Italians and pasta connoisseurs beware this post is definitely not for you. In Lebanon, we tend to lebanify food and sayings that belong to other cultures, yet are very much part of our every day fabric. Words like chérie, become charchoura, to google a word we say gawgela. At dinner parties sushi cake ingeniously feeds a big number of guests. In a very friendly way we reply Bonjourein (two bonjours) when one greets us with a bonjour. We say things like “angaret ma3eh” which is derived from the word anger, meaning I got really angry, to express how we feel. We say “sachwaret sha3reh” (from the word séchoir, meaning I just had a blow dry). There are so many words and things that are part of our cultural, colonial, and historical background and are now so quintessentially Lebanese.
As much as I love all the other words that we use, yet my favorite interpretation of another culture is our fusion of Italian cuisine with the Lebanese one. There are two very popular Lebanese dishes that are not the kind of dishes likely to figure on the menu of a Lebanese restaurant in New York, London, or Paris, but are ours nevertheless and are highly ingrained in our culinary habits.
Ma3caroni bil laban (meaning macaroni in yogurt) and macaroni bil fern (macaroni in the oven) are home-style dishes combining a little pasta and other very Lebanese ingredients. Ingeniously cooked to feed a big number of people, taking the least time possible and using the least number of pots possible. Ironically although their names call for the use of macaroni, yet the only pasta used in those dishes is spaghetti.
Ma3caroni bil laban is so characteristically Lebanese just by its mere ingredients. Yes we love our yogurt! And yes we practically will eat it with everything! I once told an Italian friend of ours that in Lebanon, we have invented a new pasta dish that the Italians never thought of. Unfortunately the look of utter horror on his face when I told him about it made me think it might never become an Italian delicatessen after all. In all honesty it’s their loss, because it’s lovely and refreshing, especially in summer. To pasta lovers’ horror, the spaghetti that is used is usually a day old and over cooked. The sauce is simple and takes a few minutes to do. Crushed garlic is added with some salt and fresh chopped coriander to the yogurt and then mixed with the pasta and it should be eaten cold. For extra fanciness some will add toasted pine nuts on the top. Our generation has grown up eating it and doctors have prescribed it for stomach upsets.
Ma3caroni bil fern is our invention of an easy recipe, serving two purposes, to feed a big family easily and the ability to prepare it in advance. To the already cooked spaghetti, the sauce simply made of minced lamb, onions, tomato paste, all spice, and pine nuts is added and then cooked in the oven. It is served piping hot from the pot. It’s a wonderful dish as the spaghetti becomes so soft and absorbs all the tomato sauce that it’s been simmering in for the last 30 minutes.
I love our “Itanese” food, the taste and smell of those dishes anywhere in the world, will always be the smell of home cooked food, of home, of family gatherings, of the Lebanese sense of practicality, and of my mother.
If you’ve never tried them I highly recommend you do… Buon appetito!