to halloumi, made by boiling fresh ackawi cheese in a mixture of spices and seeds which are then fried, grilled or eaten and used in the popular dessert knafeh, a cheese pastry soaked in a sugar-based syrup.
Shanklish is made from cow's milk, salted, fermented and seasoned with thyme and pepper, formed into cheese balls coated in red pepper chilli flakes.
Lebanese stews, often served with rice or flatbread, are made with ingredients found locally available.
Lebanese mulukhiyah stew with chicken served with rice, vinegar onions and toasted pita bread
Bamieh bi-zeit (okra and tomato stew) is one of the most popular stews. Traditionally, it is served with rice and a basic salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, with fresh warm bread. This stew combines the distinct flavor of okra with a flavourful tomato sauce.
Bamya bel lahmeh (okra and lamb stew) adds small sautéed pieces of filleted lamb.
Mjadrat fasoulya kidney bean and lentil stew popular in Rashaya.
Mloukhiye b'zeit is a dish In northern Lebanon made using fresh leaves and shoots of the Nalta jute plant, cooked with olive oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes and chilli peppers. It is a popular summer side dish, especially in Miniyeh-Danniyeh and Akkar districts.
Mfaraket koussa (spicy zucchini stew) is one of the easiest and simplest ways to make use of the abundant summer zucchini.
Daoud bacha is a meat-based stew, and consists of beef meatballs (also lamb) with cinnamon, parsley, and stuffed with pinenuts in a tomato sauce.
Vegetarian cuisine plays an important role in the cuisine of Lebanon. Being located in the Levant, vegetables and herbs (wild or cultivated) are abundant in the fertile landscape and serve as a main base of the cuisine. For Lebanese Christians, including Catholic (Maronites and Melkites) and Orthodox, fasting from meat is practiced over the Lenten period (from midnight to noon) during Easter. Where abstention of meat is observed, the food is referred to as akl aateh (meaning food "cut" from the diet, such as meat or absent from meat). The particular food that is "cut" varies over different traditions.
Locally sourced vegetables and herbs are key ingredients within Lebanese cuisine
Riz bil-foul is another dish with fava beans, seasoned with various spices and served with rice.
Mujaddara (imjaddarra) is a popular dish found throughout the Middle East and consists of cooked lentils together with wheat or rice, garnished with sauteed onions.
Lebanese meat dishes are usually made with chicken or lamb, though pork is also eaten (albeit not as widely, due to Islamic dietary laws). However, meat is expensive everywhere and not always readily available. Meat was traditionally precious and usually served on the weekend. It is sometimes eaten mixed with bulgur to prolong the shelf life.
Shawarma is a commonly found form of street food made with slow-cooked skewered meat (either chicken, lamb or beef) that is thinly sliced and served as a sandwich with toppings such as onions, pickles and tomatoes. Styles of this dish include shawarma lahmeh, grilled meat with parsley, onion and tarator, and shawarma djeij which is grilled poultry with toum and lettuce.
Sambousek (also called samboosak, or sambousak bi-lahm) is a small stuffed pastry often filled with meat and served as an appetizer (mezze). Though usually filled with ground beef or lamb, sambousek can also be filled with cheese or other fillings.
Kibbeh is a filled bulgur dough made with ground meat and can be made in different forms including fried (kibbeh raas), uncooked (kibbeh nayyeh), baked (kibbeh bil-saneeya), and all may be served with yogurt. Some regional versions of kibbeh are a pumpkin-flavoured kebbe lakteen (popular in Beit Mery) and kebbe zghartweih which is an oven-cooked version popular in Ehden.
Kafta is made with spiced ground meat that is shaped into small patties or rolled into meatball-shaped balls which are then baked, pan-fried or charcoal-grilled on skewers. Kafta is served with bread and other side dishes.
Habra (raw lamb fillet) is essential for most dishes involving lamb. It is the foundation for many popular dishes including kibbeh nayyeh (minced raw lamb) and other variants of kibbeh. The fillet needs to be prepared and chilled for a minimum of 2 hours, and can even be prepared one day in advance.
Dehen, somewhat like a meat shortening made from lamb-tail fat, fried lamb pieces and spices, is often used to give dishes a light meaty flavour without the expense of bulk meat.
Barout del batata is spicy lamb served with potatoes.
Deleh mehshi is a stuffed rib cage of lamb (popular in Broummana).
Laban immo is cooked yoghurt and lamb with rice (popular in Douma).
Kafta meshwi is minced lamb mixed with finely chopped onion and parsley, broiled on a skewer over charcoal.
Qawarma originates from a centuries-old custom that was to buy a fat-tailed lamb in the spring and force-feed it day and night with mulberry and grape leaves, wheat hulls and other ingredients ending in a succulent chopped lamb dish, salted and kept in the grease of the animal.
The modern form of Lebanese desserts have been influenced by Ottoman cuisine and share many similarities with other neighbouring countries. Semolina is used in the preparation of several prominent Lebanese desserts.
Baklawa is made of a layered pastry filled with nuts and steeped in attar syrup (orange or rose water and sugar), usually cut into a triangular or diamond shape when served, which is the particular style that originated in Lebanon.
Znoud al-sit is a syrup-soaked rolled pastry filled with clotted cream and garnished in typical fashion with nuts, orange peels and dates to the 19th century.
Karabij (or aleppo cookies), flavored with mahlab and cinnamon, topped with natef, which is similar to meringue.
Mafroukeh is a semolina dough layered with caramel and butter, soaked in atar and served with clotted cream and assorted nuts. It can also be used to make cakes like nammoura.
Sfouf is a cake made with semolina flour and turmeric. It is cake consumed on birthdays, family reunions, and religious holidays.
Booza is a type of ice-cream commonly referred to as Arabic ice cream, and is filled with Middle Eastern aromas. It is traditionally made through a process of pounding and stretching in a freezer drum, instead of the more usual churning method used in other ice creams. Lebanese ice cream is popular with its eastern flavors, including amar al-din made from dried apricot paste.
Condiments and spices
Sumac is a spice used in many salads, hummus and other dishes giving it a tangy, lemony taste
Lebanese wine – Lebanon is among the oldest sites of wine production in the world. The Phoenicians of its coastal strip were instrumental in spreading wine and viticulture throughout the Mediterranean in ancient times. Lebanon's Beqaa Valley contains more than 30 vineyards, including the renowned Kefraya, Ksara and Château Musar labels.
Mate – a caffeine-rich infused drink and is consumed frequently in Shouf and Aley. It was thought to have been brought from Argentina by immigrants in the Lebanese diaspora returning home, where its important ingredients are grown.
^A taste of thyme : culinary cultures of the Middle East. Zubaida, Sami, 1937-, Tapper, Richard (Richard Lionel), University of London. Centre of Near and Middle Eastern Studies. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks. 2000. ISBN1-86064-603-4. OCLC46764703.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)